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The Trailer: A Texas free-for-all, as twenty-three candidates battle for a swing House seat

In this edition: A 23-way election in Texas, how Republicans answer the “did Trump win” question, and the final days of the Louisiana runoff.

One day the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex will stretch from coast to coast, and this is The Trailer.

ARLINGTON, Tex. — Susan Wright has kept her husband's office just as he left it. Ron Wright, who died in February, worked next to framed paintings of famous battles, political cartoons from his career before Congress, and a White House photograph of a meeting with former president Donald Trump. From behind his desk, Susan Wright has locked up endorsements and donations for the May 1 special election to replace Ron in Washington.

I campaigned with him,” Wright said in an interview. “I traveled back and forth to D.C. with him; not every week, but a fair amount. I traveled with him throughout the district to go to events. I spoke for him at a few events here and there when he couldn't make it, like a women's club luncheon that fell in the middle of the week. We really were a team.”

There are times when rival candidates clear the field for the widow or widower of a politician who died unexpectedly, as Ron Wright did after a battle with cancer and covid-19. That hasn't happened in Texas's 6th Congressional District. Susan Wright is one of 23 candidates who filed for the special election, including 10 other Republicans, from Ron Wright's last primary opponent to the Democrat he beat in the closer-than-expected 2018 general election.

The result is less a coronation than a goat rodeo. Half a dozen of the 23 contenders are in serious competition for a runoff slot. Half a dozen or more are running to send a message and get known before the state draws new maps, with the region expected to get least one more House seat. One of the few candidates on the air has taken out a six-figure loan to promote his work in the Trump administration; one moved to the district from Nevada, adopting a new accent on the way; one is campaigning with one of the most prominent Republican critics of Trump, urging the party to move on from the former president.

“We're focusing on the suburban part of the district, and [the] voter that's become especially disgusted with Donald Trump over the past four years,” said Michael Wood, a veteran and first-time candidate who tells audiences that Trump lied to them about the 2020 election. This weekend, he'll campaign alongside Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. “It's neighborhoods where it seems like there are a lot of college-educated voters. It sounds absurd to compare this at all to a presidential race, but the Arlington part of this district is my New Hampshire.”

Fast-growing Arlington came out against Trump last year, as did the rest of Tarrant County, backing Joe Biden by 11 points. The 6th District stretches far past the Democratic suburbs, however, covering Ellis and Navarro counties, mostly-rural areas where Trump won easily. Of the seven House districts with special elections this year, it's the only one where the presidential race came down to single digits, Trump prevailing by three points.

But the race has firmed up last year's battle lines, not moved them. With the exception of Wood, Republicans have run here as solid Trump supporters, eager to restore his agenda. Brian Harrison, who served as chief of staff at Trump's Department Health and Human Services, pitches himself as the conservative who has delivered on promises, just like the 45th president: Term limits for federal officials, mandatory sunsets for all rules under his jurisdiction, and Operation Warp Speed, the vaccine program.

“It wasn't just that I was in the Trump administration somewhere,” Harrison said in an interview before a weekend meet-and-greet. “I played a material role in a lot of the 'America First' policy achievements that people really loved.” Since leaving the administration, he filed a high-profile lawsuit against the Biden administration's changes to immigration policy; the North District of Texas judges have frequently thrown out Democratic-backed rules or legislation.

State Rep. Jake Ellzey, who narrowly lost to Wright in the 2018 primary, touts his service as a Navy fighter pilot, his work in Austin to allow Texans to carry handguns without permits, and the GOP legislature's efforts to change election laws after 2020. “Election integrity was the number two issue when I polled the Ellis County GOP,” Ellzey said in an interview, while not specifying what fraud he thought may have occurred. “They don't think that the election was fair.”

