The special election runoff for Texas’ vacant 6th Congressional District had barely been called when everyone from journalists, to consultants, to random people on Twitter were already rolling out their take on what the results could portend. State Rep. Jake Ellzey (R-Waxahachie) defeated fellow Republican and Trump-endorsed candidate Susan Wright, 53% to 47%.
The initial takeaway from many in the media is that this was a huge defeat for the former president. However, while the defeat of Wright, widow of the former congressman, may indicate that perhaps Trump’s backing is not the be all end all it is often made out to be, making the CD-06 race a litmus test for Trump’s influence on the Republican electorate is a bit simplistic.
We should be very careful about drawing conclusions from a midsummer special election runoff in which only 39,000 people voted.
For starters, Ellzey, while not endorsed by Trump, didn’t openly campaign as the anti-Trump candidate. After his victory, Ellzey told radio talk show host Mark Davis that the narrative of his win being a blow to Trump was “nonsense”.
Trump has not always been successful with his endorsements in GOP primaries, even when he was president. Even in the height of his influence in 2017, Trump was not able to get his endorsed candidate in the Alabama Senate race, Luther Strange, across the finish line in his runoff against Roy Moore.
Then there is the question of how much of a role (if any) did Democrats play in the runoff. Since this was a special election candidates from both parties ran. However, Democrat candidates failed to get enough votes to advance to the runoff, leaving two Republicans as the choices.
There were texts that went out, possibly targetted to Democrat voters, urging them to vote for “pro-public education” Ellzey against the “Trump-endorsed” Wright. While it seems some of these texts did in fact come from the Ellzey campaign reaching out to Democrats, it’s also plausible that some texts like this were sent to Republicans by the Wright campaign to let them know Ellzey was courting Democrat voters. In the campaign fog of war, it’s often very difficult to ascertain the exact truth of these things.
To the extent that Democrats did participate in the runoff, Ellzey almost certainly received the vast majority of their votes. He has a relatively moderate voting record in the state legislature, while Wright is much more of a movement/ tea party conservative. However, percentage of votes cast in a GOP primary by Democrats is actually very low, usually well below 5%. Even if Democrat turnout in the runoff was much higher than that, say 10% (which I doubt), it still wouldn’t fully explain Ellzey’s win.
Until we have the data on how many runoff voters were also Democrat primary voters, we should be careful drawing conclusions about how much of a role Democrats played in Ellzey’s victory.
One conclusion that can be drawn with some confidence is that you cannot rely on Trump’s endorsement to put you over the top. The Trump endorsement was by far the dominant theme in Wright’s campaign messaging. However, she was not able to just ride Trump’s coattails. A candidate has to have their own message and identity.
Ellzey leaned heavily into his career in the military and experience in the state legislature. He had the backing of former governor Rick Perry and Congressman Dan Crenshaw (R-TX). Despite a somewhat lackluster conservative voting record, he campaigned as a positive conservative voice as was careful to not directly attack the former president. Apparently his message won out.
Finally, Republican candidates who are not endorsed by Trump can breath a sight of relief. Ellzey has just demonstrated that it is possible to win against a Trump-backed opponent. Perhaps Republicans who have been to terrified to cross the former President, fearful of angering him and his voters, will not heed him quite as much as before.
Is this election a sign that Trump is losing his grip on the Republican Party? It is too soon to say. What can be said is that it is possible to win without him.
Perhaps the best way to read the tea leaves from the CD-06 special is what it portends for the 2022 midterms. Democrats failed to even get a candidate into the runoff, which is not a good sign in this suburban, lean-Republican district; exactly the kind of district in which they will need to be competitive in order to keep their House majority.