ABC News: Anti-Trump group started by Rep. Adam Kinzinger faces 1st test in Texas special election

When House Republicans gather in Florida this week for their annual policy retreat, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., will be a thousand miles away in Texas, campaigning for Michael Wood in the upcoming special election in Texas' 6th Congressional District.

Wood, a Marine Reserve major, is one of 23 candidates running in the May 1 election to succeed Rep. Ron Wright, R-Texas, who died in February from COVID-19 and complications from cancer. The crowded field includes Wright's widow, a former wrestler, and several Republicans who served in the Trump administration.

But Wood is the only openly anti-Trump candidate in the race -- and hopes voters in the sprawling district that includes diversifying swaths of the Dallas-Forth Worth suburbs -- where Trump won by three percentage points in 2020 after winning by 12 in 2016 -- will help push him through the field and into a runoff should no candidate receive a majority of votes.

"The Republican Party has lost its way and now is the time to fight for its renewal," Wood says on his campaign website. "We were once a party of ideas, but we have devolved into a cult of personality. This must end, and Texas must lead the way."

Wood's long shot bid is also an early test for Kinzinger, one of ten Republicans in the House who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and his efforts to overturn the election results.

In January, he launched Country First, a political action committee to support like-minded Republicans willing to "tell the truth" and challenge the "darker" elements of the GOP that have espoused conspiracy theories and "the garbage lies" promoted by Trump and some of his supporters.

'I do hope they start their own party': GOP congressman supporting impeachment

"That endorsement was a huge honor and a huge help to the campaign that helped us really get a national profile. It helped immensely with fundraising," Wood told ABC News, adding that he regularly turns to Kinzinger for support and advice as a first-time candidate.

"I'd love him to have a great showing," Kinzinger said of Wood. "What we need to do is show people that there are a number of people who are supportive of the restoration of truth in American politics."

Wood's performance in the special election could determine the viability of campaigns from Republican primary candidates and incumbents like Kinzinger who are trying to chart a new course for the GOP away from Trump, who still remains popular with Republican primary voters.

"It's a fascinating test case," said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who worked for House Republicans' campaign committee in 2018. "It could provide a blueprint for folks and organizations who would want to do this sort of thing in districts across the country."

In the first quarter of 2020, the Illinois Republican raised $2.2 million -- half for Country First, and the other half for his reelection campaign, tripling the amount he raised at the same point last cycle. The group has contributed $100,000 to other campaigns, helped raise $30,000 for Wood, and has supported the other nine House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January.

Kinzinger's outspoken criticism of Trump has also attracted a primary challenge from pro-Trump Republican Catalina Lauf. Beyond the primary threat, his own future in Congress is uncertain, as his district could be reshaped by redistricting and become more challenging to retain in 2022.

Kinzinger said his group will also support Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensberger, a Republican who became a target of Trump's ire for defending his state's election results from Trump's unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud.

He is also focused on turning Country First into a community where conservatives, center-right and politically independent Americans can discuss politics and have "serious conversations" about their vision for the country.

To that end, the group released a video over the weekend titled "Opportunity," the third in a series narrated by the congressman meant to focus on core principles of American life -- that also calls out political leaders on "both sides," who "care more about winning elections than solving problems."

"My goal is to remind people of the basics of what America is about and what we believe," Kinzinger said. "This union is going to fall apart if we're not careful."

In Texas, Wood told ABC News he views his special election as the "first battle for the soul of the Republican Party" since the 2020 election cycle.

"It's just going to be one data point in what's going to have to be a very long fight," he said.

Anti-Trump Republican running in crowded special election field

In addition to Susan Wright, the widow of the late Rep. Wright, Wood will be on the ballot alongside a number of Republicans who have sought to align themselves with Trump.

Texas state Rep. Mike Ellzey, who came in second to Wright in the 2018 GOP primary, has been endorsed by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who served as Trump's energy secretary -- and said in a social media video that Ellzey "has been for America first for a long time."

Brian Harrison, a former chief of staff at the Health and Human Services Department under Trump is running under the slogan of "Always America First." His campaign ads are peppered with images of Trump-era Oval Office meetings.

Candidate Sery Kim, who also worked in the Trump administration, recently lost the support of two Korean American House Republicans after comments about Chinese immigrants. She later sued the Texas Tribune for defamation in their reporting of her remarks.

And another candidate, Dan Rodimer, tells voters he wants to "Make America Texas Again" in a viral campaign ad where he rides a bull and criticizes Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A former professional wrestler, Rodimer moved to Texas after an unsuccessful run for Congress in Nevada last year.

The race is "not so much the Trump candidates versus the non-Trump candidates, it's like where's the settling point going to be?"Jim Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, told ABC News. "I expect [it] will be somewhere in between."

The former president has not endorsed any of the Republicans in the race, according to spokesman Jason Miller.

The original article and video coverage can be found on the ABC News website here.