Politics & Government

Joe Barton’s troubles create a public relations dream for the Democrats’ PR candidate

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., left and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas meet with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., left and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas meet with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

For nearly a year, Democrat and public relations consultant Jana Lynne Sanchez has been begging people to pay attention to her bid to represent Texas’s 6th Congressional District.

Now, thanks to viral nude photos of Rep. Joe Barton, the Republican she hopes to challenge for the seat, she’s landed a publicity boost PR people only dream about.

Days after the photos focused an intense spotlight on the 17-term congressman, Sanchez said she’s raised $100,000 for the race — more than any Democrat who has run against Barton since he took office more than three decades ago. She’s received 450 new contributions over the weekend, and added more than 1,000 Twitter followers.

Also hoping to benefit is Ruby Woolridge, who ran in 2016 and got 39 percent, the most any Democrat has ever taken against Barton. She maintains a strong following among the district’s African American community and the Democratic grassroots. She was recently in Washington meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus.

“I’ll be the frontrunner. I know this district, I’ve visited every part of it,” Woolridge told the Star-Telegram. “I have been serving my community since the ‘90s, and people know my work ethic and my values.”

Barton has raised more than $400,000 since January, and has $390,000 on hand for his reelection. Woolridge has raised $7,700 for the race, and had $1,700 on hand as of Sept. 30.

The race remains a low priority in Democrats’ efforts to take back the House, particularly if Barton seeks reelection.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not named the race a target for 2018, despite meeting with Sanchez, who visited Washington with other Democratic House candidates last month. The committee, which has named four target races in Texas, is watching the race, spokesman Cole Leiter said Monday.

But as Democratic candidates across the country get creative to take advantage of a favorable political climate in 2018, Sanchez, who started and ran her own public relations agency, believes she’s finally caught the attention of national donors and strategists Democrats need to make the race competitive.

“People just didn’t see this seat as winnable,” said Sanchez. “That’s changed.”

Barton has remained quiet since a sexually explicit video and text messages that appeared on Twitter last week.

He apologized for sending the messages to a woman he was seeing after his second divorce. He suggested he may have been the victim of revenge porn, which is illegal in Texas. Barton had previously announced plans to seek another term, but said he’s now reconsidering his political future.

Even as Democrats seek to put as many seats in play as possible next year, Barton’s seat remains an uphill prospect.

“A salacious story could help recruiting and some fundraising, but the partisanship of the 6th District still favors Republicans,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan campaign newsletter Inside Elections. “The recent news added a new wrinkle to the race, but I'm not sure it's enough to make this even a second-tier takeover opportunity.”

Sanchez and other local Democrats have been battling to change that narrative.

Though raised in Ellis County, Sanchez spent her post-college career as a political fundraiser in California, then as a journalist in Baltimore and Amsterdam. In 2005 she co-founded a public relations agency based in London and Amsterdam, before moving home in 2015 to help her aging parents.

She’s not shy about using that experience to draw attention to the race.

Sanchez keeps a running a list of articles mentioning her, which now includes the New York Times, thanks to Barton’s video. She’s been endorsed by several national groups, including the New Democrat Coalition and the environmental group Climate Hawks Vote.

Sanchez hired a California-based consultant, SKDKnickerbocker’s Bill Burton, who worked on President Barack Obama’s first campaign. She also has a Washington-based consultant, Chuck Rocha, to do digital campaign work.

The self-described “redneck Latina” regularly shows up at Barton’s town halls to hand out flyers, dressed in cowboy boots with Texas flags on them. She’s attracted the attention of a documentary film crew, which could feature her campaign in episodes aired before Election Day.

That approach has drawn criticism from some local Democrats, who say national strategists are discounting Woolridge.

“Ruby has a lot of support here in Arlington,” said Merlene Walker, a leader in the Progressive Women of Arlington group, who helped Woolridge’s 2016 campaign. She and her husband considered supporting Sanchez, if she were the stronger candidate, but felt Woolridge would give Barton the tougher race.

Texas GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said if Barton does seek reelection, his biggest threats are likely to come from Republicans, not Democrats. As of Monday, Barton had not filed. The deadline is Dec. 11.

“If he’s in, the race will be defined by this,” Mackowiak said of the video.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch