Special election to replace US Rep. Ron Wright remains highly competitive in final hours, as Donald Trump looms large
Donald Trump. (Screenshot)

When the lineup was set March 3 for Saturday's special election to replace the late U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, R-Arlington, there was some hope the 23-candidate field would eventually give way to a much more manageable race.

While that has happened to an extent — some of the major-party candidates have separated themselves from the pack — the race remains highly competitive in its final hours, and two major questions loom that have both Democrats and Republicans on edge.

Will former President Donald Trump's late endorsement of Wright's widow, Susan Wright, be enough to secure her a decisive berth in an anticipated runoff? And will Democrats, who believe they have a shot at flipping the district, be able to get one of their candidates in that overtime round?

"I am afraid of a lockout," said U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus PAC that has endorsed one of the top Democratic candidates, Jana Lynne Sanchez. "There's nothing much we can do about it except make sure we run the best race possible."

Gallego said he was nonetheless confident that Sanchez, the 2018 nominee for the seat, would be the Democrat who makes the runoff, citing her experience of putting the district in play previously and her focus on health care.

On the Republican side, there are similarly high expectations for Susan Wright, who entered the contest looking formidable but has been unable to emerge as a clear frontrunner as other Republicans' bids have distinguished themselves. Rick Barnes, the Tarrant County GOP chairman who endorsed Susan Wright early on, said he has "always been very comfortable" with her chances throughout the race and remains so, but he acknowledged she has had to navigate a thicket of competition.

"I don't think any race is easy anymore," Barnes said. "That's just where we are in politics today. This race just grew so big. When we say it's a jungle race, it is literally a jungle race."

The race got a late jolt Friday afternoon when Susan Wright's campaign said it had reached out to law enforcement after hearing of a "criminal smear" robocall alleging that she had killed her husband. Ron Wright died in February after being hospitalized with COVID-19 and living for years with cancer. Susan Wright denounced the robocall as "illegal, immoral, and wrong."

Up until Friday afternoon, the homestretch of the race was highlighted by Trump coming to Susan Wright's rescue. He endorsed her Monday, surprising some Republicans involved in the race who thought he would stay out, at least until the runoff. And he pitched her during a tele-town hall Thursday night, invoking her late husband's legacy multiple times.

"Susan and Ron Wright have been so incredible," Trump said. "They had this incredible relationship, and unfortunately Ron passed away, and he is looking down and he is so proud of Susan because this is exactly what he would've wanted her to do."

The tele-town hall was hosted by the Club for Growth, the national anti-tax group, and Trump did little to lower expectations ahead of Saturday, saying he and the group have "never had a loss together."

Polling of the race has consistently shown Wright and Sanchez leading, though the surveys have come with all kinds of caveats. Polls have included only partial candidate lists, produced significant shares of undecided voters and shown many candidates bunched within the margin of error.

His 6th Congressional District is anchored in Tarrant County, home to Fort Worth, but also sprawls to the southeast and includes more rural Ellis and Navarro counties. It was once a Republican stronghold but has been trending blue in statewide results, going from a district that Mitt Romney won by 17 points in 2012 to one that Trump carried by 12 points in 2016 — and just 3 in 2020.

Still, Ron Wright won his races by healthy margins, including by 9 points last year, when he was a national Democratic target.

Republicans

Susan Wright has easily amassed the most institutional and elected official support among the Republican candidates. In addition to Trump, she has the endorsement of her fellow members of the State Republican Executive Committee — a rare move by the body in an intraparty contest — as well as eight members of Congress, including six from Texas.

Her path to the likely runoff, though, has been made complicated by at least two GOP rivals. One of them is Brian Harrison, an Ellis County native who was chief of staff at the Department of Health and Human Services under Trump. He has run a campaign laser-focused on his accomplishments in the Trump administration, and his self-funding capacity — he has loaned himself nearly $300,000 — has helped him run the most robust TV ad campaign of any candidate.

