There are worse ways to take the pulse of conservatives in North Texas than listening to Mark Davis. The veteran AM talker, who used to fill in for Rush Limbaugh, has been a fixture of drive-time right-wing radio, mostly in Dallas, for forty years. He also writes an occasional column for the Dallas Morning News and maintains a lively Twitter account. But perhaps his most influential role is interviewer and enforcer. The Mark Davis Show on 660 AM/“The Answer” is a frequent forum for Texas Republican elected officials; they go on his chummy show to commiserate, to celebrate, to break news—and occasionally to be scolded by Davis for various transgressions.
The latter was the order of the day for Congressman Van Taylor last May. Taylor’s transgression? The day before, he’d been one of two Texas Republicans in the U.S. House to vote for a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Davis had come loaded for bear. “Everybody that voted for you is pissed off today, Van, they don’t get this!”
Taylor told Davis that his interest was in getting to the bottom of what happened, including any security failures that Nancy Pelosi might be responsible for.
“My dog knows what happened on January sixth,” Davis shot back. “I don’t want to say I don’t care, but this is five-hundredth on my list of stuff right and I’ll be damned if I’m going to hand this to the malicious, weaponized hands of the Democratic party.”
Taylor, serving his second term in Congress after eight years in the Texas Legislature, responded evenly. He explained that the bipartisan body would be modeled on the 9/11 commission and would be equally weighted between Republican and Democratic appointees, none of them members of Congress. The alternative, he said, would be a partisan committee dominated by Democrats. Davis, with his resonant timbre, countered Taylor’s procedural explanation with a symphony of fecund metaphors (the commission would lead to a “ridiculous orgy of Trump-bashing,” a “savagery of Trump,” and a “bludgeoning”) followed by six seconds of painful silence. “I know where you are coming from,” Taylor finally said in a meek tone. It was, to use a Limbaugh term, a drive-by.
In late January, a little more than a month before the March 1 primaries, Taylor went back on Davis’s show. In eight months, a lot had happened. The January 6 commission had been approved by the House, but voted down in the Senate. As predicted, the Democrats had instead created a special committee, comprising seven Democrats and two Trump-skeptical Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kitzinger. Meanwhile, four challengers had lined up to take down Taylor, who voted with Trump 89 percent of the time and earned a reputation for a smug brand of tea party politics during his stint at the Legislature. No matter: his vote for the January 6 commission and his vote to certify the 2020 presidential election had riled many in the grassroots of Collin County, the affluent and traditionally Republican patch of suburbia north of Dallas. “Here in Texas, he said he was a conservative—but when he went to Washington, he went Washington,” announced the website of Keith Self, one of the challengers.
Would Davis help Taylor’s opponents land a death blow? Davis argued with Taylor about his January 6 vote, but the host seemed to have mellowed on the issue. After the interview, Davis told his listeners that Taylor was a “great congressman” who has been “right on virtually everything.” As far as his opponents booting him out of office, “I just don’t see it,” Davis said.
Davis could be wrong, but with just weeks to go the congressman’s challengers don’t seem to be catching fire. The two opponents with the best shot at unseating him, or forcing him into a runoff, are Suzanne Harp, a bombastic homeschooling mom and businesswoman, and Self, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served as county judge in Collin from 2007 to 2018. Both Harp and Self have struggled to raise funds, with Taylor out-raising the two combined almost eight-to-one. And despite Taylor’s Trump-defying votes, the former president has so far stayed out of the race. Taylor is largely running with a Rose Garden strategy, skipping forums where the other candidates are present and selectively appearing at other public functions. (Taylor did not respond to messages requesting an interview.)
“He’s counting on the low-information voter to pull him across the finish line,” Harp told me. “Maybe people are so busy trying to make ends meet and live life that they aren’t able to dig deep into his votes.” Zach Barrett, the leader of Collin County Conservative Republicans, agreed, saying that only the activists are fired up about Taylor’s two election-related votes. “Not everybody is like me, in the sense of being very informed, going to so many different grassroots events almost every day of the week,” said Barrett, whose group has endorsed Self. “I study this stuff. Most people don’t have that opportunity for various reasons.”
