Behind the podium at the head of the room, red, white and blue balloons neatly framed a campaign sign for Isaac Smith, who’s running for U.S. Congress on the promise to, as his placards say, drain the swamp. A bartender poured drinks in the back. A few people picked at the buffet. White cloths dressed the tables. Several in the crowd were suited up in slick dresses or coats, and a few had dressed more casually, in cowboy hats and overalls. By the time the event started, the seats were all taken, leaving only standing room for latecomers. Some 50 people had shown up to hear Smith and a handful of aspiring politicians, including a state House candidate named Mark Middleton.
When Middleton’s turn to take the podium came, he only briefly touched on the policies he had to offer voters in Texas House District 68, a slice of the state that spans some 300 miles east to west and 200 north to south. Shaped like a mangled L with an extra appendage, the district hugs the Texas-Oklahoma border in some areas and nearly stretches all the way down into the northern tip of Hill Country. Middleton said the Texas Republican Party, despite recently convening the most conservative legislative session on the books, hadn’t updated its program in two decades.
His incumbent opponent, GOP state Rep. David Spiller, and the rest of the party brass, he argued, were all RINOs, or “Republicans in Name Only.” That’s why the “big-money donors” hadn’t pitched in for Middleton’s campaign or others like it: He had only $500 in his war chest. “I am a true conservative,” he said. “I am a true patriot.”
There were less than two months left until the primary elections, scheduled for March 1, but the 52-year-old Cooke County resident only had a few minutes at the podium. He didn't have spare much time on his campaign. Dressed in a charcoal blazer and blue jeans but no tie, he got down to the topic everyone likely wanted to hear about.
Middleton is one of dozens of Capitol riot defendants around the country who had launched campaigns for political office. He had joined hundreds of people who attacked the U.S. Capitol. The insurrection prompted condemnations nationwide, including from Republican Party, but a year later, many conservatives saw the rioters as heroes.
He and his wife, Jalise, had traveled to Washington and joined the rally-turned-riot, when supporters of then President Donald Trump tried to stop the certification of November 2020 presidential election. The day had started with a fiery speech by Trump and ended with hundreds of Trump supporters violently attacking police, raiding and rampaging through the U.S. Capitol.
As far as electoral pitches go, Middleton’s purported role in the riot was an unconventional one: Among other crimes, the Middletons stood accused of assaulting police officers. But he had an explanation handy, albeit one that paints a much different picture than the U.S. Department of Justice's case against him. The way he told it, he and his wife had been amicably chatting with Capitol police before things went south. Nothing much was happening, he claimed, when D.C. Metropolitan Police attacked and “began clubbing” the couple from behind.
“When we turned around to defend ourselves from the hits, they were trying to grab us and everything else,” he explained, “and then they pepper-sprayed us while they’re clubbing us.” Other Capitol protesters pulled the Middletons away from the frontline, he said, and gave them Visine to help alleviate their burning eyes. “And that constituted assaulting police officers, according to the FBI,” he said.
According to Middleton’s version, he and his wife were model citizens in Cooke County, people known for their longstanding commitment to volunteer work in their community. In fact, Middleton had “even dressed in drag” as part of fundraiser to help senior citizens. “I have blackmail pictures of several politicians up there. I won’t release them because I’m in them too,” he added. Laughter flashed through the audience. “Call the FBI. They have ‘em now.”
When he spoke about their arrest, he took on a more somber tone. Around 8 a.m. on April 21, he recalled, he was pulling off his farm to head to work when two black Suburban SUVs rolled up. Armed federal agents spilled out and demanded he exit his vehicle. When he stepped out, he claimed, someone fired a stun grenade at his back.
“Why’d they do that?” he asked the agents.
“Because Washington told us to do it,” he claimed the agents replied. In his telling, they also refused to let him read their search warrant.
“Wow,” an astounded audience member said over the din of the banquet room. (The FBI's Dallas office declined to comment on the circumstances of the Middletons' arrest.)
