Though several Republican candidates were openly running in the MAGA lane, Trump and his legacy didn’t dominate the race until the final weeks. There was a behind-the-scenes jockeying for his endorsement by allies of some leading GOP candidates, and on Monday he made his allegiance known and endorsed Wright, a clear power play that comes with some risk.
Saturday’s voting almost certainly won’t be the final word on the race — in Texas special elections, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to a runoff if no candidate wins a majority. Prior to receiving Trump’s endorsement, Wright had high name recognition but less campaign cash than her GOP opponents.
The Club for Growth lured Trump off the sidelines after spending some $150,000 on ads painting Wright’s main opponent, state Rep. Jake Ellzey, as an “anti-Trump” Republican, citing a donation from Bill Kristol, the conservative commentator and Trump critic.
“He wants to be with winners, but he also wants to show that he’s still the leader of the party,” said David McIntosh, the Club president and former Indiana congressman who encouraged Trump to back Wright. “That was our goal — to make it a race where Trump’s endorsement really mattered.”
Neither Ellzey nor Wright has discussed the former president much on the trail or made him a central theme of their campaign. Trump also bypassed endorsing another top candidate, Brian Harrison, a former health official in his administration who has constantly linked himself to the former president.
The Club for Growth said it invited tens of thousands of Republican voters in the district to the virtual event on Thursday, including “low-propensity Trump voters.”
Though Trump’s appearance on the town hall was brief, he breezed through a large number of topics, blaming Biden for everything from high gas prices to the border crisis. He also predicted Republicans would retake the House and celebrated his 2020 victory there.
“I appreciate the big win we had in Texas,” he said.
Yet Trump’s entrance onto the special election stage adds an additional wrinkle. Even before his endorsement, there was some uncertainty over how helpful a presence he would be in a district that has a fair number of Biden Republicans. Trump only won it by 3 points in 2020, even as the late Ron Wright won by 9 points.
“The reality with Trump is that Trump had tons of supporters. But he also has a lot of people that were not as heavy supporters from both parties,” Rick Barnes, the Tarrant County GOP chair who is backing Wright, said in an interview last week. “A lot of people have moved on, beyond all of that, realizing that that future may or may not include Trump. And so we can’t continue to sit around and let that be the lead conversation.”
Most polling from both parties shows a four-way race to make it into the yet-to-be-scheduled runoff with three Republicans — Wright, Ellzey and Harrison — and Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez, who ran for the seat in 2018, all in the running.
The larger field of Republicans includes some interesting characters, including Dan Rodimer, a former pro wrestler who ran for Congress last year in Nevada; Sery Kim, a former Trump administration official whose nativist rhetoric disparaging Chinese immigrants lost her key endorsements; and Michael Wood, who is running as an explicit anti-Trump Republican with the backing of Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). But none has gained much traction.
While Wright enjoys high name ID in the district, Harrison, a former chief of staff at the Health and Human Services department, has raised the most money and is the only one running broadcast TV ads. Ellzey, meanwhile, has a strong base in Ellis County, which includes a sizable swath of GOP voters, but he has had to weather a barrage of negative ads against him. (He also has outside groups supporting him.)
Ellzey has largely avoided mentioning Trump on the trail, instead touting a forward-looking message. He’s spending the final day of campaigning on Friday touring the district with former Gov. Rick Perry, who also served in Trump’s cabinet.
“I think he did a lot of good things for our country,” Ellzey said of Trump in an interview last month. At the time, Ellzey said he would have appreciated Trump’s endorsement, but added: “I run my own campaign, right? I am not responsible for anybody else’s words, actions or deeds.”
In much of the early campaign, Wright also treaded carefully around Trump, stressing her support for his policies and her long career in local Republican politics. Before he passed away following a battle with Covid-19, Ron Wright was a reliable Trump supporter, including voting to reject the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
McIntosh, who said he speaks with Trump about downballot races from time to time, encouraged him to back Wright and made him aware of their attacks to cast Ellzey as anti-Trump. It was Trump, he said, that suggested the tele-town hall.
This district, which includes the Fort Worth-centered Tarrant County and its southwest suburbs, is one of nine Republican-held seats in Texas where Trump got less than 51 percent of the vote. Because Ron Wright carried the district easily, even as Trump’s support cratered, this race could reveal more about whether surbuban voters were just souring on Trump or on the Republican Party more broadly.
Democrats in the race are hoping for the latter and are eager to make a play for traditional Republicans who punched their ballots for Biden in 2020 — but first, one of them has to advance on Saturday. Besides Sanchez, nonprofit leader Shawn Lassiter and 2020 state House candidate Lydia Bean have also emerged as credible Democratic candidates.
“Nothing could be a worse omen for the Democratic Party than to have a winnable district like this with two Republicans in the runoff,” Sanchez said in an interview, warning about a splintered Democratic electorate. “That would be very embarrassing and very disheartening.”
In fact, deprived of their chief villain, who juiced fundraising and especially turnout, Democrats are staring down the possibility of a shutout because of Texas’ top-two rule to make the runoff.
Their struggles in the district stand in stark contrast to the blockbuster special elections of the last four years, when their party’s candidates were buoyed by small-dollar donors eager to send a message to Trump. With Democrats now in control of Congress and the White House, the party’s candidates have to work harder to illustrate the stakes of electing a Republican to Congress.
“People are still trying to win using the Trump playbook,” Bean said. “And we can’t rest until we really show them that that doesn’t pay, that they’re gonna lose.”
National Republicans are eager for a Democratic shutout — though they concede that’s, ironically, less likely now that Trump has weighed in. Regardless, the GOP will be favored in a runoff against a Democrat.
And Wright’s supporters say she would enter the runoff in strong position. She hasn’t run as an unabashed MAGA supporter, but she now carries Trump’s endorsement.
“We look for candidates that are the combination of two things,” McIntosh said of the Club. “They really have a grounding and understanding of limited government principles, and can appeal to those Trump primary voters so they can unite all the different elements of the Republican Party.”