In this edition: The Trump effect in a Texas special election, the Dem-on-Dem infighting in Ohio, and a Senate candidate who's importing policies from Budapest.

The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a whistle is a good guy with a whistle, and this is The Trailer.

Susan Wright's runoff campaign for Congress finished like it started: She phoned it in. 

On Monday night, Wright called into “tele-rally” for Texas voters, with former president Donald Trump attacking the Biden administration for six minutes, and the Texas congressional candidate joining for the last 40 seconds.

“I look forward to working with you and delivering on your ‘America First’ agenda when I'm in Congress,” Wright said. “Will you stand with President Trump and vote for me?”

If she wins today, Wright will be the 41st widow to succeed her late husband in Congress. Rep. Ron Wright, a low-key conservative who died after battles with covid-19 and cancer, had won Texas's 6th Congressional District twice. But the 12-week runoff between Wright and state Rep. Jake Ellzey, both Republicans, ended up as the latest quasi-referendum on the former president — and some Republicans weren't sure why Trump wanted it.

“She’s run a terrible campaign,” said former Rep. Joe Barton, who'd backed Ron Wright as his successor but endorsed Ellzey in the today's runoff. On Trump's endorsement: “If he had to do it over again, I don’t think he would. I think he was given bad information.”

The race in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area transformed several times, from an open seat contest that Democrats thought they could compete for to a low-stakes grudge match between warring Republican strategists. The 6th district, which stretches from the city of Arlington and smaller towns like Ennis and Waxahatchie, backed Trump by just 3 points in 2020, as President Biden outran the traditional Democratic margins in Texas's suburbs. When the race began, no other open House seat looked as potentially competitive, so long as a strong Democrat escaped from the all-party May 1 primary.

Instead, Democrats spent little, turned out few voters, and set up an all-Republican race between Wright and Ellzey, who'd previously sought the seat in 2018. Instead of a red-on-blue suburban battle, voters got a choice between two conservatives who agreed on every substantive policy. Wright, who'd also been outspent in the primary, had surged with voters who made up their minds after the Trump endorsement.

“The initial plan was to go in, monitor it, and if it got at all close, spend super PAC money to get Wright across the finish line,” said David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth, which spent more than $1.1 million to boost Trump's candidate. “We initially thought the nomination would be settled by the primary. It's significant that the Democratic base didn't turn out.”

The Democrats' flop created a race largely shaped by the Club for Growth, a onetime source of opposition to Trump which has become MAGA air calvary in some races. Its strategy battered Ellzey for missing some floor votes in Austin and not pledging to vote against any tax increase, as Wright had. Direct mail and TV ads reminded voters that Trump backed Wright, but there was not much else to the campaign. 

Wright declined to debate Ellzey, appeared with him at two forums, and held few public events. Ellzey, pulled back to Austin for the GOP-led special session, returned to the district when he could for rallies with Republicans who, more in sorrow than anger, said that Trump had gotten the race wrong. Trump, they believed, had been talked into supporting Wright's widow because he'd endorsed Rep. Julia Letlow (R-La.) after her husband died of covid-19 complications, and took away the message that widows were difficult to beat. That wasn't what Wright's critics saw in Texas.

“Donald Trump couldn't pick Susan Wright out of a lineup,” former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who served as Secretary of Energy under Trump, said this week. “He has no idea who she is, has no idea what she believes.”

Trump's endorsements have remade primary after Republican primary, with the winners, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, crediting the ex-president with their success. The Texas race was a test of just how little a Trump-backed candidate could do while still coming out ahead. Ellzey raised $1.7 million, while Wright raised nearly $1 million less. Ellzey courted conservative media, while Wright did few interviews. That earned her some criticism on local talk radio and on the conservative outlets that, for some Republican voters, have replaced the mainstream media.

“You’re outraising her by a lot of money,” Newsmax host and former Trump White House press secretary Sean Spicer told Ellzey on Friday, noting that Wright had turned down Newsmax’s interview requests. “You wanted to debate, and she wouldn’t do it.” It was free advertising for Ellzey, who asked whether a candidate who wouldn't sit across the stage from him was ready to be a fighter in Congress.

“When you’re in the well of the House, you’re gonna be facing off against a socialist bartender from New York,” he told Spicer. 

Both candidates said that questions remained on the 2020 election, now a litmus test for Republican candidates facing primary voters. But their styles did not overlap. Wright, in interviews with The Post and others, had not been very interested in making negative attacks, emphasizing how her life behind the scenes in Republican politics. Ellzey was, emphasizing his years as a Navy fighter pilot, accusing the Biden-era military of being “more worried about being woke than being effective,” and pledging to stop the “humanitarian crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the race's final stretch, the Trump-centric nature of Wright's campaign presented an opportunity for Ellzey. Jana Lynne Sanchez, the Democrat who’d placed third in the all-party primary, said that “most” of her friends, if they were voting at all, were casting anti-Wright protest votes.

