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How A Special Election In Texas’s 6th District Tested Trump’s Influence On The GOP

UPDATE (July 28, 2021, 7:46 a.m.): On Tuesday, Republican state Rep. Jake Ellzey handily defeated longtime GOP activist Susan Wright by nearly 7 percentage points in a special election runoff for control of Texas’s 6th District. With Ellzey and Wright running on nearly identical platforms, the race was largely viewed as a test of former President Donald Trump’s endorsement power — he backed Wright in April, days ahead of the initial blanket primary when Republicans closed out Democrats in the 23-way race.

It’s hard to say what this means for Trump’s endorsement power ahead of the 2022 midterms — it’s one low-turnout special election — but it is a reminder that a Trump-backed candidate isn’t always a sure thing.

Ideologically, Susan Wright and Jake Ellzey have a lot in common. For starters, the first three priorities on their respective campaign websites are identical: defending the Second Amendment, opposing abortion rights and strengthening the U.S.-Mexico border. Both also claim that President Biden and his administration are promoting immigation among undocumented migrants and, echoing former President Trump’s false claims of election fraud, call for more restrictive voting laws. Overall, both candidates tout their conservative bona fides as a reason why they should represent Texas’s 6th Congressional District.

Where the two really differ is in their respective endorsements. Ellzey, a state House representative and retired Navy fighter pilot, has the support of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who also served as energy secretary under Trump. And Wright, a longtime GOP activist and the widow of Ron Wright, the late congressman of the district who died in February after contracting COVID-19, has the backing of Trump himself.

It’s not clear, though, how much that endorsement will matter to voters during Tuesday’s runoff election, when they decide which of the two candidates should represent them in Congress. That’s because Texas’s 6th District — which includes parts of Tarrant, Ellis and Navarro counties — has been trending away from Republicans in recent years. While 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried the district by about 17 points, Trump won it by roughly 12 points in 2016 and only 3 points in 2020. 

That said, most indicators lean in Wright’s favor.

There hasn’t been a good, independent poll of the district since the initial blanket primary — a 23-way race — took place on May 1. In early June, Wright’s campaign released an internal poll by American Viewpoint that had her leading Ellzey 49 percent to 34 percent, with 11 percent of voters undecided. Another internal poll by the same firm released by the Wright campaign on Thursday found a similar result: Wright led Ellzey by 10 points, with 12 percent of voters undecided. 

House races are notoriously hard to poll, and we’d advise you take internal polls with a grain of salt, but Wright did also outperform Ellzey in the May 1 primary. Wright came in first place with 19.2 percent of the vote compared to Ellzey’s 13.8 percent. And it does appear that Trump’s endorsement played a role in the results. His public statement of support came on the second-to-last day of early voting, and per the Cook Political Report’s analysis of election day ballots versus early votes, Wright and Ellzey were essentially tied during the early voting period, but Wright had nearly double the support among voters who cast their ballots on election day — 25 percent to 11 percent.

But if Wright has any weakness right now, it’s her paltry fundraising numbers. According to her latest federal filing, Wright raised $450,668 between April 12 and July 7 — just over one-third of Ellzey’s $1.22 million haul. Ellzey also ended the period with $484,940 cash on hand versus the $164,101 Wright had. But Wright is getting a hefty boost from outside groups, including the Club for Growth and House Freedom Action. In late June, the Club for Growth launched a $228,000 TV ad buy promoting Wright’s endorsement from Trump that ran on Fox News and satellite TV. On top of that, the group said it planned to spend $150,000 on door-knocking. And in advance of Tuesday’s election, Trump’s Make America Great Action PAC spent another $100,000 on an ad campaign boost for Wright. 

In addition to Trump, though, Wright has also been bolstered by a number of high-profile Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas and Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York. But that might not matter as much as Trump’s backing because if recent elections and statewide efforts to restrict voting have taught us anything, it’s that Trump still rules the GOP.

Ahead of the 2022 midterms, Trump has made clear his intentions to get involved in competitive primary races to help Republicans win back Congress and weed out candidates who are not in lockstep with his views. He issued at least two recent statements of support for Wright, one last week calling her “outstanding” and reiterating she has his “complete and total endorsement,” and another on Monday saying she will “never let you down!” He also recently participated in a robocall for Wright and held a tele-rally for Wright yesterday evening, according to The Texas Tribune. Meanwhile, Wright has continued to tout Trump’s support on her campaign website. And with the backing of the Club for Growth, he two have painted Ellzey as being at odds with Trump and soft on border security. In one mail ad, for instance, Wright’s campaign highlighted Ellzey’s opposition to a spending bill Trump signed in 2018. The former president, for his part, has also bragged during a tele-town hall before the May primary that he and the Club for Growth have “never had a loss together.”

Various Republicans, including Rep. Joe Barton, who represented the 6th District for over three decades, have chided Wright’s team for lying about Ellzey’s record. Ellzey, meanwhile, has also tried to defend himself from such attacks. He recently released a YouTube video showcasing Trump supporters who were backing his campaign and earned the endorsement of Houston-area Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who commented that Wright was running a “dishonest” campaign.

Tuesday’s runoff will undoubtedly be viewed as a test for how Trump-endorsed candidates fare against fellow conservatives who have similar policy plans, but lack the former president’s backing. In the immediate future, though, whoever wins will only have a few months in office before having to start his or her next campaign since the seat is up for reelection again in 2022. (It’s not yet clear whether national Democrats will make a play for the seat after sitting out the primary; in May, Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez failed to make the runoff after coming less than 400 votes behind Ellzey.)

Beyond testing Trump’s endorsement power, the race is also notable because Wright’s win could be history-making. Should she prevail, Wright would push the record number of Republican women in the House to 32. Moreover, this could be the second time this year where a politician’s wife succeeded him following a tragedy. In Louisiana, Julia Letlow, a Republican, won the special election to replace her late husband Luke, who won his 2020 race but died in December after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.