Perhaps Wright's biggest GOP threat, though, has been state Rep. Jake Ellzey of Waxahachie. Despite just getting elected to the Texas House in November, Ellzey jumped in the race shortly after Wright did and went on to raise more money — and build up more cash on hand — than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican, on the pre-election campaign finance report. He also brought the experience of previously running for the congressional seat in 2018, when he went to a primary runoff against Ron Wright and lost by a small margin.

The Club for Growth, the national conservative group, has for weeks been spearheading a stop-Ellzey campaign, spending over a quarter-million dollars pummeling him over, among other things, a donation he took in his 2018 race from Bill Kristol, the prominent GOP critic of Trump. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz came out against Ellzey last week, saying his candidacy "should concern Texans looking for a conservative leader." And Susan Wright's campaign eventually joined in, sending out mailers alleging he is soft on illegal immigration.

Ellzey and his endorsers, most notably former U.S. Energy Secretary and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, have pushed back on the attacks and reminded voters that the Club for Growth spent millions of dollars opposing Trump in the 2016 primary. Perry is set to campaign with Ellzey on Friday in three cities across the district.

"I'm fed up with these coastal-elite groups like the Club for Growth coming to Texas and tearing down a real American hero," Perry said in a video that Ellzey tweeted Thursday. "Let me tell you something: No one — and I mean no one — can accuse me of being a Never Trumper. I served in President Trump's Cabinet, and I fully support Jake Ellzey for Congress."

However, perhaps aware of the potential for backlash in attacking a late congressman's widow, Ellzey has not gone negative on Susan Wright, and third-party groups supporting him have done exclusively pro-Ellzey advertising.

Trump's endorsement

Trump's endorsement of Susan Wright came on the second-to-last day of early voting, after a significant share of the anticipated total vote was already cast. It left her and her allies with precious few days to capitalize on it, especially as some other Republican candidates have closely aligned themselves with Trump. Her campaign quickly printed stickers saying "ENDORSED BY TRUMP" to slap on her signs, and the Club for Growth, which endorsed her Wednesday, launched an 11th-hour radio ad highlighting the endorsement. The spot says the contest "may be a key test of Trump's continuing power in the party."

While late in the game, the endorsement was nonetheless a blow to at least two other Republicans running who have tightly hugged Trump in their campaigns. One of them is Dan Rodimer, the former pro wrestler who has been relying heavily on the fact that Trump endorsed him when he ran for Congress last year in Nevada. Rodimer has touted that he is the "only candidate [in the special election] to have ever received a Trump endorsement" — including in an unfortunately timed mailer that hit households the same day Trump backed Susan Wright.

Another candidate who has appealed relentlessly to Trump supporters is Harrison. He has the support of some former Trump Cabinet officials, boasts that he was "recruited by" the Trump administration to "to help deliver the America First Agenda" and regularly advertises with a photo of him standing alongside Trump in the Oval Office.

"I had no expectations of an endorsement" from the former president, Harrison said in an interview Wednesday. "My campaign is and has always been focused on my conservative accomplishments."

"I believe still I'm going to be the next congressman from Texas because voters are enthusiastically responding to my message," Harrison added, describing his mood as "incredibly optimistic and hopeful" ahead of Saturday.

The GOP field features another former Trump administration official in Sery Kim, who worked in the Small Business Administration — and made waves in the race after declaring at a late March forum that she did not want Chinese immigrants to come to the United States. The episode caused her to lose two prominent supporters: U.S. Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel, both of California and the first Korean American GOP women to serve in Congress. Kim insisted she was referring to the Chinese Communist Party and subsequently sued The Texas Tribune over its coverage of the fallout.