After also arresting his wife, Middleton added, the feds carted the pair nearly an hour and a half away to Collin County Jail. Authorities booked and charged them. The next day, they had their first court appearance. By lunchtime, they were out on bond. “Praise God,” Middleton added, that he and his wife had spent the night in medical wards rather than in the jail’s general population.
Around the country, more than 170 Capitol rioters had already pleaded guilty, and at least 64 had been sentenced. But Mark and Jalise Middleton were defiant. Even with felony charges against them, neither he nor his wife would be accepting any deals. They had both pleaded not guilty, he told the audience that night in Lewisville, and they would have their day in court. He raised his voice. “They’re going to have to prove that we assaulted police officers,” he said.
All at once, the banquet room broke out in applause.
Depending on how you look at it, Mark Middleton might appear a man of obvious contradictions. He describes himself as an American patriot and someone who firmly believes Texas should at least consider breaking away from the union. He backs the blue and yet allegedly brawled with cops while hundreds raided the Capitol. He harbors little love for the Texas GOP but hopes to join the Legislature under the party’s banner.
If you’re like Middleton, you likely don’t see any such contradictions. You see someone who loves his country so much he put his body on the line to defend its electoral integrity. You see someone who similarly adores his home state so deeply he cannot stand to see it endure federal overreach. You see someone so committed to his president that he was willing to travel more than 1,300 miles to defend him.
Sure, such a campaign may come as a shock elsewhere, but this is post-Trump Texas, where a hardline conservative insurrection is taking place within the state’s Republican Party. Just look at some of the Republican primary candidates around the state. There’s Don Huffines, the gubernatorial candidate who sees Marxism around every corner and has refused to cut ties with an alleged white nationalist staffer. There’s Daniel Miller, who’s running for lieutenant governor while also heading the pro-secession Texas Nationalist Movement. There’s Suzanne Harp, a congressional candidate who has included ending the investigation into the Jan. 6 riot as a key point on her platform.
In 1969, Middleton was born in Arlington. He grew up there, graduated from Arlington High School in 1988, and then married Jalise two years later. Over the decades, he volunteered as a cub master in the Boy Scouts of America and worked in property management in cities dotting North Texas. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s in theology at Liberty University, the private Christian school founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell. Around 2008, he and his wife moved to Cooke County to set up shop on family farmland. There, he says, he pitched in as a volunteer firefighter and says he spent a stretch preaching. In his estimation, he has always been a devout Christian and a conservative.
In late 2020, he scored a sales job with a company in Muenster, a tiny town near the Oklahoma border, and in December that year, he landed a position as the GOP chair in Cooke County’s 14th precinct. After his arrest, he lost both gigs. Now, he’s one of some 68 Texans facing charges related to the Capitol riot, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
When the news of alleged Capitol rioters gunning for office first broke, news outlets the country over jumped on the story. “Across the U.S., people who were at the Jan. 6 Capitol riot are running for office,” read a headline in The Week magazine last October. “These Trump fans were at the Capitol on 6 January. Now they’re running for office,” The Guardian chimed in. “Over 30 people who rallied in Washington on January 6, 2021, are running for state and federal offices,” CBS News announced in early January this year. By the time Politico tallied the total number of Congressional, state and local candidates linked to the Jan. 6 events, it had grown to 57.
The surge in Jan. 6-linked candidates strikes Heidi Beirich, the cofounder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, as “very worrisome.” After Jan. 6, politicians on both sides of the aisle condemned the riot. “These are people who worked to undermine our democratic systems,” Beirich said, “and who knows what extremism they will bring to office or what kinds of attacks on our democratic system we may see?”
Because Middleton has refused a plea deal, he’s up against the clock. If he manages to win the GOP primary – a tall order, perhaps – he’ll need to not be convicted on any felony charges before November’s general election. That presents another issue: Because no Democrat signed up to run for House in District 68 this year, whoever wins the GOP primary next month has a clear path to the state Legislature.
“It’s really an unprecedented and incredible situation,” Beirich added, “and it does not bode well for Americans that people who tried to overturn an election are now looking to run for office.”
