This wasn’t the outcome many political observers were expecting.
Freshman Texas state Rep. Jake Ellzey won an all-Republican House special election runoff in the state’s 6th Congressional District, edging Susan Wright, the widow of the late Rep. Don Wright – whose COVID-19-related February death while suffering from cancer triggered the contest.
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With both candidates in the low-turnout election supporting the same conservative principles and highlighting former President Trump’s “America First” agenda, the final stages of the campaign partially focused on Trump’s endorsement of Wright, and the showdown was seen to a degree as referendum on Trump’s continued clout in the GOP, six months after his departure from the White House.
Trump remains extremely popular and influential with Republican voters as he continues to play a kingmaker role in GOP primary politics and flirts with a 2024 presidential run. But the 53%-47% victory by Ellzey, a Navy combat pilot veteran, “does raise questions about how strong Trump’s endorsement is,” Austin, Texas-based political consultant Matt Mackowiak told Fox News.
With Trump’s backing just days before the May 1 special election, Wright came in first in a field of 23 contenders. Ellzey narrowly edged out Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez for the second and final spot in the runoff contest in the district, which covers some southeastern parts of the city of Fort Worth and surrounding suburbs as well as the exurbs and rural areas south of Dallas.
While Wright showcased Trump’s endorsement, Ellzey enjoyed the backing of a number of high-profile Texas Republicans – including former longtime Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a fellow combat veteran, and former Rep. Joe Barton, who represented the district for nearly three decades before not seeking reelection in 2018.
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Ellzey dramatically outraised and outspent Wright in the runoff campaign, and was very visible on the stump and in the media. Wright, who struggled with fundraising, was far from an aggressive campaigner.
Trump, who remained quiet in the campaign following the May contest, picked up the pace in the final days before the runoff election.
“Hello, this is your hopefully all-time favorite president, Donald Trump,” he said in an automated call at the beginning of the week to voters in the district. “I’m asking you to go out and vote for a great Republican, a great woman, Susan Wright.”
“Big election tomorrow in the Great State of Texas! Susan Wright supports America First policies, our Military and our Veterans, is strong on Borders, tough on Crime, Pro-Life, and will always protect our Second Amendment,” Trump emphasized in a statement on the eve of the runoff election. “Susan has my Complete and Total Endorsement.”
And hours later he headlined an election eve tele-rally for Wright, and the pro-Trump Make America Great Again Action PAC infused roughly $100,000 to run ads for Wright in the closing days of the campaign.
But Trump didn’t visit the district to hold a rally or fundraise on behalf of Wright, nor did he dispatch top members of this political team to help in the campaign. Mackowiak, the Travis County GOP chair, described the former president’s efforts “too little, too late” and “kind of half-hearted.”
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The Club for Growth, the well-known conservative anti-tax group that was aligned with Trump in this race, spent $828,000 to go up with ads slamming Ellzey in the runoff campaign. The group touted Wright as “a real conservative” and charged that Ellzey was “a serial opportunist with a record of missing votes and supporting higher taxes.”
But Mackowiak said those ads may have backfired, noting that “negative attacks in special elections don’t work because turnout’s low. So all you’re doing really is convincing people who weren’t going to vote anyway to not vote for one person. You’ve got to build up the person who you’re backing to try to juice up turnout.”
Ellzey, pushing back against the negative attacks, emphasized in his victory speech that “one of the things that we’ve seen from this campaign is a positive outlook – a Reagan Republican outlook for the future of our country – is what the people of the 6th District really, really want.”
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Another potential factor in the victory by Ellzey – possible support from Democratic voters in the district, who had no horse in the runoff race. While participation by Democrats in the low turnout contest was expected to be minimal, many of those who did vote may have supported Ellzey because Trump – as well as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – backed Wright.
Ellzey, who never criticized Trump during his campaign, released a video titled “Trump Supporters Love Jake Ellzey.”
His victory is seen by some pundits as a rebuke of Trump in Texas. But longtime Republican consultant Mike Biundo, a veteran of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, urged caution.
“We tend to overreact in any direction after the results like this. Candidates and campaigns matter. What is happening on the ground in a race matters. To claim Trump’s popularity and/or his hold is slipping based on last night’s results would be a miscalculation on the part of the pundits and operatives pushing such a narrative,” Biundo emphasized.
The Texas contest was held hours after the former president endorsed state Attorney General Ken Paxton, who’s facing two high-profile GOP challengers as he runs for reelection next year.
Mackowiak predicted that Trump would get move involved in the attorney general showdown, noting, “I imagine he will do more because he and Ken have a real relationship, whereas he and Susan don’t.”
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The former president’s clout is also on the line again next Tuesday, in a House special election GOP primary in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District. Trump is backing former energy lobbyist Mike Carey in the 11-candidate Republican field.
But former GOP Rep. Steve Stivers, who stepped down from the seat earlier this year to become president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, has endorsed state Rep. Jeff LaRae in the primary. And Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Trump ally, is backing former state Rep. Ron Hood in the Republican showdown.