Democrats

On the Democratic side, Sanchez is competing for a potential spot in the anticipated runoff with at least two other serious candidates: Lydia Bean, a 2020 nominee for a battleground state House district in the region, and Shawn Lassiter, an education nonprofit leader from Fort Worth. Bean has distinguished herself as the only candidate with the support of organized labor, including the Texas AFL-CIO. Lassiter, meanwhile, stood out as the top Democratic fundraiser on the pre-election finance report, which also showed she had a cash-on-hand edge over her intraparty competitors.

All the Democratic candidates see the district as primed to flip — if only one of them can make it to a runoff. Despite their optimism, national Democrats have kept the race at a distance, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — which dramatically overpromised and underdelivered last election cycle in Texas — has remained virtually silent on it.

There are nonetheless a handful of national Democratic groups involved in the race, but they are split between Sanchez and Lassiter. In addition to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' political arm, Sanchez has the support of the Latino Victory Fund and Nuestro PAC, a super PAC started last year by former Bernie Sanders aides to turn out Latino voters. Lassiter has been endorsed by the Collective PAC, which works to elect Black candidates, and 314 Action, which boosts candidates with backgrounds in science, technology engineering and mathematics.

What little outside spending has been done on the Democratic side has mostly benefited Sanchez. Nuestro PAC was the first in, launching digital ads touting her as a "Texas tough" leader who help the state recover from the pandemic and February winter weather emergency. Then came a similarly themed TV ad campaign from Operation 147, a new super PAC focused on flipping the seats of the 147 House Republicans who voted in January to object to the 2020 election results. (Ron Wright was among them.)

Those groups believe they will get more allies if Sanchez advances to the anticipated runoff.

"I think because there's so many candidates — people of color, women, all different categories of Democrats — I think they're all waiting for the runoff and then I think you'll see a lot of groups join Nuestro PAC in trying to flip this seat," said Chuck Rocha, the PAC's founder and president.

The Democratic field has not seen as much negativity as the GOP side, but there has been tension. Bean has singled out Sanchez in a digital ad that says "even some Democrats are criticizing President Biden's infrastructure plan." The ad flashes a soundbite from a late March forum, prior to the release of the Biden plan, where Sanchez said the rumored $3 trillion price tag "sounds really massive" and expressed concern with how it would be spent. The digital ad prompted a fundraising email from Sanchez's campaign that warned one of her opponents had launched an attack that "puts the chance of any Democrat making it to a runoff in jeopardy."

Lassiter, in an interview, said it is "always a possibility" that Democrats miss out on the runoff given the massive field but that she felt her campaign was best positioned to advance. She said she believes her advantage over the other Democrats is her "point of view around equity and fighting for people in the margins and fighting for communities that have been typically left out and forgotten about."

An anti-Trump Republican

While the story of Trump's continued influence in the GOP can be told by the Republican candidates who have embraced him, it could also be told by the one who has shunned him: Michael Wood. The Marine Corps combat veteran and Arlington small business owner has run an openly anti-Trump campaign, hoping to show the party can be more than a "cult of personality."

The platform has earned Wood national attention and the support of some of the most prominent Trump critics inside the GOP, such as U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. But Wood also has been booed at at least one GOP forum and said he has "had people curse at me and tell me to get off their property" when the conversation turns to Trump during block walking. They "act as if I'm insulting their religion," Wood said.

He has been struck by the number of voters who still believe the Trump-fueled falsehood that the 2020 election was "stolen." One of them, Wood recalled, was an otherwise cordial man who predicted that in a few months, there would be a military coup and the new transitional government would order new elections to make up for 2020. "I hope that happens," Wood said the man told him.

"I just told him I'm against military coups," Wood said. "It was just a haunting moment."

Wood said he takes heart in the number of Republicans who come up to him after events and confide to him, "sometimes in hushed tones, that they're so grateful that someone is saying what they're thinking." But he acknowledges Trump remains a powerful force in his party — if a fickle one, as shown by the battle for his support in the special election.

"You could put 'America First' all over your signs and you can say MAGA at the top of your lungs all day every day," Wood said, "and it's probably not gonna mean anything."