If you were looking for evidence that Donald J. Trump is still the kingmaker in GOP politics, you could do worse than the results of a special congressional election in North Texas on Saturday night.
On Monday afternoon, the day before early voting ended, Trump endorsed Susan Wright in the 23-candidate race to replace her late husband, Ron Wright, in Texas’s Sixth Congressional District. On Thursday, he amplified his endorsement in a tele–town hall hosted by Club for Growth, during which the former president boasted that he and the national anti-tax group “never had a loss together.” “Every time we’ve gone after someone and . . . supported and worked for someone, we’ve had victory,” Trump said.
And so it was. When the race was decided at about 11:30 p.m. Saturday night, Wright had finished first in the jungle primary and advanced to a runoff. The civic and party activist from Arlington bested 22 other candidates—10 other Republicans, 10 Democrats, an independent, and a libertarian. Wright, who is from Arlington, drew 19.2 percent of the vote, comfortably ahead of Republican state representative Jake Ellzey of Waxahachie, with 13.8 percent of the vote, and Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez of Fort Worth, who ran a very close third, at 13.4 percent.
The effect of Trump’s endorsement was evident in the Election Day vote. In early voting, Wright barely led the pack with 19.47 percent, compared with Ellzey’s 19.45 percent. But on Election Day, five days after Trump gave her the nod, she picked up 30 percent, compared to Ellzey’s 14 percent. A third Republican, Brian Harrison of Midlothian, who won 16 percent of the early vote but only 10 percent on Election Day, limped into fourth. Anti-Trumper Michael Wood, who was widely covered in the media, including by Texas Monthly, came in ninth place, with just 3 percent, only half a percentage point better than WWE wrestler turned cosplaying cowboy Dan “Big Dan” Rodimer, who finished eleventh.
The timing of the former president’s endorsement made it an “almost perfect” test of the Trump effect, said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor. Consider, Jones said, what might have happened if Trump had endorsed Harrison, who served in his administration as chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and built his campaign around his passionate identification with the forty-fifth president. “Wright might have been on the outside looking in,” Jones said.
The law of the jungle primary is that when no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers—in this case, Wright and Ellzey—will face each other in a runoff. The date of that election is still to be set by Governor Greg Abbott.
The results are obviously very good news for Republicans, who are now guaranteed to occupy the seat. Meanwhile, Texas Democrats had hoped one of the party’s ten candidates would crack the top two, and now appear to be picking up right where they left off in November, when they failed to win any of the seven open seats in the state’s congressional delegation.
The changing Sixth Congressional District, with a population now a fifth Black and a fourth Hispanic, was a tempting target for Democrats. In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the district by 17 percentage points. In 2016 Trump won by 12, and in 2020 by just 3 points. Ultimately, Democratic candidates combined won less than 40 percent of the vote in the special election, and, as Jeff Blaylock’s Texas Election Source tweeted when all the votes were counted Saturday night, Sanchez missed the runoff by 354 votes while receiving just 36 percent of the votes cast for Democratic candidates.
While Sanchez was buoyed by Latino groups, educator Shawn Lassiter, with particular strength in the Black community, finished fifth overall with just under 9 percent of the vote, and Lydia Bean, with a string of endorsements from organized labor, placed eighth with a little less than 4 percent.
Texas Democrats find themselves in a vicious cycle. They were badly burned in a January 2020 special election for a state House seat in Fort Bend County when they mounted a furious effort, both in state and nationally, on behalf of Democrat Eliz Markowitz, hoping it could prove a bellwether for their efforts to seize the Texas House last year. It was a bellwether, but not in the way they hoped. Markowitz suffered a crushing loss to Republican Gary Gates and Democrats ultimately made no progress last year in taking control of the Texas House ahead of redistricting.
Texas and national Democrats did not pay anything like that kind of attention to this special election—perhaps because Sanchez’s chances in a runoff would have been slim. Even in 2020, with robust turnout and tons of Democratic money pouring into Texas, when Trump took the district by only 3 percentage points, Ron Wright beat his Democratic opponent by nine. Runoffs in Texas tend to see low turnout and a Republican electorate. A poll of the race in April from Data for Progress, a liberal polling firm, found Wright beating Sanchez by ten points in a head-to-head matchup. And, Jones said, if Sanchez somehow did defeat Wright, her chances of keeping the seat after it is redrawn by Republicans in redistricting later this year were virtually nil.
And yet Saturday’s outcome is not necessarily the best for Trump, or for Wright, or for peace in the Texas Republican party, because Ellzey is likely to prove a more formidable runoff rival for Wright than Sanchez would have been. To put it bluntly, Ellzey is a far more dynamic politician than Wright. She’s a first-time candidate; he was elected to the state House in 2020. She’s conventional, promising to simply do the job and stay off TV; he has some of that Rick Perry bravado. Wright very well may make for a better elected official, but that’s not often the deciding factor.
On paper, Wright had all the right stuff for an easier go of it. She is the widow of the late incumbent, a well-worn political path. She has party bona fides in her own right. She ran the district office for two Republican state representatives and served on the Texas GOP’s governing executive committee, which endorsed her candidacy, as did six members of the state’s congressional delegation. Yet despite her first-place finish, Jones said the fact that she depended so heavily on a late boost from Trump was a warning sign. “I think it highlights the fact that there’s something about her candidacy that just isn’t that strong,” he said.
Still, Wright has proved that painting Ellzey as at odds with Trump is effective—even if the premise is weak. Anti-tax group Club for Growth spent more than $250,000 on ads blasting Ellzey as being insufficiently pro-Trump, a line of attack that was based on not very much. (In 2018, prominent never-Trumper Bill Kristol donated $250 to Ellzey’s campaign.) The Club for Growth strategy echoed its role in the May 2018 Republican runoff in Texas’s Twenty-first Congressional District, when it spent heavily to help Chip Roy, Ted Cruz’s former chief of staff, defeat Matt McCall, by suggesting that McCall, who was Trumpier in his politics than Roy, was hostile to Trump because of a joke he made at a candidate forum. (“I support the president’s policies. I don’t necessarily want him to watch my daughters.”)
But Ellzey, who has also been attacked by Cruz as insufficiently conservative, isn’t one to let Wright’s jousts go unparried. Or unPerryed. His main attack dog has been former Texas governor Rick Perry, a bona fide Trumper.
“I’m fed up with East Coast elite groups like the Club for Growth coming to Texas and tearing down a real American hero,” Perry said in a video backing Ellzey, noting that the Club for Growth had spent millions of dollars against Trump when he was seeking the GOP nomination in 2016. “Let me tell you something: no one, and I mean no one, can accuse me of being a Never Trumper,” Perry said. “I served in President Trump’s Cabinet, and I fully support Jake Ellzey for Congress.”
As the runoff campaign begins, it’s Trump’s move.