To Middleton, though, the decision to run wasn’t a tough one. “It wasn’t on my radar to run now,” he said. “I wanted to get the J6 stuff behind me, but on the same token, as a Christian, as a studier of God, and as a follower of God, he sometimes works in ways we don’t expect.”
Speaking to potential voters and conservative audiences, Middleton, of course, insists he did nothing wrong. To underscore that argument, he insists hat neither he nor his wife entered the Capitol as the violence erupted. The prosecution, on the other hand, says body camera footage from outside the building shows the Middletons battling with police officers.
Middleton also points out that the government did not release the video itself – only still images are provided in court documents. Either way, the images appear to show Middleton pushing against a barricade erected by police and grappling with MPD officers. His wife reached out and struck a cop more than once in the head and the arm, according to the government’s statement of facts. The cops told Middleton and other rioters to get back, to which Middleton, by his own admission, shouted, “Fuck you.” (He has said he regrets that comment.) Meanwhile, other protesters used flags to stab at the officers’ faces, the government says. Eventually, one of the MPD officers deployed “chemical spray” and forced the Middletons to “retreat back from the barricade line.”
The next day, the Fort Worth Intelligence Exchange Fusion Center sent a report to the FBI identifying Mark and Jalise Middleton as participants in the violence against the police officers that day. The evidence? Their own social media posts. In one post accompanied by a video clip, Middleton wrote that he and his wife “helped push down the barriers.”
“Jalise and I got pepper-sprayed, clubbed, and tear gassed,” he wrote. “We had to retreat, but more patriots pushed forward, and they’re taking back our house. They’ve got the giant flag up on the upper terrace up there. No more fooling around! Jalise and I gotta go back to the hotel and try to recoup and change, get dry clothes on. Make America great again! Freedom!”
If that post had been a mistake on Middleton’s part, his follow-up comments didn’t do much to help. Take, for instance, his admission that he and Jalise “were in the thick of it.” Or his comment that he had been “gassed” “pepper sprayed” and “clubbed.” In one comment, he said they had not entered the Capitol, but they had been “on the steps” outside the building. The next morning, he afforded his Facebook friends a lengthy explanation. “If we intended to start a riot, there wouldn’t be a building left, just saying,” he said, adding that “not one building is burned, not one store looted, not one police car set on fire!” (The architect of the Capitol has said the rioters damaged the building to the tune of $1.5 million.)
Nor have Jalise’s Facebook posts appeared to do the Middletons’ case any favors. Shortly after 3:30 p.m. on the day of the riot, she wrote, “We fought the cops to get in the Capital [sic] and got pepper sprayed and beat but by gosh the patriots got in!”
Twelve minutes later, she bragged that they had been “the first group to storm” the Capitol. Two minutes after that post, she clarified that they had not entered the building, explaining they “had to retreat” because of tear gas and pepper spray but that “all our fellow patriots got in.” The next day, she celebrated that “patriots surged, just to show strength,” recycling a now widespread – and false – claim that “Antifa” had committed the vandalism to make Trump supporters “look bad.”
James Lee Bright, the attorney listed for Middleton in court filings, didn't respond to request for comment.
Since he announced his candidacy, Middleton has attended a handful of campaign-related events and toured much of the state with the True Texas Project, a rightwing nonprofit that promotes ultraconservative candidates, to tell his version of the Jan. 6 events. With his wife often joining him, he’s spoke about his role in the unrest to audiences gathered in churches and bars, in places dotting the map from Lewisville to Stephenville, several of which are far outside the district in which he hopes to represent in the Legislature.
Except for an early campaign Zoom interview on WFAA, he initially shunned conventional media requests. When his campaign first broke in the news, he told the Washington Post and the Observer to “meet him on the campaign trail,” but at in-person events, he was hesitant to speak. He agreed to speak to the Observer about his campaign but not the blow-by-blow details of Jan. 6. Meanwhile, he also appeared on far-right podcasts like The Michael Berry Show, a program on which Middleton claimed Jan. 6 was “absolutely nonviolent.” (When initially approached at one of his campaign events, he suggested that the Observer first watch Patriot Purge, a documentary by Fox News host Tucker Carlson that suggests the Capitol rioters are political prisoners.)
