State Rep. Jake Ellzey pulled off an upset in Tuesday’s all-GOP special election runoff for Texas’ 6th Congressional District by defeating his Trump-endorsed opponent, party activist Susan Wright, by a 53-47 margin. Ellzey will succeed Wright’s husband, the late Ron Wright, who defeated him in the 2018 primary runoff for this constituency, which includes Arlington and rural areas south of Dallas.
Trump’s backing gave Susan Wright, who was also supported by Sen. Ted Cruz, plenty of reasons to be confident heading into Tuesday, though his endorsement may have left her complacent. Wright held few events during the campaign, and she even turned down the chance to talk to the fanatically pro-Trump site Newsmax.
Ellzey, meanwhile, campaigned hard and also massively outraised the frontrunner. All of this led former Rep. Joe Barton, a 17-term congressman who was Ron Wright’s mentor, to muse about Trump, “If he had to do it over again, I don't think he would" have endorsed her because Susan Wright has "run a terrible campaign."
Wright did receive plenty of air support from the radical anti-tax Club for Growth, which said on Tuesday morning that it had spent a total of $1.2 million during the runoff, though it wasn’t enough. While Trump did send out robocalls promoting Wright, though, he barely did anything else to help her: Indeed, The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel wrote that Trump “spent less than 15 minutes over three months to make the case for his candidate.”
Trump’s endorsement, however, may have boosted Ellzey with Democratic voters who didn’t have a candidate of their own following the results of the May 1 all-party primary, though as we’ll discuss, it’s far from clear this was the decisive factor. Both Wright and Ellzey were ardent conservatives who agreed on every major issue, but some Democrats made the case that, by voting for the state representative, they could stick it to Trump. Stephen Daniel, who was Team Blue’s 2020 nominee, made this argument in early May on Twitter when he reluctantly endorsed Ellzey, adding, "Also, @SenTedCruz is against Ellzey. Good enough for me."
Ellzey’s team was more than willing to appeal to liberals in order to win. They acknowledged Tuesday that they’d sent out texts to Democrats describing the race as between someone who was “endorsed by Donald Trump” and Ellzey, whom they said “is committed to being a champion for our Public Education System and wants to ensure ALL our voices are heard.”
Ellzey himself never portrayed himself as anything other than a loyal conservative, though, as he made clear with his election night proclamation that “once we take back the House and Senate in '22 and take back the White House in 2024, we take back our country.”
Trump’s camp was eager to blame Team Blue for the defeat of his endorsed candidate, saying, “The Democrats went out to vote and they all voted for Ellzey.” However, FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich argues that there is “no evidence” that local Democrats actually backed him “in significant numbers.”
Rakich analyzed the precinct results in Tarrant and Ellis counties, which together cast 92% of the vote for the runoff. (The balance is in Navarro County, which is the most conservative of the three and the only one that supported Wright.) Notably, he found that there was “no relationship” between how Democratic a precinct was in the May all-party primary and how well Ellzey performed there.
After noting that turnout disproportionately dropped in those Democratic areas, Rakich added that, while there were “a handful of precincts” where the two Republican candidates received more votes on Tuesday than all the GOP contenders got during the first round, “those precincts weren't disproportionately Democratic.”
The University of Virginia’s Miles Coleman, though, did find evidence that it was Democratic voters who helped Ellzey turn his 2018 primary defeat against Ron Wright into his 2021 victory over Susan Wright. Coleman writes that in Tarrant County, which is the largest and most Democratic portion of the 6th District, the precincts Ellzey flipped this time “supported President Biden by a 56%-42% spread in last year’s general election.” The areas that supported both Wrights also went for Biden, but by a much smaller 52-47 margin.
Like Rakich, however, Coleman also points out how low Democratic turnout was in this all-GOP race, which likely limited the impact Team Blue’s voters had.