In conversations over the weekend, and as early voting began on Monday, Wood was the only Republican candidate who said that Trump had lost a fairly conducted 2020 election. The former president himself has stayed out of the election — a change from last month's special election in Louisiana's 5th District, where Trump endorsed now-Rep. Julia Letlow in her bid to replace her late husband, and took some credit when she won without being forced into a runoff, though she had cleared the field beforehand. Without Trump, with multiple candidates claiming his legacy, no clear favorite has emerged in Texas.

“Early on, you would have thought Susan had a chance to win straight out,” said Joe Barton, a Republican who represented the district from 1985 to his retirement in 2018. “Now, I don't think anybody's going to get 50 percent. I'm not even sure she's in first place anymore.” To test how much people were really paying attention to the race, Barton got up from his table at an Ellis County barbecue spot and began asking fellow diners if they were aware of the election. At the second table, one of four people said she was: She had heard of Harrison and Ellzey.

Other Republicans have grabbed attention, too, with mixed results. Dan Rodimer, a onetime professional wrestler who lost a 2020 bid for Congress in Nevada, entered the race moments before the filing deadline and built a campaign heavier on branding than policy. His campaign sells “Make America Texas Again” hats, and uses imagery from Trump's endorsement of his Nevada campaign to give the impression that he's the Trump candidate here, too. 

When early voting began, Rodimer set up a tent at a busy polling site with Trump flags and a cardboard stand-up of the former president; a few days earlier, he hosted a “Wrestling for Your Rights” rally in the Republican suburb of Mansfield, where independent wrestlers competed and an energy drink company handed out tie-dyed branded hats.

“I will take a folding chair right to the establishment!” Rodimer said from the ring, slamming one of those chairs over his leg and swinging it dramatically.

Viral videos and his connections from the last campaign have helped Rodimer raise more than $300,000, surpassing Wright. Former White House staffer Sery Kim has raised less — her campaign didn't release full numbers — but has gotten in front of Republican voters with relentless campaigning, and by filing a lawsuit against the Texas Tribune after it labeled as “racist” Sery's comment that she didn't want more Chinese nationals coming to America.

They love that he fought with people,” Kim said in an interview, explaining Trump's resonance in the district. “The clips of him telling reporters, like, 'Stop it, you're like antifa' — they loved that fighting mentality. Immigration is huge here, and they love what he did with immigration, when the border felt secure. And they love his approach to China, because there's manufacturing in this district, but the growth in North Texas is all with companies that have everything to do with the global economy, and nothing to do with manufacturing and farmland.”

There have been fewer lawsuits and folding chairs in the Democrats' side of the race, and it's not clear that anyone representing the party will make the runoff. Jana Lynne Sanchez, who came within single digits of beating Wright three years ago, leaped into the race early, attracting support from local party activists and air cover from the pro-Latino Nuestro PAC. Her campaign has released polling that finds the same thing as most Republican internal polling: Wright, Harrison, and Ellzey are battling for a runoff slot, and she's up there with them.

“If it's not me, it's going to be two Republicans in the runoff,” Sanchez told Democrats coming in to a Saturday meet-and-greet at the local party office in Waxahachie, a Democratic stronghold in deep red Ellis County. In an interview, she said that she made long-lasting alliances by running when the district didn't look competitive — Trump had won it by 12 points in 2016 — and built the infrastructure that turned the 6th into a potential swing seat.

“In 2018, we had no voters' numbers, and pretty much every phone number we called was to a disconnected old landline,” Sanchez said. “We have numbers now, maybe too many. We have voter scores that are much more accurate, now that the Texas Democratic Party takes into account things like Democrats voting in Republican primaries in places like this, which happens when Democrats don't compete. The party's just been completely rejuvenated since Trump.”

But the Democrats' contest looks much like the Republicans'; some local talent stayed out, waiting for new maps to be drawn for next year, and other ambitious candidates decided to take their shot at the special. Sanchez raised slightly less for her race than Shawn Lassiter, a nonprofit director who hadn't sought office before, but had a popular launch video that was promoted heavily on Twitter. It focused on something Sanchez and other Democrats talk about on the trail, but Republicans have moved on from: the failure of the state's power grid during a winter storm.

