Trump backed his opponent. Jake Ellzey is still putting up a fight in an all-GOP Texas runoff

Race against Susan Wright will determine successor to her late husband

Texas state Rep. Jake Ellzey is seen Saturday with his son, Jack, at a coffee shop in Midlothian that also serves as his campaign headquarters. Ellzey is running against fellow Republican Susan Wright in the July 27 special election runoff for the 6th District. (Stephanie Akin/CQ Roll Call)
Texas state Rep. Jake Ellzey is seen Saturday with his son, Jack, at a coffee shop in Midlothian that also serves as his campaign headquarters. Ellzey is running against fellow Republican Susan Wright in the July 27 special election runoff for the 6th District. (Stephanie Akin/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 21, 2021 at 5:30am

ARLINGTON, Texas — Edie Moore likes former President Donald Trump. She “loves what he did for our country.” And she thinks he is a fighter — a trait she likes in a politician.

But she still won’t vote for Susan Wright, the candidate Trump endorsed in the upcoming special election runoff in her congressional district. 

“My opinion, or observation,” Moore said, choosing her words carefully, “is that he is not good at, not necessarily, always good at identifying the people that he would normally endorse.”

Moore made up her mind to support state Rep. Jake Ellzey after seeing him speak Saturday at a Baptist church near a suburban business district here.

She didn’t care that Wright, a longtime GOP activist, has Trump’s support in the July 27 runoff for the 6th District seat in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth. Or that Wright is the widow of the district’s former congressman, Ron Wright, who won reelection last fall and then died from COVID-19 complications in February.

Both factors were widely thought to have made Susan Wright a shoo-in for the seat after the May 1 all-party special election resulted in an all-GOP runoff

Yet Ellzey’s fundraising and spending is far outpacing Wright’s. He raised $1.7 million through July 7, $1 million more than Wright, according to the latest disclosures with the Federal Election Commission. Outside groups, especially the anti-tax Club for Growth, have helped her make up the gap, spending almost $850,000 attacking Ellzey or touting Wright, while groups backing Ellzey have spent less than $200,000.

Several Republican strategists familiar with the region said the race has become surprisingly close. Regardless of the outcome, Ellzey’s ability to make it a close fight could challenge the view going into the 2022 midterms that the GOP continues to move in lockstep with Trump. 

Charismatic campaigner

Ellzey, 51, has run a tireless campaign in his second bid for the seat after losing to Ron Wright in a 2018 GOP primary. A charismatic retired fighter pilot, he never leaves a room full of people without more votes than he had when he went in, one Republican strategist said.

To be clear, Ellzey is no anti-Trump Republican. In an interview, he would not give a direct answer to several questions about who won the 2020 presidential election. “I think there were irregularities,” he said, putting him in line with dozens of other GOP officials who have refused to counter Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen. 

Nor is he a moderate. On Saturday, wearing a crisp blue blazer and a plate-sized belt buckle, he spoke for over an hour, hitting the high points of his own résumé as a decorated Navy pilot along with a series of talking points that placed him squarely on the right flank of his party. They included voicing alarm at the influx of migrants at the southern border, taking jabs at President Joe Biden and progressive New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and denouncing mask requirements and other measures taken to contain the pandemic. 

Moore said Ellzey came off as someone who was “nice” but also strong enough to hold his ground against Democrats in Congress. 

“Strength is important to me,” she said.  

Others in the audience were similarly convinced. While they stressed their allegiance to Trump, they were also willing to allow that, on this point at least, Trump was mistaken. 

One man, who said he was an 85-year-old military veteran from Fort Worth but asked that his name not appear in print, revealed he would vote for Ellzey over Wright because he “has a problem with women” in leadership positions. 

Joyce Singleton, 75, a retired local travel agent, said she thought Trump had only endorsed Wright because she is the widow of the former congressman. 

“Jake Ellzey is so much more knowledgeable about everything,” she said. 

Harlon Bounds, the regional representative for the Association of Mature American Citizens, said he “wasn’t happy” that Trump had backed Wright. Unlike her late husband, who responded to texts and calls and came to their events, Susan Wright had ignored invitations during the campaign, Bounds said. “I knew Ron Wright,” he said. “Susan Wright is not Ron.” 

Wright, 58, would only answer written questions from CQ Roll Call submitted to her campaign. 

“I’m deeply honored to have President Trump’s endorsement, because he knows we must send a true Trump ally and a conservative fighter to Congress,” she wrote in an email.

The Trump bump

Wright was considered a front-runner in the 23-candidate special election field from the time she announced her candidacy, and she had early support from dozens of House Republicans. 

But her campaign started showing signs of concern about Ellzey’s momentum in the final weeks before the May election, attacking him as weak on immigration and claiming in mailers that he had “opposed” a Trump military spending bill, a reference to a $1.3 trillion spending package that Trump reluctantly signed in 2018. 

Ellzey also had to fend off attacks from the Club for Growth, which started airing ads this spring questioning his loyalty to Trump. 

Ellzey responded by rushing to confirm his support for the former president and touting his endorsement from former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who served as Energy secretary under Trump. 

Trump, who carried the 6th District by 3 points in November, weighed in for Wright on April 26, a week after early voting started and a day before it ended. Wright finished first in the May election, with 19 percent of the vote, far short of the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff.

Ellzey took 14 percent, narrowly edging out 2018 Democratic nominee Jana Lynne Sanchez and dashing Democratic hopes for a special election pickup this cycle.

Wright has continued to rack up endorsements, with 40 House Republicans contributing more than $63,000 to her campaign through July 7, according to FEC records. 

But not every GOP stalwart fell in line behind Trump.

Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Navy veteran who represents a Houston-area district and whose national profile made him one of the top fundraisers in the House last cycle, recorded a Facebook video in late June saying he couldn’t sit by as Wright and the Club for Growth subjected Ellzey to a series of “false attacks.” Ellzey uses the backing on the campaign trail, handing out  flyers emblazoned “DAN CRENSHAW SAYS: STOP.” 

Attacks sticking with some

Ellzey also faces criticism that he is running for Congress just months into his first term in the state House. 

He brushed off such attacks as driven by Wright’s campaign, saying he had a near-perfect voting record in the state House, in spite of simultaneously running his congressional campaign.

But the charges have stuck with some voters in a neighborhood of single-level brick homes in Waxahachie, a rural town that has seen an influx of new residents. 

“He’s not showing up for stuff,” said Kim Hauffe, who opened her door to a volunteer from Ellzey’s campaign. Hauffe was not impressed when she heard that Ellzey had meant to knock on her door himself that day but got sidetracked by a blown tire on his pickup truck. She said she didn’t care about Trump’s endorsement.

“People here voted for him,” she said, referring to Ellzey’s 2020 state House race. “I’m not pleased that he would so quickly jump ship and seek something else.”