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Texas voters brush aside Trump endorsement and name Jake Ellzey the winner in a House special election in Texas

Texas state Rep. Jake Ellzey, a retired Navy fighter pilot, is making his second run for a U.S. House seat. (Jake Ellzey for Congress)

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Texas Rep. Jake Ellzey (R) was a former Air Force fighter pilot. He is a retired Navy fighter pilot. This article has been corrected.

Voters in North Texas rebuked former president Donald Trump on Tuesday, electing state Rep. Jake Ellzey to a vacant seat in Congress after Trump endorsed a rival Republican candidate.

Ellzey, a Navy veteran who ran on border security and stopping the Democrats’ congressional agenda, defeated Susan Wright, the widow of Rep. Ron Wright, whose death this year after contracting the coronavirus created a vacancy in Texas’s 6th Congressional District. Although Ellzey did not criticize Trump during the campaign, his allies suggested that the former president made a mistake by endorsing a first-time candidate who struggled to raise money and held few campaign events.

Ellzey declared victory two hours after the polls closed, shortly before the Associated Press projected him as the winner. He told supporters that voters had wanted “a positive outlook, a Reagan Republican outlook for the future of our country” despite a blizzard of negative ads.

Trump had sought to give Wright an election-eve boost during a telerally.

“I know her well,” the former president said of Wright. “She will be as tough as anyone in Congress.”

Trump told supporters that Wright would fully oppose President Biden’s agenda and blamed his successor for higher gas prices and increased border apprehensions. He did not mention Ellzey, who was making his second run for the seat — he lost to Ron Wright in 2018 — and had raised nearly three times as much money as Susan Wright.

Wright closed her campaign by reminding voters that she was Trump’s choice. “I look forward to working on your ‘America First’ agenda in Congress,” Wright told Trump on Monday’s call.

Wright finished first in the May 1 all-party primary, with 19 percent of the vote to Ellzey’s nearly 14 percent. Yet early voting for the runoff found soft turnout in the most suburban part of the district, which stretches from the Dallas and Fort Worth metroplex into smaller towns in more conservative areas, which helped Ellzey.

Both the Club for Growth and a Trump-linked PAC had been airing ads on Wright’s behalf. Wright had been less visible than her outside allies, making few public appearances during the 12-week runoff.

“She’s run a terrible campaign,” said former congressman Joe L. Barton, who represented the seat before Ron Wright and endorsed Ellzey in the runoff. “Jake Ellzey is a good person. He voted for Trump. There is no reason for a conservative group to go after him like this. He’s the real deal.”

Follow live results tonight in the Texas 6th House district special election

A first-time candidate who had worked with her late husband behind the scenes, Wright declined to debate Ellzey and was absent from the sort of conservative media outlets that Trump-aligned candidates use to reach national audiences.

Requests for comment from Wright and her campaign were not answered.

“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.”

Ellzey confirmed that, adding that Wright had appeared with him at forums where questions were provided in advance, questioning whether his opponent was ready for the pressures of Congress.

Wright and Ellzey had no significant policy differences, which helped turn Trump’s endorsement into the race’s defining issue. The Club for Growth, which had spent heavily against Ellzey during his 2018 run, blitzed voters with TV and mail advertisements, while Ellzey was often in Austin for special sessions, scheduling campaign events around them.

“Having the opportunity for the voters to see what my conservative values are on issues is more of an advantage than a disadvantage,” he said in a statement to The Washington Post.

Pro-Wright materials touted her pledge never to raise taxes; anti-Ellzey material attacked him for missing some votes in Austin, for backing a change to the state’s car tax and for having donors — like the Club itself — who had attacked Trump in 2016. Ellzey’s campaign focused more on his military biography, largely ignoring Wright, and emphasized Ellzey’s support of Trump.

“The good people in this district [are] worried about a border that is a humanitarian and national security disaster, a military that is a national security disaster, more worried about being ‘woke’ than being effective, and a budget that’s not balanced,” Ellzey told Newsmax on Friday.

Internal polling released by Wright’s campaign last week put her ahead of Ellzey, though the first-time candidate had lost ground since its first polling in June. Democrats were locked out of the runoff, and neither Republican had campaigned for their votes.

Both Ellzey and Wright said there were legitimate questions about the 2020 election, and both suggested they would vote consistently with Republican leadership. But Trump’s endorsement had an effect. Jana Lynne Sanchez, the Democrat who placed third in the 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 said.

Turnout in the early-voting period was light, with fewer than 8,500 ballots cast, and just 1 in 5 coming from Democrats. Voting was also lighter in Tarrant County, the district’s biggest population center, where municipal elections had helped primary turnout.

While Wright largely disappeared during the runoff, Ellzey held rallies where his supporters vented their irritation at the PAC ads. After stumping for Ellzey, former governor Rick Perry told the Dallas Morning News that the former president “had been fed a bill of goods” about the race, and said he had told Trump so.

“I think he recognizes it to some degree,” Perry added.