6 Thoughts After the Texas 6 Special Election Runoff

by Jacob Rubashkin July 29, 2021 · 10:00 AM EDT

Voters in Texas’ 6th District headed to the polls on Tuesday to pick a replacement for GOP Rep. Ron Wright, who died earlier this year after being diagnosed with Covid-19. Both candidates in the race — Ron Wright’s widow Susan Wright and state Rep. Jake Ellzey — were Republicans. They advanced to a runoff after finishing first and second in an all-party primary election in May. 

In an upset, Ellzey defeated Wright by six points, 53-47 percent. That was despite Wright having led in the first round, being endorsed by former President Donald Trump, and benefitting from heavy spending on her behalf by the Club for Growth.

Here are six things I think after seeing the results of the fourth House special election of 2021.

Candidates matter. A common refrain among Democrats and Republicans in and around this race was that Wright was a weak candidate who never really threw herself into the contest. Former Rep. Joe Barton, who held the seat before Ron Wright and who endorsed Ellzey, told the Washington Post shortly before Election Day that Susan Wright had “run a terrible campaign.” By contrast, Ellzey, a former fighter pilot and first-term state legislator, raised nearly three times as much money as Wright during the runoff and used his hometown advantage in Ellis County to help increase his margin. Ellzey did what he needed to do to win; Wright did not.

The corollary is that Trump’s endorsement is not a silver bullet. The former president endorsed Wright and she still lost. Ellzey winning is not a good look for Trump, and he knows it, which is why he tried to shift the blame onto the Club for Growth, and even tried to argue that he still technically came out ahead because Wright made the runoff in the first place.

This election was not a clean test of Trump’s endorsement in a GOP primary, because it wasn’t actually a primary, and was open to Democrats and independents as well as Republicans. But it appears the vast majority of voters were Republicans, and they didn’t just do as Trump said they should.

Voters aren’t as engaged. Just 39,116 people turned out for the runoff, less than half the turnout of the first round (78,471). Some dropoff was to be expected, since Democrats didn’t have a candidate of their own to turn out for, but total turnout was even lower than the number of GOP votes in the first round (48,613). In the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, high levels of participation in special elections signalled how engaged voters were, and how displeased they were with the Trump administration. While this seat was guaranteed to stay in GOP hands, the relative lack of interest could suggest that neither Trump’s endorsement nor Joe Biden’s actions as president are motivating people to vote.

It’s no fun to lose. But it’s even less fun to be locked out of competition entirely. And that’s the position Democrats were in on Tuesday. The party’s inability to coalesce around a single nominee in the all-party primary in May led to the all-GOP affair between Wright and Ellzey. With Democrats clinging to such a narrow majority in the House — and about to embark on an ambitious legislative agenda — every vote counts, and it remains embarrassing Democrats couldn’t even seriously compete in a district that Biden only lost by 3 points last year.

The pressure is on for Mike Carey. Carey, a longtime coal lobbyist, is running for the GOP nomination in Ohio’s 15th District, where there’s a vacancy following Rep. Steve Stivers’ resignation. Like Wright, Carey has been endorsed by Trump, but he’s running in a crowded field that also includes several sitting lawmakers and one wealthy self-funding candidate. Unlike in Texas, this is a traditional Republican primary, so it will provide the best window yet into how much Trump’s endorsement matters. Some Republicans are already murmuring about Wright’s loss and what it says about Trump’s standing in the party. A loss by Carey would only fuel that chatter.

The House is still in play. Nothing about these results changes the big picture of the 2022 midterm elections. Both the House and the Senate are still in play.