Critics say the former president should have stayed out of the race, though most concede he still heavily influences GOP politics.
When he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month in Dallas, former President Donald Trump bragged about his lofty win total in the GOP congressional races in which he’s endorsed a candidate.
“Every day, more people are realizing that we were right on all of the key issues, and that this is one reason why our endorsement has become…the most powerful weapon in politics,” Trump said. “One-hundred and 20 of the 122 candidates we endorsed in Congressional primary elections won.”
On Tuesday Jake Ellzey stunned Trump-backed candidate Susan Wright in the special election to replace the late Ron Wright in Congress, and in the process proved that the normally indomitable Trump can be beaten in Republican primaries.
Ellzey’s victory in the 6th Congressional District, though considered improbable by many political analysts, reflected the political risk, perhaps folly, of Trump getting involved in a tiny Texas special election that has little bearing on the political dynamic in the Lone Star State or North Texas.
Critics of Trump’s decision to back Wright, the widow of Ron Wright and the front-runner in the contest, argue that the former president was given bad information about the contest from political operatives, including officials at the anti-tax group called the Club for Growth. In retrospect, Ellzey had more candidate credentials as a sitting state representative who in 2018 built name recognition in a close primary contest against Ron Wright.
But ultimately the blame for the loss falls on Wright, who squandered her front-runner status and support from Trump, while Ellzey, a former Navy pilot and combat veteran, proved to be battle-tested and resilient.
Ellzey won votes across the board, beating Wright, who lives in Arlington, in Tarrant and Ellis counties. Wright won the Navarro County battle, perhaps on the strength of Trump’s endorsement. Ellzey won by about 2,500 votes. Close to 40,000 people voted in the runoff, less than half of the almost 80,000 people who cast ballots in the primary in May.
On Wednesday, Trump told Axios that he didn’t consider Ellzey’s win a signal that his endorsement power had diminished. He also conceded he was pressured to back Wright by David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth.
“I think this is the only race we’ve lost together,” Trump said of his relationship with the Club for Growth, before catching himself using the word “lost.”
He continued: “I don’t want to claim it is a loss, this was a win. …The big thing is, we had two very good people running that were both Republicans. That was the win.”
Even before Tuesday’s election, Trump told listeners of his tele-rally for Wright that he should be given credit for two Republicans being in the runoff for the 6th District.
Trump’s team probably knew the race was slipping away.
Days before the election, he dumped last-minute automatic calls into the district and held a tele-rally. And last weekend, Trump’s Make America Great Again Action PAC secured a $100,000 television ad buy designed to turn out his supporters for Wright.
Did Trump make a mistake by endorsing in the 6th District?
Axios reported that members of Trump’s team are miffed at the Club for Growth over the endorsement of Wright.
And local Republicans who support the former president contend he made a mistake by pushing his weight around in a North Texas contest. They say Trump didn’t know the politics of the district and was misled into thinking that Ellzey wasn’t a formidable contender.
“The voters knew that Jake is not anti-Trump,” said Joe Barton, who held the 6th District seat for over three decades before Ron Wright and endorsed Ellzey in part because of the attack ads and mailers from the Club for Growth that savaged Ellzey as a “never-Trumper.” “He [Trump] should not have gotten involved in this race. It was a mistake.”
But Susan Wright’s chief campaign consultant, Matthew Langston, doesn’t believe Trump’s star is fading.
“People have really been pushing me to say that Trump’s brand is so weak and it’s because he wasn’t out there doing anything but giving the endorsement,” Langston said. “Trump’s brand is incredibly powerful and that wasn’t where the structural problems were. Trying to convince voters to switch their votes after they have historically voted for Jake Ellzey is tough.”
Conservative radio talk show host Mark Davis, who chastised the Club for Growth and the attack ads against Ellzey, agreed that Trump wasn’t faltering with Republicans. But he conceded Trump didn’t do his homework.
“Donald Trump had zero awareness of this race,” Davis said after Ellzey’s victory. “Somebody just got to him and said ‘Susan’s going to win,’ and so he attached himself to her.”
Davis pushed back against the narrative that Trump’s endorsement is worth less today than before Ellzey’s victory.
“The Trump base in District 6 paid little attention to the fact that Susan got his endorsement,” Davis said. “They know that Trump had no familiarity with her and no familiarity with this race. The selection of the most Trump like candidates is the evidence of Trump’s continuing appeal in every Republican district.”
The 6th District is not the only race that’s drawn Trump’s attention. On Monday he endorsed embattled Texas attorney general and incumbent Ken Paxton in the 2022 GOP primary over Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman.
Along with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Barton, Davis blames the Club for Growth, not Trump, for some problems Wright may have encountered. He said their aggressive negative campaign against Ellzey backfired.
“This is a great credit to Jake, but it may also be a rebuke of one of the most deceptive and disgusting ad campaigns I’ve ever seen,” Davis said.
Officials at the Club for Growth did not comment on the race or the criticism against them.
Wright fumbled race away
Wright and her team, however, take most of the blame for her loss.
She finished ahead of Ellzey in the first round of the 23-person race that included Republicans and Democrats.
She was backed by not only Trump, but the Texas Republican Party, Sen. Ted Cruz and numerous local officials.
“Susan Wright had everything going for her, public empathy for the loss of her husband, the Trump endorsement and a slew of early endorsements,” Davis said. “It was her race to lose. The problems were that while everybody loves Susan, she did not make a compelling case for why she needed to be elected.”
The runoff, unlike the open primary that preceded it, didn’t captivate many voters. Wright never met Ellzey for a legitimate debate. Ellzey raised $1 million more in campaign cash than Wright. He beat her in nearly every area in Ellis and Tarrant counties. Wright won in state House District 96, where she worked as a district director for former Rep. Bill Zedler.
After his victory, Ellzey said it was his positive campaign that made the difference.
“I’m a Reagan Republican. I believe in a brighter future for our country,” he said. “I don’t like the divisiveness in our country and after a year and a half of COVID lockdowns, social strife, economic downturn, and people are ready for a brightness in this country.”
Ellzey could have benefited from Democratic votes.
Though it’s not known how many Democrats cast ballots Tuesday, his campaign aides estimate that at least 15,000 Democrats voted early.
Ellzey won precincts in Tarrant County controlled by Democrats.
But Matt Angle, a Democratic Party strategist and founder of the research group called the Lone Star Project, said theories that Democrats gave Ellzey the victory are overblown.
“Not many people from any party came out to vote,” Angle said. “Ellzey ran a full campaign in every part of the district and it showed.”
Craig Murphy, Ellzey’s campaign consultant, acknowledged that they sent out mailers to Democratic Party voters, but said it was part of a broad-based campaign.
“We won with Republicans and Democrats,” Ellzey said.
Langston said it’s too early for a complete autopsy of the campaign, but he doesn’t blame Wright.
Ron Wright, who was reelected to Congress in November, died in February after battling COVID-19 and cancer.
“She lost her husband. She then moved immediately into a campaign,” Langston said. “She has nothing to be ashamed of, or nothing to be sorry over for as it related to how the race ended up from her standpoint.”