On Saturday, voters will decide who among 23 candidates — 11 Republicans, 10 Democrats, one independent and one libertarian — will replace Rep. Ron Wright, who died in February after contracting COVID-19. One of five special elections to take place during President Biden’s first few months in office, this jungle primary in Texas is arguably the most competitive, as the district — once drawn as a GOP stronghold — has gradually started to become a battleground.
That might come as a shock to some, considering Texas is traditionally a ruby red state and the 6th Congressional District has been firmly in Republicans’ grip since at least 1984. To be clear, the race is still very much the GOP’s to lose, but that doesn’t mean Democrats aren’t taking the election seriously. A resulting runoff election in the next few months is almost certain, and based on the changing demographics of the district, it’s very possible that it will be a Democrat and a Republican who square off.
Republicans can govern without winning a majority. That threatens our democracy.
So, here’s what to keep an eye on before and after polls close at 7 p.m. Central on Saturday and why we should look at the results as a harbinger of what’s to come in 2022.
For starters, polling on this race is mixed. A March poll by Victoria Research, which was sponsored by Jana Lynne Sanchez, a Democrat running for the seat, found longtime GOP activist Susan Wright, the widow of Ron Wright, leading the crowded pack of candidates with 21 percent support. She’s followed by Sanchez, who lost to Ron Wright in 2018 by nearly 8 percentage points, at 17 percent. Following Sanchez is Republican state Rep. Jake Ellzey (8 percent), Democrat Lydia Bean (5 percent) and Democrat Shawn Lassiter (3 percent). Another poll, commissioned in April by The Washington Free Beacon, showed Sanchez leading Wright by 3 points (20 percent to 17 percent). This polling question, however, asked respondents to choose among only eight of the candidates in the race — four Republicans and four Democrats. A third poll, from Data for Progress in April, asked about seven candidates in the race and had Wright leading with 22 percent; she’s followed by Sanchez (16 percent) and Ellzey (13 percent). The survey also featured a head-to-head matchup between Wright and Sanchez, with the Republican winning by 10 points.
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As far as fundraising goes, Ellzey has the biggest financial advantage. Campaign finance reports released this month show that he was not only the top fundraiser from either party but also had more money in his campaign coffers than any other candidate. Ellzey raised nearly $504,000 and had more than $400,000 cash on hand as of April 11. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Lassiter has the biggest edge. She reported about $121,000 cash on hand and raised more than $322,000. Wright, however, has somewhat lagged in fundraising. She brought in only about $286,000 in contributions and spent about $158,000. She had about $128,000 on hand as of April 11.
But who will make the all-but-guaranteed runoff election is anything but clear. Although most surveys predict a close race between Democrats and Republicans, Democrats are at a disadvantage after falling short of expectations in 2020, when they didn’t pick up a single district in Texas at the congressional level. And according to The Texas Tribune, a recent polling memo provided to a Democratic campaign warned that the possibility of no Democrat making the runoff was a “real danger.”
What’s working in the Democratic Party’s favor, though, is that the 6th District has become more competitive: 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried the district by about 17 points, while former President Trump won it by only 3 points in 2020. Tarrant County — where about one-fourth of the district’s votes come from — has also become increasingly competitive for the GOP after Democrat Beto O’Rourke narrowly beat Sen. Ted Cruz there in 2018. However, Ron Wright won reelection last year by nearly 9 points, and as of February, Sabato’s Crystal Ball rated the special election to replace him as Likely Republican.
Trump will likely play some kind of role in the race, too. For much of the lead-up to Saturday, the former president had largely stayed out of the race. But on Monday, he made an eleventh-hour decision to endorse Susan Wright, which could sway the race. And on Thursday evening, Trump appeared at a tele-town hall for her. Even before that, though, Trump loomed over the GOP primary.
Some candidates have rushed to embrace the ex-commander in chief, while others thought it a better political ploy to distance themselves from his legacy. Take combat veteran Michael Wood, who is running for the seat while openly disavowing Trump. Though Wood hasn’t registered much support in recent polls, his candidacy has gained some recognition after he received a financial boost from Rep. Liz Cheney. (The No. 3 House Republican voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.) Other Republican candidates, though, like retired pro wrestler Dan Rodimer have been more open about their continued support for the former president; Rodimer even campaigned with a “Make America Texas Again” slogan. Beyond that, two Trump administration officials are running for the open seat as well: Sery Kim, a former assistant administrator at the Small Business Administration, and Brian Harrison, the chief of staff for then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar.
It’s clear the Texas GOP is struggling with an identity crisis of sorts after Trump was voted out of office. In a state that supported him by only single digits in both 2016 and 2020, it’s an open question of just how much to embrace the former president. The race in Texas’s 6th District will likely have national implications since Saturday’s results will say a lot about the state of play for 2022. But for now, the biggest question is whether there will be a Democrat-versus-Republican runoff proving that Democrats can be competitive in historically unwinnable Texas districts — and that 2022 might not be the disappointment for House Democrats that 2020 was.
In the immediate future, though, Republicans have 212 seats in the U.S. House compared with Democrats’ 218, so the results of Saturday’s race won’t make or break the current congressional balance of power. Yet whoever does win could make history: Democrats, if they flip the open seat for the first time in more than three decades, and Wright, if she wins and pushes the record number of Republican women in the House to 32.