What the loss by Trump’s favorite in an all-GOP Texas runoff means

5 takeaways from Jake Ellzey’s special election upset win

Texas Rep.-elect Jake Ellzey received a congratulatory call from Donald Trump after his win in the 6th District special election.  (Stephanie Akin/CQ Roll Call)
Texas Rep.-elect Jake Ellzey received a congratulatory call from Donald Trump after his win in the 6th District special election. (Stephanie Akin/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 29, 2021 at 5:00am

Just hours after he beat the candidate backed by Donald Trump in a House special election, Texas Republican Jake Ellzey got a congratulatory call — from the former president. 

The call Wednesday morning was “extremely cordial,” said Craig Murphy, Ellzey’s consultant, who said he was not at liberty to share details. 

“There was just humor and just really good feeling,” Murphy said. “It wasn’t like a pro forma call he just made because he had to. It was a very warm call.”

That call, from a figure known to hold grudges, is a telling indication of how Trump — and therefore how the majority of the Republican establishment — is approaching Ellzey’s win Tuesday over Susan Wright in the all-GOP runoff in Texas’ 6th District. Wright is the widow of Ron Wright, the most recent occupant of the suburban Dallas-Fort Worth seat, who died in February of complications from COVID-19. 

Ellzey’s win, by 6 points, was a rare victory for a Republican candidate over a Trump-backed opponent in a race that was expected to hold a clue about how much sway Trump still holds over the GOP electorate. But Republican strategists familiar with the district warned against drawing too many conclusions about the former president’s effect on future contests because of some unique aspects of the race.

Here are five takeaways: 

Winner pro-Trump too

Ellzey, a decorated Navy fighter pilot and state lawmaker, took pains throughout his campaign to stress his loyalty to Trump.

His central campaign messages — alarm at the influx of migrants at the southern border and disdain for what he described as the socialist influence on the Democratic Party — hewed closely with the GOP’s main talking points leading up to the 2022 midterms. 

Candidates matter 

Ellzey outraised Wright by more than $1 million and ran a tireless campaign, flying back and forth from the state capital in Austin to appear at district events and meet with voters face-to-face. 

An internal poll by his campaign early in the race showed that he was behind, but support grew when voters saw both candidates’ résumés and heard the details of Ellzey’s biography. 

“That was what we did in the campaign, was go back to his biography over and over again,” Murphy said. 

Ellzey’s campaign distributed pictures of him, in and out of uniform, with his smiling children and made every effort to make sure voters knew about his 20-year Navy career, during which he “was deployed nine times, including to Afghanistan and Iraq. He served five combat tours by air and one by ground with Seal Team 5,” reads his biography on his campaign website. 

“Everyone has said it’s very difficult to run against a Trump endorsement, and his record of wins is huge. But it’s also really hard to run against a candidate like Jake Ellzey, who has that background and that air of confidence and competence and star quality,” Murphy said. 

Ellzey had sought the seat before, losing the 2018 GOP primary to Ron Wright. Susan Wright was considered an early favorite, and she had the support of dozens of House Republicans. Polls released by her campaign showed her with a strong lead. And Ellzey, who launched his campaign just months after winning a seat in the Texas state House, ran the risk of looking too ambitious.

“It was hers to lose at the beginning,” said Brian Mayes, a Republican consultant who briefly worked for Ellzey’s 2018 campaign before leaving to work for Ron Wright. “[Ellzey’s] campaign team just overwhelmed Susan. His strategy was spot on.”

Wright, meanwhile, was largely absent from the campaign trail, giving the impression that she was relying on her endorsement from Trump and her name recognition to win. Not only did she avoid the general media (including CQ Roll Call), she also declined requests from local Republican groups and conservative outlets such as Newsmax. 

“The management and style of the two campaigns couldn’t have been more different, with Wright’s falling short,” said Nick Maddux, vice president of Axiom Strategies, a GOP consulting firm. “His campaign flat-out had more energy and hustle. If it hadn’t been for President Trump’s support and other outside groups propping up Wright’s lackluster campaign, she would have lost by an even greater margin.”

Attacks can backfire  

Wright’s campaign was largely backed by more than $1 million in spending from the Club for Growth. 

The anti-tax group attacked Ellzey in a television ad and mailers for ignoring his state legislative duties while he campaigned and for accepting a $250 contribution from Trump critic Bill Kristol when he first ran for the seat in 2018.

Ellzey was also in the difficult position of responding to an opponent who was still grieving. His campaign left that task to his supporters, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who served as Energy secretary under Trump, and Texas Rep. Daniel Crenshaw, who like Ellzey is a combat veteran. “They’re lying to you,” Crenshaw was quoted as saying in one mailer. “I hate dishonest campaigns.”

The club’s heavy involvement in the contest allowed Trump advisers to blame the group for misreading the race, rather than seeing the outcome as a failure of Trump’s own judgment, Axios reported Wednesday. Trump himself blamed the loss on Democratic voters — it was a runoff, not a primary, so Democrats could vote, even though only Republicans were on the ballot — and praised both Ellzey and Wright as “two very good people,” the outlet reported. 

Not solid Trump country

With Trump carrying the 6th District by 3 points in November — down from 12 points in 2016 — some local Democrats initially saw the open seat as a pickup opportunity. But the Democratic candidates in the May 1 all-party first round of the special election combined for just 29,000 of the 78,000 votes cast, with the top Democratic vote-getter coming within about 350 votes of knocking Ellzey out of the runoff. 

The partisan breakdown of the voters in the runoff won’t be available for months, but there is a possibility that some Democrats cast protest votes against Wright because of Trump’s endorsement. One indication is Ellzey’s strong performance in the populous Tarrant County, home to Arlington, where Democratic voters in the district are concentrated. 

Ellzey lost Tarrant County by some 3,900 votes in his 2018 primary runoff against Ron Wright. He won the county by 1,350 votes Tuesday, going from a 36-point loss to a 6-point win.

Turnout inconclusive

Turnout was higher than some analysts had predicted for an off-cycle election in the middle of a heat wave, a possible indication that voters remain engaged after coming out in record numbers in November. But even with almost 14,700 more people voting in Tuesday’s election than the 2018 GOP runoff, turnout still totaled less than 40,000. In the May first round, when there were 23 candidates running, more than 78,000 voters cast ballots. In last fall’s general election, nearly 340,000 voted.