“Democrats have two choices: Stay home or vote against Trump,” Sanchez explained.

While no Democrats actually endorsed Ellzey, the Republican's campaign sent texts to likely Democratic voters, framing the race as a choice between a candidate “endorsed by Donald Trump” and one who is “pro-public education” — a popular wedge issue in Texas. 

“Jake is committed to being a champion for our Public Education System and wants to ensure ALL our voices are heard,” read one text sent to a Democratic voter. 

Ellzey's campaign confirmed on Tuesday that the message was real and from them. At the same time, Wright's campaign shared a text message which no campaign took credit for: a “Democrat Voter Guide” that portrayed Wright a “conservative” and Ellzey as a “moderate” who Democrats could support.

“LIBERALS, today is our final chance to defeat Trump-endorsed conservative Susan Wright,” read the text message, which insisted that Ellzey was “open to amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. Ellzey's campaign denied sending that text. Mysterious messages to voters weren't new to either candidate. In the run-up to the primary, Wright had benefited from the backlash to a vicious and slanderous robocall that no campaign took credit for.

Internal polling released by Wright’s campaign last week put her ahead of Ellzey, though the state legislator had gained ground since its first polling in June. Turnout, already low in the primary, threatened to get even lower. Fewer than 9,000 Texans showed up during the early-vote period, with the parts of the district outside of suburban Tarrant County making up a larger share of the vote than they had in May.

Turnout like that could be a problem for Wright, as could any serious protest vote by Democrats. (Democratic voters made up around 20 percent of the early vote.) In the race's final hours, Trump's Make America Great Again Action PAC made a $100,000 ad reservation, an action it didn't take in the Louisiana race or even in a June special election in New Mexico that some Republicans hoped to make competitive. 

Trump, who had joined Wright for a brief tele-rally right before the primary, spent less than 15 minutes over three months to make the case for his candidate. If Wright prevails, the ex-president can take a victory lap for boosting a candidate who got out-campaigned. If Ellzey prevails, a pro-Trump Republican will be heading to Congress anyway.

“It can get a little hot,” McIntosh said, “but whoever wins, Republicans will be united behind the nominee.”

Reading list

Day 1 of the insurrection hearings.

The last stretch of a quiet Texas campaign.

The president returns to the trail.

Finding the right candidate to avoid a primary pileup.

The Eric Greitens saga in Missouri.

“The hunt,” by Andrew Seidman

How a defeated congressional candidate turned denial into a campaign strategy.

Special elections

“I'm obsessed with Cleveland,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told a room full of Democrats on Saturday. “I'm obsessed!”

Ocasio-Cortez had come to the city to support Nina Turner, who's finishing her race in Ohio's 11th Congressional District with get-out-the-vote events headlined by allies from her time on two of Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) two presidential campaigns. 

The New York congresswoman, who said she'd been inspired to run while watching Turner campaign for Sanders in 2016, stumped with her for most of Saturday. Former NAACP president Ben Jealous had dropped in one day earlier. Cornel West, the academic and racial justice activist who became one of Sanders's most dedicated campaigners, will join Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) at Turner's July 31 rally, the final push for her campaign. (Sanders is also an announced guest at the rally, though the Senate floor schedule might complicate any trip.)

None of this has complicated Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chair Shontel Brown's strategy: Unifying the likeliest Democratic voters by reminding them of Turner's criticism of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. After West's appearance was announced, Brown highlighted an advertisement (surfaced by The Trailer on Twitter) for an August 2020 conference by the People's Party, a left-wing group working to create a like-minded third party.

This is why I’m running, to strengthen the Democratic Party and put forth policies that will help improve the quality of life of the people in our district,” Brown tweeted. “Not tear it apart.

Brown also picked up an endorsement from former governor Ted Strickland, who called her “dedicated to doing the hard work” and a “person who gets things done. And Brown will rally with House Majority Whip James Clyburn this weekend. 

“I personally got involved [w]hen I was invited by the Turner campaign,” with the third-ranking House Democrat told The State newspaper. “[They] talked about my stupidity for endorsing Joe Biden, and I just kind of decided if I’m going to be stupid, might as well be stupid.”

Both campaigns agree that the race has gotten closer in the last few weeks, and more bitter, with Turner's campaign going after Brown as a self-dealing politician who voted to raise her own pay, and the Democratic Majority for Israel's PAC resurrecting Turner's 2020 criticism of Biden to suggest that she won't vote reliably with Democrats.