The Third Congressional District race is one of the few in Texas to feature candidates running primarily on the “Big Lie”—the baseless notion that widespread election fraud deprived Trump of his rightful victory. The only other Texas representative to vote for the January 6 commission—freshman Tony Gonzales, who represents a formerly purple piece of West Texas real estate that stretches from El Paso to San Antonio—is facing two primary challengers. The most active of them, Alma Arredondo-Lynch, is a dentist and rancher who was questioned about her alleged involvement in the January 6 attacks. But Arredondo-Lynch has run unsuccessfully two times in the district and there are few signs she’s gained traction this cycle.
Aside from Gonzales and Taylor, three other Republican representatives from Texas—Dan Crenshaw, Michael McCaul, and Chip Roy—voted against objections to certifying the election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania. (A sixth Republican, Beth Van Duyne, split her vote—voting to certify Arizona’s results, but not Pennsylvania’s.) McCaul doesn’t have a primary challenger, and Van Duyne faces only token opposition. Potential challengers may have been scared off by the incumbents’ mountains of cash, or by their otherwise hard-right voting records. Even Trump has seemed to have forgiven, or forgotten, some dalliances—he has endorsed both Van Duyne and Michael McCaul. On the other hand, Crenshaw, the eyepatch-wearing Navy SEAL who burst on the national scene after winning a Houston-area seat in Congress in 2018, has gotten crosswise with elements of the activist base in his district. He’s drawn three primary challengers who accuse him of being a RINO, in part because he has repeatedly said Biden legitimately won the election. Nonetheless, he’s expected to avoid a runoff.
But it’s in Taylor’s district that 2020 election confusion has fully flourished. And to add to the race’s salience, North Texas is also home to about two dozen of the alleged January 6 rioters, including one of the most notorious plotters.
In mid-January, just as the primary season in Texas was getting fully underway, the U.S. Department of Justice unveiled a consequential new indictment. According to the DOJ, Stewart Rhodes, a North Texas man who leads the far-right Oath Keepers militia, and ten others were part of a seditious conspiracy to use violence to stop Joe Biden from becoming president. Rhodes began organizing soon after Biden’s victory in November, telling supporters on encrypted platforms that it was “torches and pitchforks time” and promising a “bloody and desperate fight” if Biden were to assume the presidency.
Rhodes put together heavily armed “quick reaction force” teams that stockpiled weapons and ammo at a hotel four miles from the Capitol in Arlington, Virginia. On the big day—January 6—Rhodes stayed outside the Capitol but directed his soldiers to meet him on the Capitol grounds and get organized into “stacks,” military-style formations where each man would put his hand on the shoulder of the person in front of him. One of those men was Roberto Minuta, a 37-year-old tattoo studio owner who had recently moved from New York to Prosper, a city in Texas’s Third Congressional District. Minuta raced to the Capitol on a golf cart to join the action. He was dressed in paramilitary gear and carried bear spray as he roamed the Capitol confronting police and yelling, “Get these cops out! It’s our f—ing building! Get ’em out, get out!””
When I spoke with Harp and Self in early February, neither seemed familiar with the indictments, though they both said anyone engaged in illegal activity should be charged and get their day in court. Throughout the campaign, however, Harp and Self have talked darkly about conspiracies and betrayals and the death of America. “America is being fundamentally dismantled,” Harp says in a campaign video. “We will not sit by and let the establishment thrust our country down the ash heaps of history while our children inherit nothing.” Self talked to me about the “moral insanity that is happening in our nation.” To wit: “Gender modification of our children, weaponization of the federal government against our citizens, the destruction, the total destruction of Title Nine—women’s sports—that we’ve seen in, what, a year. It goes on . . .”