“I think that we have proven that we can put together a grass roots movement,” Lassiter said in an interview. She argued that she could more effectively consolidate Democratic votes, as did Lydia Bean, an unsuccessful 2020 candidate for the state legislature who nabbed the support of the state AFL-CIO over Sanchez. 

“A lot of folks have already voted for me, and they feel like I'm a trusted name,” Bean said. “And just personally, I always love the underdog.”

Apart from a small number of PACs that have gotten involved, national Democrats have stayed out of the race, waiting for the primary to settle things. That may have upped the risk of a lockout, and an all-Republican runoff. But Republicans are just as scrambled, with the Club for Growth, which backs Wright, adding more confusion in the final week with an ad that accuses Ellzey of not supporting Trump's agenda, and of being backed by “Never Trump” Republicans like Bill Kristol — who donated to Ellzey in the past but to Wood this year.

“President Trump has NOT yet endorsed a candidate in TX-6,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller tweeted on Thursday morning. “This is a very strong pro-Trump district, and President Trump is the most powerful endorsement in all of politics, but he has not yet weighed in.”

Reading list

“As the voting-rights fight moves to Texas, defiant Republicans test the resolve of corporations that oppose restrictions,” by Amy Gardner

Does Coca-Cola care if people can't vote in a drive-through anymore?

“Inside the Democratic strategy to expand voting rights state by state,” by Liz Crampton

Automatic registration, felon re-enfranchisement and other blue-state trends.

“Republicans running for Virginia governor appear at Liberty University forum,” by Laura Vozzella

The closing arguments in a swing-state primary.

“How Josh Hawley and Marjorie Taylor Greene juiced their fundraising numbers,” by Isaac Arnsdorf and Derek Willis

A wasteful way to pile up small-dollar contributions.

“ ‘The wheels fell off’: How Biden’s misgivings on border surge upended plan on refugees,” by Tyler Pager, Sean Sullivan, and Seung Min Kim 

Why the president blinked on a plan he ran on.

“New York’s ridiculous elections are why we could have Mayor Yang,” by Henry Grabar

Low turnout, more problems.

On the trail

Michael Wood's campaign in Texas's 6th Congressional District has a unique premise for 2021: The 2020 election was fair, and Republicans lost it. He has gotten some attention for saying that, some of it in this newsletter. 

So, while in the district this week, The Trailer posed the question to some of Wood's rivals. It was phrased like this: Donald Trump has said the 2020 election was rigged. Do you agree with him? If the answer zoomed off topic, there would be a follow-up to clarify, to get every candidate discussing the same thing. 

They suggested that courts had not heard election lawsuits on the merits, which isn't true, and referred to affidavits that, in some cases, contained false information, such as claiming that some Michigan precincts cast more votes than the number of voters who lived in them. All of the candidates emphasized the feelings of Trump voters; none offered proof of fraud.

Susan Wright: “The biggest concern I have about the 2020 election is that there were hundreds of people in several states who filed affidavits with the court, that are still working their way through, who experienced or witnessed voter fraud. I spent more than 20 years as an elections judge. That is very near and dear to my heart. I'm concerned that so many people experienced complications, for want of a more inclusive word. And I'm disappointed that states were in such a rush to finalize things that they didn't adjudicate those before they finalized their election results. There's one camp of people pushing for accessibility, and I want as many registered voters to vote as possible. But I don't want to cheapen it. I mean, people died for this, and it doesn't take that long to do it properly. Your vote is important and your vote should be secure. You should feel that it's secure. You should feel that it was private. You are free to tell everybody you want how you voted, but it's nobody else's business how you voted unless you make it their business. And a drive-through voting situation cannot be secure. It just can't. There's nothing to keep it whole and keep it secure, and the law doesn't allow it.”