Turner's campaign turned some of that to her advantage this week, announcing that Walter Stewart, a councilman in Warrensville Heights, had switched to supporting her over his frustrations with the negative ads.

“You know something is wrong with all of these mailers saying that Nina Turner is not for an increased minimum wage or health care,” Stewart said in a video announcing the switch. “Nina Turner is the only one focused on the issues.”

Ocasio-Cortez's visit was focused on them, too, though she also praised the Cleveland Indians' decision to change their name to the Guardians. “Send me Nina,” she said at one rally, saying that Turner could be trusted to fight for higher wages and more worker protections. Like Turner's other allies, she warned canvassers not to take the race for granted.

“Field is where we win this race,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “It's at the doors that we win this race. It's not on the airwaves. It's not in the headlines.”

Ad watch

Jon Bramnick, “Unbelievable.” The leader of New Jersey's minority in the state Assembly is running to replace Tom Kean Jr. (R) in the state senate. (Kean is running again next year for a House seat he nearly won in 2020.) The north Jersey district has trended left, backing Kean by a career-low 10 points in his final race, and Bramnick's spot completely ignores ideology to promise that he and the Assembly candidates he's running with are Old West gunslingers of constituent service. “No one's faster at returning your calls,” a narrator promises, and a self-identified Democrat praises Bramnick's helpfulness.

Thomas Hwang, “Mike Carey and Larry Householder.” The Republican primary in Ohio's 15th Congressional District has been dominated by the spending of two candidates: Trump-endorsed attorney Mike Carey and state Rep. Jeff LaRe. Hwang, a businessman with no political experience, has largely self-funded his campaign with a $575,000 loan, and focused his TV ad on the alleged bribery scheme that led to the expulsion of former state House Speaker Larry Householder. A trio of friends discuss the Householder scandal, grouse over how the best-known candidates are politicians who can be linked to it, and then welcome Hwang to the table.

Glenn Youngkin, “Focused.” The “puppy ad” was not new in 2020, but Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) made it famous again, and Youngkin, Virginia's Republican gubernatorial nominee, has rebooted it. Where Warnock used a cast of dogs, Youngkin, warning that Democrats will begin attacking him unfairly, showcases his family's pets by name: Bo, Tobi, Cici, and Belle. “Terry McAuliffe's going to try to scare you with lies about me, because he doesn't want to talk about his own extreme views,” Youngkin said. (McAuliffe's first negative ad, which ran last week, largely repeated his remarks from a summer primary debate, saying that he could work with reasonable Republicans, but that Youngkin wasn't one of them.)

Saving Arizona, “GOP Senate Alert.” Peter Thiel has invested millions of dollars in PACs that will aid like-minded, economic nationalist candidates, like Ohio's J.D. Vance. Blake Masters, who turned his notes on Thiel's lectures into a job as COO for Thiel's venture capital fund, is a political newcomer. Saving Arizona's social media ads present the Senate race as the chance to flip the Senate. “Defeating liberal puppet Mark Kelly and flipping Arizona’s MUST-WIN Senate seat is the key to taking back the 50-50 Senate majority from Kamala’s control,” one reads. Most don't mention Masters, and while the links go to a donation page for the PAC that pictures him in a photo illustration with Trump, they don't use his name.

Poll watch

Would you vote to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom? (Berkeley IGS, 5,794 registered voters)

Registered voters
Yes: 36% 
No: 51% (+2 from April)

Most likely voters
Yes: 47%
No: 50%

Republican candidates have struggled to get their messages out before the Sept. 14 California recall, but they agree with Democrats on their clearest path to victory: A lower-turnout election where highly motivated opponents of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) make up a bigger share of the vote. This pollster’s first crack at that ballot test finds the recall effort actually losing ground among all voters since April, when it became clear that it would qualify — but it finds the recall within the margin of error among voters most insistent on voting.

That section of the electorate simply skews more Republican. Nine in 10 of them say they’re highly motivated to vote, compared to three out of five Democrats and around half of independents. The difference is most visible in Orange County, an old Republican bastion that’s grown more liberal in high-turnout races. Among all voters, “yes” on the recall has a 3-point advantage. Among the most passionate voters, it leads by 22 points. In San Diego County, the overall electorate opposes the recall by 7 points, but the highly motivated electorate backs it by 11 points. That electorate is also much whiter. One in five Black, Asian and Latino voters say they’re undecided on the recall, compared to just 7 percent of White voters.

