The Fight for the GOP’s Post-Trump Future Starts This Weekend in Texas

A special election to fill the seat of a GOP congressman who died of COVID-19 is the first preview of the 2022 midterms.
April 30, 2021, 1:02pm
People wait in line to vote at Tarrant County Elections Center on the last day of early voting on October 29, 2020 in Fort Worth, Texas.
People wait in line to vote at Tarrant County Elections Center on the last day of early voting on October 29, 2020 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo: Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)

It’s the first major election since the insurrection, since the inauguration, and since the beginning of mass vaccinations for COVID-19. It’s also the first chance for the GOP to write a new narrative of post-Trump politics now that he’s off Twitter and ensconced at Mar-a-Lago.

Voters will head to the polls on Saturday in a district centered around suburban Fort Worth, the type of sprawling, prosperous area that once was the backbone of the Republican coalition but is growing more diverse and more Democratic. The open congressional seat was created by the death of two-term incumbent Ron Wright from COVID-19 in February. The very last vote Wright cast as a member of Congress before his diagnosis was against the impeachment of Donald Trump for inciting the attack on the Capitol on January 6. 

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Now, a 23-candidate field is competing in the first round of the wide-open special election to succeed Wright. There is no party primary. Instead, the top two candidates regardless of partisan affiliation will move on to a runoff.

For the Republican candidates, the struggle is how closely to tie themselves to Trump and what exact role the former president should play in the party moving forward. The field features both extremes on the topic, ranging from Michael Wood, a Marine veteran who is running explicitly as a Never Trump candidate, and Dan Rodimer, a failed pro wrestler who has drawn a brushback from Trump’s orbit for trying to tie himself too closely to the former president.

Wood has gotten national media attention for his unique stance as an ardent conservative who’s also opposed to Trump. He has been supported by some of Trump’s most vocal critics in the Republican caucus, including an endorsement from Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. In an interview, he described the race as “the first battle for the soul of the GOP.” 

“If people like me don’t stand up and start speaking plainly about what happened on January 6 and what Donald Trump did to our party, we’ll be a minority party for a generation,” he said.

Wood is pitching his appeal to what he pegs as the roughly 25 percent of Republican voters who are ready to move on from Trump, as well as Democrats and independents who might have supported center-right candidates before 2016.

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His opposite is Rodimer, a former WWE wrestler who lost a congressional bid in Nevada in November 2020. Rodimer flew to Texas on the day of the filing deadline, implying to voters that he had the support of Trump and Ted Cruz, neither of whom has actually backed him. The newly minted Texan has since scrambled to raise money with internet videos that have included a stunt double riding a bull, a staged helicopter hunt for hogs, and the slogan that he would “Make America Texas Again.” Neither candidate has registered as a significant player in polls.

The top three Republicans running are in the middle ground of supporting Trump without tattooing red hats on their foreheads. Front-runner Susan Wright is the widow of the deceased incumbent and running a cautious campaign befitting her status. A longtime GOP activist, Wright has been officially endorsed by the state Republican Party and has a base in Arlington, the most populous but most Democratic-leaning part of the district. Wright has simply relied on her husband’s legacy in television advertising and campaigned like a front-runner, targeting national Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden as much as boosting her own record. 

Wright was boosted by a late endorsement from Trump on Monday, just before the early-voting period ended the next day. It’s expected that a majority of voters cast their ballot early and it’s hard to gauge the impact of such a late endorsement with so many votes being cast. However, it’s likely to boost her campaign and hurt those Republicans who’ve tried to tie themselves to the former president.

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Her top opponent, Jake Ellzey, finished second to Wright in the 2018 Republican primary for the then-open seat. Ellzey represents the rural part of the district, giving him a strong base in its most Republican precincts. He has run a more traditional campaign, trying to appeal to voters as a traditional conservative Republican, touting issues like “election integrity” and a “strong border” without engaging in personalities. 

In third, just a length behind Wright and Ellzey, is Brian Harrison, a former official in Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services.  

All are engaged in a delicate dance of appealing to the base without descending too far into the fever swamps. They’ve all echoed some of Trump’s concerns about the legitimacy of the 2020 election without fully embracing his false claims of voter fraud. Only Harrison has slathered Trump all over his mail pieces. However, Harrison served in the Bush administration, including as a special assistant to Dick Cheney, and it’s been suggested by other former Trump administration officials that this is only protective coloration to hide his establishment roots. 

In an interview with VICE News, Ellzey dodged the question of whether he would have voted to challenge the election results on January 6. “The fact is I’m running for Congress now,” he said, and didn’t directly answer whether the election was “free and fair.” “There are people who are suspect about how this election was handled. I can’t speak any more to that than what people are telling me, so there are a lot of folks who are just really upset with how this was conducted,” he said.

While Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who served as Trump’s energy secretary, has endorsed Ellzey, he is being targeted as insufficiently conservative by some. Ted Cruz has specifically urged Texans not to vote for Ellzey, who was a vocal supporter of Cruz’s 2012 primary opponent David Dewhurst. The Club for Growth, the national right-wing economic group, has run ads trying to tie Ellzey to Bill Kristol, the conservative pundit who has become a vocal Trump opponent.

Kristol, who is not supporting Ellzey, was bemused by the ad. He told VICE News, “I can’t believe many voters in TX-6 are carefully following my preferences, but those who are could be a bit confused! I do hope voters who want to move beyond and away from Trump vote for Wood.”

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The obvious reason for all this careful choreography of just how tightly to embrace Trump is the potential for a competitive general election. The most likely scenario for a runoff is for the top Republican candidate to face off against Democrat Jana Sanchez for the seat. However, there is the risk that two Republicans, likely Wright and Ellzey, could advance due to low Democratic turnout and a splintered field. That would be an embarrassing result and hint at serious enthusiasm issues for Democrats in the midterms. 

Sanchez, who ran for the seat in 2018, has tied herself unapologetically to Biden’s agenda and argues that the district “absolutely is a swing district.” In her view, “when Democrats vote, this is a Democrat district.”

Trump won by only three points in November, and that was before both the insurrection and the disastrous winter ice storm that left millions without power for days. Sanchez noted how much had changed since her first bid for office not just in terms of the demographics of the district, which has become majority minority over the past decade, but also her ability as a candidate. “In 2018,” said Sanchez, “it took me eight months to raise $100,000, and that was pretty hard. This time I raised it over a weekend before I announced.”

Republicans insist the district isn’t that competitive and that Democrats are chasing fool’s gold. Although Trump won it only narrowly, Ron Wright won it by nine points, and Republicans are convinced it will return to something closer to that margin. They believe that even if Democrats spend heavily in the runoff, a seat that’s been Republican since the early 1980s is still far beyond Sanchez’s grasp.

But the special election is much more than winning or losing a seat: It could well establish the political narrative that carries into the 2022 midterms.

Matt Gorman, the former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said political parties need strong special-election performances to go to donors and to members as proof of concept for success in the midterms. “It can very much be an expectations game: Win if you lose and lose if you win,” Gorman said.

Follow Ben Jacobs on Twitter.