By Jim Ellis
May 5, 2021 — With many observers in and out of Texas conceding that Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez had a chance to finish first in Saturday’s special jungle primary to begin the process of replacing the late Rep. Ron Wright (R-Arlington), it came as at least a mild surprise to see her failing to even qualify for the secondary election. The final result yielded two Republicans advancing from the huge field of 23 candidates.
Finishing first was Susan Wright (R), the late congressman’s widow, which was not a particularly surprising result as virtually every analyst and available polling data conceded her one of the two runoff positions.
The race got particularly nasty, however, towards the end. An anonymous robocall – one without a legal disclaimer – flooded the district a day before the election claiming Ms. Wright murdered her husband to redeem a $1 million insurance policy. The call text said she deliberately contracted COVID in order to intentionally infect her husband. Rep. Wright died in early February after a long battle with cancer and COVID. Ms. Wright’s attorneys have referred the matter to the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the Tarrant County District Attorney.
Freshman state Rep. Jake Ellzey (R-Waxahachie) edged Sanchez for second place; Ellzey ran against Ron Wright when the congressional seat was last open in 2018 and forced him into a runoff.
For more than a generation, the 6th District was a Republican bastion. Rep. Joe Barton (R), Rep. Wright’s predecessor and former boss when the latter man served as a congressional district office director, held four variations of the 6th over a long 34-year congressional career. The electorate began to turn when Rep. Wright won two underwhelming victories and Democrats significantly closed the partisan gap at the presidential level (’20, Trump 51-48 percent; ’16, Trump 54-42 percent).
The 2021 special election electorate, however, reverted to its political past and particularly reversed the Republicans’ fortunes in Tarrant County, the district’s dominant local entity. In both of Rep. Wright’s general election victories, he lost Tarrant County to his Democratic opponent, including Sanchez in 2018, and won the seat because of dominating margins in the district’s two rural counties, Ellis and Navarro.
The Republicans rebounded to carry Tarrant County on Saturday night, capturing an aggregate 53.7 percent of the vote among their 11 candidates. Rep. Wright recorded an average of 46 percent there in his two elections, meaning Saturday’s showing was almost an eight-percentage point improvement. The GOP candidates’ uptick was even better in Ellis and Navarro scoring 79 and 80 percent, respectively.
Turnout may be largely responsible for the turnaround. A total of 78,374 individuals cast their ballots through early and in-person voting, just 23 percent of the total who participated in the 2020 general congressional election and 30.6 percent of the voting universe recorded in 2018. Of the three special federal elections held so far in 2021, this Texas contest featured the lowest turnout rate.
Based upon the result, and particularly looking at the turnaround in Tarrant County, it seems evident that the Democrats underperformed for two key reasons.
First, Democratic balloting dropped off far more than the Republicans, which largely lead to the end result. Second, the Democratic electorate wasn’t as unified behind Sanchez as polling suggested. She only captured 36 percent of the aggregate Democratic vote, a figure far below what she needed to qualify for the runoff election.
All in all, this is an obviously positive primary result for the Republicans in that they don’t have to risk losing the seat in the runoff election. Of the six special elections that will be run in 2021, this Texas election had the potential of becoming the most competitive.
Now, we will turn our attention to what will actually be a Republican primary-style runoff involving Ms. Wright and Ellzey. Considering the budding controversy over the ludicrous robocall described above, Ellzey will find himself in even a more delicate position in trying to create a clear contrast between he and Ms. Wright during the runoff campaign.
The late congressman’s spouse begins the secondary election as the clear favorite to win the seat and serve the balance of her husband’s term. Under Texas election law special election runoffs cannot be calendared until the initial vote canvass officially proves that no candidate obtained majority support. Therefore, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) will likely schedule the next vote for late June or early July to comply with all election timing laws.