Although several Republican candidates are running openly in the MAGA lane, Trump and his legacy have only dominated the race in recent weeks. There has been a behind-the-scenes row over his endorsement by allies of some of the top GOP candidates, and on Monday he made his allegiance known and endorsed Wright, a clear power game that comes with some risk.
Saturday’s vote will almost certainly not be the last word on the race – in the Texas special election, the top two-winners, regardless of party, advance to a run-off if no candidate wins a majority. Prior to receiving Trump’s endorsement, Wright had high notoriety but less campaign money than his GOP opponents.
The Club for Growth lured Trump off the sideline after spending some $ 150,000 on ads portraying Wright’s main opponent, State Representative Jake Ellzey, as an “anti-Trump” Republican, citing a donation from Bill Kristol, the Conservative commentator and critic of Trump.
“He wants to be with the winners, but he also wants to show that he’s still the leader of the party,” said David McIntosh, club president and former Indiana congressman who encouraged Trump to support Wright. “That was our goal – to make it a race where Trump’s approval really mattered.”
Neither Ellzey nor Wright have talked a lot about the former president on the trail or made it a central theme of their campaign. Trump too bypassed the approval of another top candidate, Brian Harrison, a former health official in his administration who has consistently linked with the former president.
The Club for Growth said it invited tens of thousands of Republican district voters to the virtual event Thursday, including “low propensity Trump voters.”
Although Trump’s mayoral appearance was brief, he touched on a number of topics, blaming Biden for everything from high gasoline prices to the border crisis. He also predicted that Republicans would take the House back and celebrate his victory there in 2020.
“I appreciate the great victory we had in Texas,” he said.
Yet Trump’s entry onto the special election scene adds an extra wrinkle. Even before his approval, there was some uncertainty over the usefulness of his presence in a district that has a good number of Biden Republicans. Trump only won it by 3 points in 2020, even as the late Ron Wright won it by 9 points.
“The reality with Trump is that Trump had tons of supporters. But he’s also got a lot of people who weren’t as strong supporters of both parties, “Wright-backed Tarrant County GOP chairman Rick Barnes said in an interview last week. “A lot of people have moved on, beyond all of that, realizing that this future may or may not include Trump. And so we can’t just continue to sit there and let that be the main conversation. “
Most polls from both parties show a four-way race to qualify for the still scheduled second round with three Republicans – Wright, Ellzey and Harrison – and Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez, who ran for the seat in 2018, the while racing.
The wider field of Republicans includes a few interesting characters, including Dan Rodimer, a former professional wrestler who ran for Congress last year in Nevada; Sery Kim, former Trump administration official whose nativist rhetoric denigrating Chinese immigrants has lost its main support; and Michael Wood, who presents himself as an explicit anti-Trump Republican with the support of Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). But none have gained much strength.
While Wright enjoys a high-profile ID in the district, Harrison, a former chief of staff in the Department of Health and Human Services, raised the most money and is the only one to broadcast television commercials. Ellzey, meanwhile, has a solid base in Ellis County, which includes a wide range of GOP voters, but he has faced a barrage of negative publicity against him. (He also has outside groups supporting him.)
Ellzey largely avoided mentioning Trump on the runway, instead touting a forward-looking message. He spent the last day of the campaign on Friday touring the district with former Governor Rick Perry, who also served in Trump’s cabinet.
“I think he’s done 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 approval, but added, “I’m running my own campaign, right? I’m not responsible for anyone’s words, actions or actions.”
In much of the first campaign, Wright also trampled on Trump, highlighting his support for his politics and his long career in local Republican politics. Prior to passing away from 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 has said he speaks with Trump about downward runs from time to time, encouraged him to support Wright and made him aware of their attacks to label Ellzey as anti-Trump. It was Trump, he said, who suggested the tele-town hall.
That district, which includes Fort Worth-centered Tarrant County and its southwestern suburbs, is one of nine Republicans-held seats in Texas where Trump won less than 51 percent of the vote. Because Ron Wright easily transported the district, even as support for Trump cratered, this run might say more about whether overbeaded voters were just taking revenge on Trump or the Republican Party more broadly.
Running Democrats are hoping for the latter and eager to make a play for the mainstream Republicans who struck their ballots for Biden in 2020 – but first, one of them has to move forward on Saturday.
“Nothing could bode worse for the Democratic Party than having a winnable quarter like this with two Republicans in the second round,” Sanchez said in an interview, warning of a shattered Democratic electorate. “It would be very embarrassing and very disheartening.”
In fact, deprived of their villainous leader, who has staked fundraising and most importantly participation, Democrats are considering the possibility of a shutout due to Texas first two rule to make the second round.
Their struggles in the district stand in stark contrast to the successful special elections of the past four years, when their party’s candidates were backed by small donors keen to send a message to Trump. With Democrats now in charge of Congress and the White House, party candidates must work harder to illustrate what is at stake in electing a Republican to Congress.
“People are always trying to win using Trump’s playbook,” Bean said. “And we can’t rest until we really show them that it doesn’t pay off, that they’re going to lose.”
National Republicans are hungry for a Democratic shutout – although they admit it’s, ironically, less likely now that Trump has weighed in. Either way, the GOP will be favored in a runoff against a Democrat.
And Wright’s supporters say she would enter the second round from a strong position. She didn’t come across as a staunch supporter of MAGA, but she now has Trump’s backing.
“We are looking for candidates who are the combination of two things,” McIntosh said of the club. “They really have a base and an understanding of the limited principles of government, and can appeal to those Trump primary voters so that they can unite all the different elements of the Republican Party.”