Meanwhile, he’s used his Facebook campaign page to squabble with critics who have accused him of treason and to rail against the Biden administration, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other political foes. He shares memes prolifically, including one he posted that includes a quote by Eve Ensler: “An activist is someone who cannot but fight for something,” it reads, in part. (Ensler, the playwright behind The Vagina Monologues, has endorsed progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders in the past and blasted Trump as a “self-confessed sexual assaulter” and the “predator-in-chief.”)
His bid for office hasn’t been easy. His opponent is better funded, and because Middleton opposes PAC cash in politics, he’s struggled to drum up financial support. On a shoestring budget, mailers, robocalls, yard signs and roadside banners are out of the question. On some days, because the district is so large, he could drive around four hours each way to an event. Early on, he spent around $1,000 of his own money in fuel costs alone.
But by early February, he’d received enough donations to cover his often-lengthy travel, and he thought the campaign was going well. “As a political newcomer, it’s very hard to get money,” he said, adding later: “But beyond that, I look at it as God got me into this, so it’s up to him.”
The way he saw it, the Republican Party had largely failed Texas, and incumbent state Rep. David Spiller and candidates like him were beholden to people bankrolling their campaigns. “Once they do get an endorsement like that and the money that comes with it, now they have him in their pocket,” he said. Middleton would rather answer directly to his potential constituents, a fact that, he says, speaks to the authenticity of his conservative credentials.
“Ultimately, it’s going to be the voters of District 68 that would send me to Austin, and that’s who I want to be beholden to,” he added. “I don’t want the pressure of some political action committee or some big-money donor telling me, Hey, I gave you X amount, [and] I expect your allegiance on this or that issue.”
Around the country, federal authorities have hit more than 760 people with various charges – some relatively minor misdemeanors, others hefty felonies – stemming from the events that rattled the nation on Jan. 6. Last month, the feds charged Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and 10 fellow militiamen with seditious conspiracy, the most serious charges to date. Some have expressed regret over what they did at the Capitol. Some expressed regret and then backtracked on their apologies. Many apparently don’t regret it at all.
If there’s a shift taking place within the Texas GOP, Middleton has positioned himself to ride it as far right as it will veer, but the roadblocks on his path to the Texas House aren’t insignificant. First, he’ll need to beat out his primary opponents, including Spiller.
Spiller, an attorney from Jacksboro, first came to office after winning a special election in March 2021 and now sits on the Texas House Republican Caucus Policy Committee. He isn’t that worried about any of his challengers, Middleton included. That’s partly because Middleton isn’t the only District 68 GOP primary candidate who’s facing felony charges. In December, police charged their opponent Craig Carter with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The arrest affidavit says he attempted to fire a firearm at his estranged wife’s male friend, allegations Carter denies.
But more important, Spiller doubts there’s much to question when it comes to his conservative credentials, no matter how much Middleton calls him a Republican in Name Only. He’s racking up endorsements, and the Young Republicans of Texas backed him and even awarded him the No. 14 ranking in the state House. “So, I wouldn't consider me a RINO,” Spiller said. “He doesn't ever say that when I'm in the room, but I've heard him say that a couple other places.”
Whether Middleton’s Capitol riot charges will sour conservative voters’ opinion of him is hard to say, but some polls suggest they might not be as big a problem for the candidate as you might expect. A month after the insurrection, nearly one third of Republicans in Texas said they supported the storming of the Capitol, according to a study conducted by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. In May, another study found that 74% of Republicans around the country thought “too much [was] being made of the Capitol insurrection,” the Houston Chronicle reported at the time.
Immediately after the riot, Republican politicians the nation over condemned the violence. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz called the raid a “violent terrorist attack,” but it’s a wonder what a difference a year can make. In January, Cruz appeared on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s program and apologized for his "sloppy" word choice. A month later, the Republican National Committee rebuked U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, for participating in a congressional investigation into the attack. The RNC described the probe as “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” (The RNC has since disputed the obvious interpretation of that statement.)
