Ain’t democracy grand? On Tuesday night, 13,549 folks in North Texas elected a state representative. The campaign to win those votes has been going on for about nine months, has consumed the time and attention of some of the most prominent Republicans in Texas, and has given some of the richest men and women in the state an excuse to set fire to pile after pile of money. The result: Jill Dutton, backed by House leadership and friends, beat Brent Money, backed by Greg Abbott and folks who hate House leadership, by 111 votes. 

It’s a temporary victory: Dutton will hold the seat, vacated by disgraced representative Bryan Slaton, only for the duration of his term, which ends in January. The election to decide who will win the Republican primary, and hold the deep red seat for the Eighty-ninth Legislative Session, in 2025, is set for March 5, which means the district’s besieged voters will have to choose between the two candidates again in five weeks. Money may well win then.

But the race that just happened is important symbolically. The special election was unique enough—low-turnout and held over such a long period of time that it became a playground for outside money—that it would be wrong to draw too many conclusions about what it means for the March primary more generally. We would even be on shaky ground to speculate on what Dutton’s win tonight means for her performance in the March primary. But we can say with certainty that this is an embarrassing result for the many folks who tried to get Money elected, from the governor to Attorney General Ken Paxton to right-wing billionaire backers including Dan and Farris Wilks. 

Earlier this month, Luke Macias, a right-wing consultant, said this election could predict the course of the primary, clearly thinking his guy, Money, was on track to win. Last night he was whining that Democrats in the district might “steal the special” and put Dutton over the top. That was a note echoed by Money himself, who, in a remarkably graceless and priggish concession statement, complained that Dutton “told despicable lies about me and my family, outspent our campaign three to one, and turned out over one thousand Democrats to steal this seat.” The Democrats had stolen the seat by voting, apparently. (It’s important to note how deep red this district is: in 2022 Bryan Slaton beat the Democrat by a margin of 82–18.) In the March primary (which is open to all voters, as every primary is), Money suggested that the unwelcome intrusion of wrong-minded citizens (i.e., Democrats) in the electoral process would be corrected and his rightful place on the throne would be secured.

Quite possibly so, but this wasn’t just George Soros’s fault: it seems like Money’s side made some errors of judgment, starting with the issues he ran on. He talked most about border security and vouchers, both issues which seemed keyed to winning the support of other politicians, such as Abbott, who claims to be all in on electing pro–school voucher candidates this year. But those aren’t issues keyed to members of his district’s electorate, who live nine hours from Brownsville and have only one small private school, according to the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission. Dutton, by contrast, talked, among other things, about supporting public ed, and she boasted more endorsements from local politicians than Money. 

Money’s line about the cash in the race is telling, because it’s an attempt to cast himself as an underdog. It’s true—in the last weeks alone, Dutton pulled in almost $300,000 from groups friendly to House leadership and slightly more moderate Republicans, while Money raised, and spent, a little over $100,000 from their enemies. (All for a race for which the electorate could have fit comfortably inside many a high school football stadium.) But Money’s backers have deep pockets. They didn’t spend more because they thought they would win. 

On social media, Dutton’s supporters gloated, as is their right. One consultant posted a December 6 memo by Axiom Strategies, the firm run by Jeff Roe, a Ken Paxton adviser. Axiom advised Money as part of its epic winning streak from the 2016 Ted Cruz presidential campaign to the 2024 Ron DeSantis presidential campaign. 

The memo reported a Money campaign internal poll that had Money dominating Dutton, up eleven percentage points and assured of victory. The polling came before Abbott endorsed Money in the race. The governor likes layups, not squeakers: he wants to endorse winners, and he surely got involved thinking he was backing a horse that was already going to win. Once he got involved, an Axiom analyst declared the race over: “Fresh off securing Governor Abbott’s endorsement yesterday,” alongside powerful support from Cruz and the Paxtons, “Brent Money’s commanding lead in the polls make it clear that he will win.”

The analyst went further. Why the need for an election at all? “Jill Dutton should concede,” the memo argued, before any vote had been cast, and save everybody the trouble of having to drive to the ballot box. Oops!