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MANSFIELD, Texas (AP) – Adam Kinzinger came to Texas this week to hunt unicorns.

The Illinois congressman was looking for Republicans who, like him, view former President Donald Trump as a bane to their party and a threat to democracy. Kinzinger met privately with a sympathetic Republican, former President George W. Bush, on his first day in the state. And the second, he had lunch with Michael Wood, the only openly anti-Trump Republican competing on Saturday in a crowded special election for a seat in Congress.

Kinzinger, a 43-year-old Air Force pilot who has flown missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, positions himself as one of Trump’s main antagonists in a party that largely refuses to leave the former President. The congressman’s fledgling political organization, Country First, has endorsed all House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the deadly Jan.6 riot on the U.S. Capitol. And as Kinzinger himself contemplates a potential candidacy for a senior position, he has come to Texas to test how many other Republicans share his outlook.

Kinzinger’s hope lies in Wood, another fresh-faced combat veteran, who is battling to stand out in a field of 23. If none of the candidates in Saturday’s poll wins 50% of the vote, the top two will run. later in the second round in the spring.

“The Trump thing, there’s nowhere to go but downstairs. He doesn’t grow up, ”Kinzinger said during his lunch with the Wood at the Fork in the Road cafe in suburban Dallas. “But it took a long time for the Republican Party to be what it is today. It may take a long time to bring it back. “

The competition to replace Republican Ron Wright, who died of COVID-19 in February, has gone largely unnoticed outside this district of north Texas. But it offers a window into the forces that tear the fabric of today’s GOP. There are 10 Republicans among 23 candidates on the ballot, and with the exception of Wood, they’re all desperate to win over Trump and his supporters.

Republican Brian Harrison, former chief of staff in the Department of Health and Human Services, played his part in the Trump administration. The same goes for Sery Kim, who worked in the Small Business Administration and directly implored Trump for his approval during an appearance on Newsmax, where she gave her phone number. Dan Rodimer, a former professional wrestler, showed the endorsement Trump gave him last year in a failed race for a congressional seat in Nevada. Its new slogan: “Make America Texas Again”.

Trump waited up to five days before election day to give his formal approval to the widow of Congressman Susan Wright, who is widely regarded as a favorite.

Trump’s team mocked Wood’s chances and Kinzinger’s broader ambitions.

In his campaign to reject Trumpism, the Illinois congressman is outdone by all measurable measures. Polls suggest as many as 8 in 10 Republicans continue to support Trump. And while Kinzinger’s political team celebrated raising $ 2.2 million last quarter, Trump’s political operation hinges on at least $ 85 million.

Asked about Kinzinger, Trump spokesman Jason Miller dismissed him as “a future MSNBC contributor.”

Yet Wood has also drawn financial and moral support from a handful of other Trump critics in Congress, including Reps Liz Cheney, R-Wyo .; David Valadao, R-Calif .; and Peter Meijer, R-Mich. Like Kinzinger, all three voted to impeach Trump.

Kinzinger said he was drawn to Wood by the political courage of the 34-year-old former Marine infantry officer. Wood was booed at the events of the Republican campaign for saying that the GOP has become a “cult of personality.” The first line of election documentation he hands out to voters states: “The Republican Party has lost its way …”

In an interview, Wood, who won two Purple Hearts for his service in Afghanistan and now runs a small business, compared Trump to a “less intelligent, lazy and disorganized” autocrat like Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. He warned that freedom itself is in danger if Trump and what he stands for are not firmly rejected.

“I don’t want to go to Congress if I have to lick Donald Trump’s boots to get there,” he said.

Yet Kinzinger knows more than anyone how difficult it will be to persuade Republican voters anywhere – let alone Texas – to turn against Trump. The congressman’s political operation recently commissioned a poll which found the friendliest voters are what one aide called “unicorns” – Republicans who are politically moderate, don’t regularly watch Fox News, dismiss them. conspiracy theories and are highly educated.

That’s a voter pool Kinzinger must increase if his efforts are successful in Texas and beyond as he contemplates an aggressive role midway through 2022.

Wood estimated those voters could represent up to 35% of those who decide on Saturday’s special election. Sympathetic strategists suggest the number is likely much lower.

That’s not to say there aren’t some warning signs for Trump and his supporters.

Trump won the North Texas District in double digits in 2016, but by just 3 points last fall, reflecting the trend of burgeoning Texas suburbs to turn purple and, in some places, pure blue and simply.

But outside the Mansfield Municipal Courthouse this week, there were few signs of support for Wood among Republicans lining up to vote early. One of them said that Wood was betraying his country; another called him embarrassment.

“There is no such thing as an anti-Trump Republican. He should find another party, ”said Gordon Powell, 71, a white retiree from Mansfield. “I doubt he could pose as a Republican for the dog catcher and get elected around here.”

Yvette Williams, a 54-year-old African-American transplant from California, said she would consider Wood if she didn’t vote for a Democrat. She still applauded his efforts.

“I’m like, ‘Who in the Republican Party can stand up to Trump?’ It takes someone to make a difference, ”she said.

For their part, 10 Democrats are running in the special elections. But after high expectations and heavy spending failed to produce a single meaningful victory last year, the national party is pulling away from the race.

And while many grassroots Texas Republicans remain loyal to Trump, Kinzinger has earned the respect of one of Texas’ most prominent Republican officials.

Kinzinger and his wife privately met with former President Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush for about an hour Monday evening at Bush’s office at Southern Methodist University. Kinzinger said he discussed foreign policy, evangelical Christian support for Trump and shared concerns about the party leadership.

“He’s obviously, as he said, concerned about where we are at and knows it’s a little hard to bring him back,” Kinzinger said of Bush. “But it’s like you’re not fighting, it’s done.”

A Bush spokesperson declined to comment on the meeting.

Meanwhile, Wood has said it is high time more people in his party leadership stood up publicly against Trump.

“I hope that, win or lose, I at least show the rest of the country that there are people willing to stand up and say these things. Frankly, I’m a little upset that someone like me is saying them. It should be shouted from the roof by House leaders, Republicans in the Senate, Republicans across the country.

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