Harp has staked out a maximalist position on January 6 and the election. She calls the events of January 6 a “protest.” She worries about the potential legal problems that her son, who is chief of staff to 25-year-old North Carolina congressman Madison Cawthorn, may face because he attended the Trump rally that preceded the riots. She demands the release of the January 6 “political prisoners,” a term also used by Cawthorn, who is accused of “insurrection” in a citizen lawsuit to disqualify him for running for reelection. Harp points to reports from Tyler congressman Louie Gohmert and Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene that the defendants have suffered rights abuses behind bars. “To me this is all about politics,” Harp said. “If they’ve done something wrong, they need to be charged.” (Some defendants have complained about the conditions of their imprisonments, including being held in isolation for 23 hours a day, a form of punishment that has been condemned by human rights groups. No one connected to the January 6 riots is being held without charges.) Harp also rejects the need for any congressional investigation into January 6 because Democrats “wouldn’t speak out about the summer of love.” (The “summer of love” is her term for the Black Lives Matter protests and riots of 2020.)
Harp thinks Donald Trump handily won the 2020 election. She believes that a ten-day “forensic audit” of the vote in contested states, as Ted Cruz proposed, would have proved that Trump won and then “everyone could feel really good about where we were as a country.” And Harp lays the blame for the demise of Trump’s presidency at Taylor’s feet. “Congress did not lead, our guy did not lead. In the hour and the moment that we needed [Taylor], he failed us. The right thing to do would’ve been to reject certain states, send them back, have them redo it, recount it, re-audit it, whatever. They had many options.”
Self is a little less comfortable fully committing to the Big Lie. He calls the breach at the Capitol “a riot that got out of hand with a few people,” but worries “we’re also denigrating the hundreds of thousands of people who were protesting peacefully.”
When asked who won the election, Biden or Trump, Self calls it a “gotcha question” before explaining that the jury is still out on the winner. “We frankly don’t know yet, but Wisconsin is really making progress. I think one of the chambers in the Wisconsin Legislature has decertified their electors and it has gone to the other house. Georgia is making progress. People are just now coming to grips with their analysis of what happened.” (Neither chamber of the Wisconsin Legislature has voted to decertify their electors, despite persistent and baseless rumors on social media.) Self went on: “One of the things that we hear is that the courts did not hear any of the evidence. The courts all said there was a moot point. Well, of the twenty-five cases that have been heard on the merits, and only twenty-five have been heard on the merits, eighteen I think were won by the GOP.” (Self appeared to be referencing a story in the Epoch Times, a publication founded by the Falun Gong spiritual movement, with the headline “Trump Won Two-Thirds of Election Lawsuits Where Merits Considered.” The author of the article has conceded that his tally consists mostly of lawsuits that had nothing to do with election fraud. In reality, Trump lost all but one of the 65 suits filed after the election.)
As to the January 6 commission, Self is more unequivocal. “That is a red line for many of the Republican voters here and certainly a red line for Mark Davis.” But when I pressed him about what, if anything, Congress should have done to look into January 6, he suggested a bipartisan body modeled on the 9/11 commission. “I think they should have an independent commission to look at it. Both parties would get to nominate or appoint or assign members to it. It would’ve been more balanced. Because right now it’s got Democrats and two non-Trumpers on it.”
I pointed out that this is exactly what Taylor voted for in May 2021—one of the very votes that has so riled Mark Davis, Harp, and Self. The alternative, a Democrat-controlled committee, was the inevitable result of Senate Republicans tanking the commission proposal. In response, Self balked at the idea that an independent commission would’ve worked “with Nancy Pelosi in control of the Congress.” He added: “The system is so corrupted in so many ways that the lack of trust that we see in the political realm today would’ve carried over regardless.”
Davis, during his January make-up call with Taylor, said he hoped the congressman had learned his lesson now that he could “see what a detriment” the congressional investigation has been. If Taylor survives his primary, the real question is whether he will have the same courage the next time a majority in his party tries to throw a monkey wrench, or a Molotov cocktail, into the machinery of democracy. Or whether he’ll instead learn the lesson that so many on the right have: it’s easier to run with the mob.