Jake Ellzey: “The 2020 election is over. We have a new administration, and we have a new Congress, and I'm only interested in looking forward at how we can turn this ship around, that seems to be adrift, with nobody at the helm. But we can't give up the ship and I have no intention of doing so. The Constitution describes election integrity as a states' issue. It is to be controlled by the states. They should be responsible for that. Texas has a very strong election integrity process and it's getting stronger with the work coming from our elections committee. And I think we'll only strengthen that going forward, because it is important. It's an emotional issue for many, many people who love our president, love President Trump, and feel like this was this was not a fair election. So we have to respect the fact that that's how a lot of folks feel. And as an elected official, I have to pursue greater election integrity going forward. That's extremely important to me.”

Brian Harrison: “I was on the policy side, obviously, in the Trump administration. And my mission in life was to drag every policy victory I could for however many days, hours, weeks, months we had left there. I think it is absolutely unconscionable that some of these irregularities were not looked at. I mean, look at what happened in Pennsylvania. We had some of these states in the middle of the electoral process having their election rules changed, in some cases, by the judiciary. And so I do actually agree with some of the more conservative justices, Thomas, Alito, and I think Gorsuch, in saying: ‘Hey, we should have at least heard of this case in Pennsylvania because we were grappling with something as consequential and as serious as choosing the leader of the free world.’ That is not something that we should ever allowed to be called into question. I think it is absolutely inappropriate that we didn't have a chance for some of these irregularities to be looked at. I think they should have been looked at.”

Ad watch

Glenn Youngkin, “It's Past Time for Voter ID.” As the Virginia GOP's convention vote approaches, gubernatorial candidates who can afford to do so keep emphasizing conservative issues in their paid media. Days after rival Kirk Cox put out a video inside a ballpark to chastise Major League Baseball for pulling the All-Star Game from Georgia over a Republican-backed election law, Youngkin adds an angle, asking why baseball parks can demand ID but state election officials no longer need to. “Voter ID is not a Democrat[ic] or a Republican issue,” Youngkin says. “It's a democracy issue.” (Georgia required ID for in-person voting before the new law, but the legislature requires more ID for validating absentee ballots now.)

Operation 147, “Back to Work.” A new PAC created to attack Republicans over the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election, Operation 147's first big investment has been in Texas's 6th Congressional District, and an effort to consolidate Democratic voters behind Jana Lynne Sanchez, the first candidate to jump into the special election. “On May 1, remember January 6,” a narrator says, offering a short version of Sanchez's biography and saying “she'll work with President Biden to get our economy back on track.” The point of the ad: Excite Democrats, who may not be aware of the election and are even less likely to be aware of internal Democratic polling that suggests Sanchez has the clearest runoff path.

Poll watch

Do you favor or oppose the following election reform idea? (Pew, 5,109 adults)

Backup paper ballots for electronic voting
Favor: 82% (-3 since Oct. 2018)
Oppose: 15% (+1)

In-person early voting
Favor: 78%
Oppose: 21%

Voter ID
Favor: 76%
Oppose: 23% (-1 since Oct. 2018)

Allowing ex-felons to vote
Favor: 71% (+1 since Oct. 2018)
Oppose: 28% (-1)

Election day as national holiday
Favor: 69% (+4 since Oct. 2018)
Oppose: 28% (-1)

Automatic voter registration
Favor: 61% (-4 since Oct. 2018)
Oppose: 37% (+3)

Removing inactive voters from rolls automatically
Favor: 46% (+9 since Oct. 2018)
Oppose: 51% (-11)

Pew has been asking about all but one of these voting restructuring ideas for a few years, capturing the shift in opinions as Democrats and Republicans dug trenches to fight on particular changes to election law. In-person early voting wasn't really controversial enough to ask about until 2020, when Republicans began to argue that Election Day itself should keep its primacy and excuses should be required for early or absentee votes. Automatic registration, which Republicans see as a fraud risk, has gotten slightly less popular; “use it or lose it” purges of voter rolls have gotten more popular, not coincidentally as Republicans argued that ineligible or nonexistent voters got ballots last year. (There is no evidence for such ballots being counted.) Voter ID remains the single most popular Republican idea for changing elections, and it's no mystery why the party's defense of Georgia legislation has emphasized ID — though the state already required it.