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League recently sounded the alarm on more than 100 “problematic political candidates” running as Republicans nationwide. Still, Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, says the accusations won’t exactly help Middleton in his bid for the state Legislature. “Even in this sort of heated environment, where many Republicans will say to a pollster that they don't consider Jan. 6 that big of a deal, that they think Trump's ‘Big Lie’ has merit, that's something you say to a pollster,” Jillson said. “Many of them don't believe it in their heart of hearts. They believe it for partisan purposes, but they don't believe it as a matter of fact.”
Other observers see it differently. Mike German, a former FBI special agent and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, wasn’t surprised that the right-wing narrative around Jan. 6 has shifted as radically as it has swiftly. “They were given the impression that their violence was authorized by the government, not just authorized by the rhetoric of the president, but that they could commit that violence in front of police officers and not get arrested,” he said.
One of the problems, German explained, is that both law enforcement and critics tend to view the Capitol riot as the events of a single day rather than another link in the far right’s decades-long history of putting the federal government in its crosshairs. “Because the Republican narrative has shifted to this being a heroic day rather than a day of broad criminality, my concern is that a lot of people charged with more minor conduct will wear it as a badge of honor,” he added.
Middleton’s campaign continues to plod forward, badge of honor and all. In January, he attended a fundraiser in Farmers Branch to raise money for the Patriots for America Militia, an armed group that has been conducting patrols on the U.S.-Mexico border. “They’re doing the Lord’s work down there,” he said, arguing that the group was different from the antigovernment militia outfits around the country. “I’m very good friends with a lot of them,” he added, “and if I wasn’t going through this federal stuff, I’d be right down there because what they’re doing is worthy work that the state’s not doing.”
On the evening of Feb. 6, Middleton got what might have been his biggest break to date: He scored a place as an opening act for gubernatorial candidate Allen West, the former chairman of the Texas GOP. As the seats filled up, Middleton waited around the entrance, greeting newcomers, shaking their hands and trying out a few different pitches. The Cooke County Conservatives had organized the gathering, and more than 100 people had packed into the banquet room at the Lake Kiowa Lodge, which sits in a gated community that runs along the waterfront. In the crowd, most dressed casually. Some wore cowboy hats or baseball caps.
Middleton wore a large coat without a tie, blue jeans and boots. “I’m Mark Middleton, and I’m running for Texas House District 68,” he told one arrival. “And I’m a true conservative.” When the next person came in, he adjusted his introduction a touch. “I’m Mark Middleton,” he repeated and then added, “and I’m the only true conservative running for Texas House District 68.”
That night, Middleton spoke first. “I am the true conservative running in this race,” he told the audience. He then tore into Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, whom he described as a “Democrat who’s running under the Republican ticket” and the main reason why “all of the conservative legislation never even got out of committee this [past] year.” Worse still? Phelan was backing David Spiller. The speech ran short, a little more than two minutes, and when Middleton wrapped up, he handed off the mic.
(After everyone spoke, West’s turn came. He launched his speech with an unusual campaign pitch, too: He retired from the military after an incident in which he fired a 9mm handgun next to an Iraqi policeman’s head several times and threatened to kill the man. “If you’re a true soldier, a true leader,” he said, “you do what’s right.” The crowd applauded him.)
Later, Middleton explained that he normally tries not to miss church on Sundays, but he made an exception for someone like West. In fact, he would “do everything I can to be there” whether it was West, Don Huffines or Chad Prather, another candidate running far to the right of of Abbott. “One thing is they draw a big crowd,” he said later by telephone. “Most people don’t get that riled up about their state representative or a local election.” (Middleton was also scheduled to share a stage with U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert the following day, but a last-second obligation forced Gohmert to reschedule.)
Middleton’s platform looks a lot like those put out by most mainstream Republican candidates around Texas. He supports ramping up border control. He wants to put an end to human trafficking. He loathes additional restrictions on gun ownership. He stands against vaccine mandates. He’s worried about critical race theory supposedly being taught in schools (although it isn’t). He wants to scale back federal control of states. “As a Christian, you can probably guess what my stance is on abortion,” he said. (Spiller, for instance, shares most of these positions.)