Newsom’s Democrats, wary of repeating the party’s mistakes 18 years ago, did not field a credible candidate on the second part of the ballot. (Strategists who survived that election blamed Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante for driving up recall turnout without ever threatening the eventual GOP win.) The Republican-leaning electorate is fairly divided, with 18 percent of voters backing Larry Elder, a conservative commentator who spent the first days of his campaign fighting in court for ballot access, successfully. Ten percent of voters back former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, and 10 percent back 2018 GOP gubernatorial nominee John Cox. No other Republican cracks double digits, and the largest shares of both GOP and no-party-preference voters back Elder, who was fairly well known even before the ballot fight. Republicans will meet virtually on Aug. 7, shortly before mail ballots go out, to debate endorsing one of the ballot's 24 GOP candidates.

On the trail

Ohio. J.D. Vance knew exactly who would attack his speech to the Future of America's Political Economy conference. “Many of the most unhappy and most miserable and most angry people in our media are childless adults,” said Vance, who announced his U.S. Senate bid in Ohio this month. American parents should “get a bigger say in how our democracy functions,” than childless adults, he said, which could happen if parents got an extra vote for each child they had. 

“I'm sure the Atlantic and The Washington Post and all the usual suspects will criticize me about this in the coming days,” he told the Virginia crowd on Friday.

Vance did get some negative press, but not the kind that usually hurts Republicans, and not about the extra vote idea. The “Hillbilly Elegy author noted that four Democrats who prediction market bettors see as likely to win the party's presidential nomination — Vice President Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — didn't have biological children. “Compare the fact that they don't have families against a middle-class Ohio family,” Vance said. Days later, Buttigieg's husband Chasten attacked Vance for lacking “empathy” and being “tactless.” Vance had exempted people medically unable to have children from his critique; the Buttigieg family is in the process of trying to adopt a child.

The two-day conference, organized by the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute, was co-sponsored by the pro-Trump think tank American Compass. Natalism, a term for policies designed to increase birthrates and make it easier to affordably start families, was a driving theme throughout the weekend, with Vance as the best-known politician running on it. He praised Hungary's president Viktor Orban, a self-described “illiberal” politician who has restricted immigration and asylum while offering loans and cash to native Hungarians who have more children.

“They offer loans to new married couples that are forgiven at some point later if those couples eventually stay together and have children,” Vance said. “Why can't we do that here? Why can't we actually promote family formation here in our country? Why can't we give resources to parents who tell us the only reason they're not having kids is because they can't afford it? This is a civilizational crisis. And if we're not willing to spend resources to solve it, we're not serious about the very real problems that we face. So we should do it.”

In the states

For the first time in 20 years, the National Rifle Association doesn't have a candidate in the race for governor of Virginia. Not officially. The NRA endorsed the Republican nominees for attorney general and lieutenant governor, but gave no rating to gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin, who did not fill out a candidate questionnaire. 

Youngkin, who had not sought office before this year, has declined to fill out issue group questionnaires, a time-consuming process that puts candidates on record about issues that may not come up organically in the race. The NRA doesn't publish its lists of questions, but candidates who've shared them have shown the questions changing from state to state and year to year, reflecting specific policy differences and asking a few elemental questions. Youngkin tells audiences that he's a member of the NRA, supports the Second Amendment, and opposes new restrictions on gun ownership.

“I understand what it means to protect our right to keep and bear arms,” Youngkin told Republican primary voters in April. “As governor, I will defend that right with every legal capacity that I have.”

Nonetheless, Youngkin's the first Republican nominee for governor of Virginia not to run with the NRA's official endorsement since 2001. At that time, the group's neutrality was seen as a coup for Democrat Mark Warner, who narrowly won the election. Twenty years later, the Virginia-based NRA has been consumed with lawsuits, and the popularity of a maximalist Second Amendment position has waned as the D.C. and Richmond suburbs have grown and moved left. In exit polling of the 2017 election, Virginia voters were slightly more likely to have a gun in the house than not. Those who did voted Republican by 24 points; those who didn't voted Democratic by 47 points.

Unlike the rest of the GOP statewide ticket, Youngkin does not detail his policies or agenda on his campaign website. McAuliffe's campaign, which has been accusing the Republican of saying one thing to primary voters and another to the general electorate, pounced on the NRA move.

“Glenn can’t hide his dangerous, out-of-touch views from Virginians,” said McAuliffe spokesman Renzo Olivari, “whether he’s bragging about his lifelong support for the NRA or opposing gun safety measures like background checks.”

Countdown

… seven days until primaries in Ohio’s 11th and 15th Congressional Districts 
… 11 days until California Republicans vote on whether to endorse a recall candidate
… 49 days until California's recall election
… 98 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District