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Congressman’s widow wins one of two runoff slots after free-for-all House race in Texas

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) campaigns with congressional candidate Michael Wood on Tuesday in Arlington, Tex. Both are critics of former president Donald Trump.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) campaigns with congressional candidate Michael Wood on Tuesday in Arlington, Tex. Both are critics of former president Donald Trump. (LM Otero/AP)
correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rep. Ron Wright died on Feb. 8. He died on Feb. 7. This article has been updated.

The widow of a congressman who died in February secured the top runoff spot in a special election Saturday for Texas’s 6th Congressional District, as a second Republican vied with a Democrat for the final slot.

Susan Wright, who is seeking the seat held since 2019 by her late husband Ron Wright, led state Rep. Jake Ellzey (R) as votes were tabulated in the 23-way contest — a free-for-all rocked by the last-minute intervention of former president Donald Trump and a gruesome false robocall condemned by multiple campaigns.

Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez was close behind Ellzey in third place, trying to ensure that her party was not locked out of the only House special election this year in a district where the 2020 presidential election results were close.

Republicans, Democrats and minor-party candidates appeared on the same ballot for a seat that backed Trump by just single digits in 2020. The former president stayed out of the race until the final week, backing Wright and participating in a Thursday night call on her behalf organized by the Club for Growth.

“You will be very happy with this vote,” Trump said, adding that Wright’s husband “is looking down, and he is so proud of Susan.”

Results of Saturday’s special election in Texas’s 6th Congressional District

Trump’s intervention boosted Wright above several Republicans claiming the MAGA mantle,
several of whom had outspent her.

Brian Harrison, the former chief of staff at Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services, ran on a return to Trump’s policies with the slogan “Always America First.” Dan Rodimer, a former wrestler who lost a 2020 House bid in Nevada, touted his Trump endorsement from that race, campaigning outside early vote centers alongside a cardboard cutout of Trump.

Wright and Ellzey, who had challenged Ron Wright in 2018, had no substantive policy differences when compared with the other GOP candidates. All of them opposed the stimulus package passed by the Democratic congressional majority, and all blamed President Biden’s changes to immigration policy for the surge of migrants and asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border. On the trail, Wright argued that she had the best understanding of the job and could continue her late husband’s work.

“Anytime I can put people together with solutions, it makes me happy,” Wright said in an interview at her home, which became her campaign headquarters. “I’ve spent most of my adult life doing that. It’s how Ron and I met.”

The special election is the second this year to feature a widow seeking to take the House seat previously won by her husband. Republican Julia Letlow easily avoided a runoff as she won an election in March to replace her husband, Luke, who had died of covid-19 complications before taking office. She took office several weeks ago.

Wright faced more of a slog, with internal polling during the primary finding her in a battle for a runoff seat with Ellzey, Harrison and Sanchez.

“It’s a referendum on the leadership of Joe Biden and the folks in charge of the Senate and the House right now,” Ellzey said in an interview.

No poll had found any candidate close to the 50 percent vote share needed to win outright. The race’s competitiveness became clearer when the Club for Growth, which had backed Wright’s husband over Ellzey in 2018, bought ads accusing Ellzey of being supported by Trump-hating Republicans.

“The Trump endorsement should give Susan a late surge, but she has gone big-time negative on Jake,” said former congressman Joe Barton, who represented the district for decades before retiring in 2018. “Many, many Republican primary voters don’t like that.”

The race got nastier Friday, when Wright’s campaign flagged the FBI about a robocall, with no identification, that told voters she had killed her husband to get his life insurance payout. Ellzey and other rivals immediately condemned the call, which also recited Wright’s home address.

The president’s endorsement shook up the race, even though the party lost ground in the district when he led the ticket. In 2012, Mitt Romney won by 17 points in the district, which stretches from the city of Arlington in Tarrant County to the rural outskirts of Ellis and Navarro counties. Last year, Trump carried the district by just three points, with the Biden-Harris ticket winning the Tarrant County portion by 11 points.

Those numbers had made Democrats cautiously optimistic about the special election. Sanchez, who outperformed every previous Democrat in the race when she ran three years ago, leaped into the contest early, just as the state was reeling from massive power failures after a winter storm.

“The Democratic Party was completely rejuvenated here after the election of Trump,” Sanchez said in an interview, after meeting with volunteers at the Democrats’ Ellis County headquarters. “I’ve focused on these people in the middle who don’t really have a party allegiance and just want things to work again.”

Sanchez got help from the
Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s Bold PAC, the pro-Latino Nuestro PAC and Operation 147, a group created to punish the Republican members of Congress who voted against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election after Trump supporters forced their way past police to storm the
Capitol on Jan. 6. But local Democratic officials stayed out of the race, and Democrats Lydia Bean and Shawn Lassiter raised as much or more as Sanchez, arguing that they could have broader appeal in a runoff.

The risk was a lockout that could end Democrats’ chances of expanding their House majority before midterms in 2022. Early voting, which largely took place before Trump’s endorsement, found Republicans turning out at higher rates than Democrats, and Black voters turning out at higher rates than Latinos, which helped Lassiter, the only Black candidate, and hurt Sanchez.

Michael Wood, a Marine Corps veteran and first-time candidate running as a Republican critic of Trump and his attempt to stay in office, was also competing for moderate votes. He focused on stumping in the Tarrant County part of the district — “my New Hampshire,” he called it — and held events in the final week with Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a fellow Trump critic who has started a PAC to elect like-minded Republicans.

Wood’s vote share could offer a snapshot of Republican sentiments about Trump, with no other GOP candidate agreeing with Wood that the 2020 election was conducted fairly and accurately. Other GOP contenders, like former White House staffer Sery Kim and Army veteran Michael Egan, have lagged in internal polling, but they have built up their images in a region that’s likely to get a new House seat from this year’s Republican-run redistricting.

The date of the runoff between the top two vote-getters will be set in coming days. Four other House seats are vacant or soon to be vacant: three previously held by Democrats and one by a Republican. The Texas district is the only one where the margin between Trump and Biden was in single digits.

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