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary (Wason Center, 806 likely primary voters)

Terry McAuliffe: 47% (+21 since Feb.)
Justin Fairfax: 8% (-4)
Jennifer McClellan: 6% (+2)
Jennifer Carroll Foy: 5% (+1)
Lee Carter: 1%

McAuliffe left office in 2018 as a popular governor, and probably would have cruised to reelection if not for the state's one-consecutive-term limit on the office. (There is no such limit on any other statewide office.) The challenge for his opponents in the June primary has been convincing the electorate — typically a quarter Black, or more — that the state needs new, fresh leadership, not necessarily more from a White baby boomer. It has been a very tough sell, with three-quarters or more of Democratic voters telling the pollster they simply don't know who McClellan, Carroll Foy and Carter are. (Around half know who Fairfax is, but he has been a non-factor in the race ever since charges of college sexual assault were made against him.)

Voters simply aren't paying much attention, with 33 percent of Black voters still undecided, and just 25 percent of them backing one of the Black candidates. Gov. Ralph Northam's approval rating among Democrats is 84 percent; his decision to endorse McAuliffe has helped the former governor, and down the ballot, he has given a boost to Jay Jones, a candidate against two-term Attorney General Mark Herring.

Voting wars

Montana Republicans won total control of state government last year for the first time in more than a decade, and their first changes to election law became official this week. Students will need to provide more than just their student ID to vote, and same-day registration has been ended. “These new laws will help ensure the continued integrity of Montana’s elections for years to come,” said Gov. Greg Gianforte, though same-day registration has not been linked to any illegal voting in the 2020 election. 

In Arizona, Republicans who narrowly control the state legislature have advanced another election restructuring bill, which would remove voters who skip elections from the voting rolls; Republicans are also beginning an audit of the vote in Maricopa County. Cyber Ninjas, a company hired by state Senate Republicans to work on the audit, faced criticism after its founder tweeted (and then deleted) posts advancing conspiracy theories shared by Trump-allied attorney Sidney Powell, who claimed that the election had been stolen by rigged voting machines.

Powell, who is being sued for defamation by the voting machine company Dominion, re-emerged with a video message at last week's Health and Freedom Conference, an event organized in Tulsa by Rhema Bible College. It was replete with falsehoods.” We know there was massive fraud that infiltrated the system from every angle, including cyber hacks from foreign nationals,” Powell said in a video message. “Anybody who watched the returns election night and saw the unprecedented event of multiple states stopping counting of the vote at the same time, just before Trump would have been declared the winner with more than 270 votes, knows there was fraud.” 

Special elections

The race for Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District ends on Saturday, and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson added a high-profile endorsement in her effort to consolidate liberal votes: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

“I have no doubt that she’ll be a partner in the work to make our country work for all of us, not just the wealthy and well-connected,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. “She would make a fantastic colleague in Congress.”

Carter Peterson, a former state party chair, has worked to turn out liberals in what has historically been a low-turnout runoff, emphasizing her support for the Green New Deal, with an assist from green groups that keep going after Sen. Troy Carter's support for energy industry jobs. (He cites that factor for why he doesn't support the full GND framework.) Carter's path to victory may include more Republicans, who don't have a candidate in their own in the runoff, but Carter also won the support of New Orleans's reformer DA Jason Williams this month, in part because Carter Peterson once endorsed his opponent.

The election is on Saturday.

Countdown

… two days until the runoff in Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District
… nine days until the special primary in Texas’s 6th Congressional District
… 16 days until the GOP nominating convention in Virginia
… 40 days until the special election in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District
… 47 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 61 days until New York Citys primary
… 103 days until the special primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District

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