But even if he doesn’t make it to the state House, he hopes likeminded people will. “I’m hoping for a sea change down in Austin,” he said. “As well as all of them that are running for U.S. Congress, we need to be able to get the RINOs out of office so that Texas can get on with being Texas.”
More than 50 people had turned up for the candidate’s forum hosted by Montague County Republicans at the H.J. Justin Building downtown, but state Rep. Spiller couldn’t make it. He had undergone a sudden surgery the week prior after suffering a detached retina, and his son Reid had been sent to speak in his stead. (Craig Carter, who’d been charged with felony aggravated assault two months earlier, hadn’t shown up to any debates or forums for weeks, the other candidates said.)
Attendees took their seats at tables set out for them. Some picked at food that had been provided by organizers. Crumpled Fritos and Lays bags were scattered on the tables. Middleton’s campaign table sat first on the right, followed by fellow primary challenger Gary Franklin’s and then Spiller’s. Earlier that afternoon, Middleton had his first yard signs printed up: “Republican. Conservative. Patriot,” they read.
Altogether, around a dozen candidates had shown up to try to win over voters. When state Sen. Drew Springer, who had previously served as the state representative for District 68, stepped up to speak first, he threw his weight behind Spiller, calling him a “huge help” during what he described as the most conservative legislative session in the state’s history the year before.
Waiting his turn, Middleton sat with his hands folded in his lap next to Franklin, a plainspoken Army veteran who had spent more than two decades in the military. Reid Spiller read a statement his father had prepared in advance, a rundown of his resume, his record in District 68 and his promises to crack down on migration on the southern border, to fight vaccine mandates, to protect “the right to life” and other requisite conservative talking points.
Later, when asked what the biggest challenge District 68 faced was, Middleton again channeled talking points shared by Gov. Abbott and other Republican politicians he despised: the supposed “invasion” of migrants in the Texas borderlands, which sat nearly 250 miles from the district’s southernmost tip.
“Up here in Montague County, we’re hundreds of miles from the border,” Middleton admitted, “but this is still the border.” He gave a nod to the gun-toting vigilantes patrolling the border, who, he argued, were fighting sex and drug trafficking. “This is an invasion we have going on over there,” he added. “Gov. Abbott will not declare a state of emergency on the border.” (An invasion, of course, implies that armed combatants were streaming across the frontier to conquer the U.S. – not that people, including many fleeing conflict and humanitarian crises, had shown up on the border. In any case, Abbott had issued a disaster declaration over the uptick in migrant apprehensions on the border in July.)
Later, during the audience question portion, one man asked Middleton how exactly his proposal to abolish property tax would work. Middleton fumbled his answer, then urged him to visit the website for a group called Eliminate Property Tax – he’d included the link on his campaign website. “It’s hard to explain here in the few minutes that I have and answer all the questions,” he offered. “That’s why that link’s there.”
During his closing remarks, he returned to where his campaign started: the U.S. Capitol riot. “Me and my wife are J6ers,” he said. “If you’re unfamiliar with that term, that means that we went to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, and then subsequently later were raided by the feds in a SWAT assault. That is why I’m running; that is one of the big reasons. It’s because I know what government overreach is doing. I know what the federal government is doing.” After all, what else did he have to offer that truly distinguished him from his primary opponents?
He didn’t mention why he’d gone to D.C. He didn’t address the felony charge he faced for allegedly assaulting police officers. Rather, he only urged potential voters to help send “true Christian conservatives” to Austin to “stop the grifting operation” in the Legislature.
Once the event was over, he chatted with an attendee here and there while his wife manned his campaign table. She, too, talked to those who came over with questions. Speaking to a man who had walked over to get campaign materials, she complained that other Christians had questioned why she and her husband had gone to the Capitol riot in the first place. She wondered aloud: Had her fellow Christians even bothered to read the Old Testament, or had they simply stuck only to the New Testament?