Texas Democrats concede lockout in House special election
By David Weigel and Amy B Wang,
Texas Democrats on Sunday conceded that they had fallen short in a special election for a U.S. House seat in the state’s 6th Congressional District, ensuring that a Republican will win a seat that had been trending away from the party.
Twenty-three candidates had been vying to represent the north Texas district following the death of Rep. Ron Wright (R) in February after he was diagnosed with covid-19. Wright’s widow, Susan Wright, secured the top runoff spot Saturday, with state Rep. Jake Ellzey (R) taking second place.
Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez came in third, failing to qualify for the runoff by fewer than 400 votes.
Voters cast 18,707 ballots for other Democratic candidates, splintering the vote and locking the party out of the runoff.
“Although a Democrat is not advancing to the runoff, yesterday’s incredibly close margins showed that voters are invested in electing Democrats, and are fighting for the representation their communities deserve,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.
Hinojosa tried to cast the race as a sign that Texas is moving closer to flipping blue. Donald Trump won the district in the November presidential election by just three points, while Mitt Romney had won the district by 17 points in 2012.
Those numbers had made Democrats cautiously optimistic about the special election, though the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee stayed out of it. Sanchez, who outperformed every previous Democrat in the race when she ran three years ago, leaped into the contest early, just as the state was reeling from massive power failures after a winter storm.
“Democrats have come a long way toward competing in Texas, but we still have a long way to go,” Sanchez said in statement conceding the race.
Local Democrats declined to endorse any candidate, with the party and elected officials staying neutral. Party bylaws would have required the Texas Democrats to hold a convention in the district, which they did not do.
Sanchez raised nearly $300,000, more than Wright, and was helped on the airwaves by Nuestro PAC, which ran English and Spanish commercials, and the 147 Project, a new group named for the number of House Republicans who voted to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“We believe that every election and every vote is worth fighting for and the 354 votes [that] kept Sanchez out of the runoff proved we were right,” the group said in a statement Sunday.
To Democrats’ frustration, more candidates piled into the primary, with little infrastructure, arguing that they were better positioned to consolidate the vote.
Shawn Lassiter, a local nonprofit director who had not run for office before, launched with a viral video about the devastating winter storm and picked up the support of 314 Action Fund, which backs candidates with STEM backgrounds, and the Collective PAC, which supports Black candidates.
Lydia Bean, a business executive who had lost a 2020 state legislative race, picked up the support of the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters.
In interviews before the election, Lassiter and Bean insisted that they had paths to the runoff and wouldn’t lock the party out.
“Our fundraising has proven that I can put together a coalition in order to win this seat,” said Lassiter, who slightly outraised Sanchez.
“There’s no reason to worry about that,” Bean said, referring to the risk of an all-GOP runoff. “I have my own army that was ready to go from day one.”
Neither candidate came close to the runoff, and Bean spent some of her resources on negative ads, falsely accusing Sanchez of not supporting the Democrats’ upcoming infrastructure bill.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who leads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s Bold PAC, said that the district attracted attention only because of Sanchez’s strong 2018 bid and that liberal groups who passed her over only splintered the vote.
“Instead of backing the Latina, in Texas, they splintered our coalition,” Gallego said. “Unfortunately, this happens often. Latino candidates are consistently second-guessed by progressive and Democratic groups. And it is going to have negative consequences come 2022 if they don’t change their process.”
Turnout was low, with fewer than 85,000 voters of all parties casting ballots and thousands of votes going to gadfly candidates. Bean got fewer votes than Tammy Allison, a Black attorney who raised less than $50,000 while tweeting at local newspapers to accuse them of racism for not covering her.
Another candidate, Manuel Salazar, had no campaign presence, online or in the district, but got more than 1,000 votes, nearly triple the margin between Ellzey and Sanchez. Combined, all Democratic candidates got around 38 percent of the vote, compared with the 48 percent of the vote won last year by President Biden.
Trump stayed out of the race until the final week, endorsing Wright and participating in a Thursday night call on her behalf organized by the conservative Club for Growth, which also ran radio ads touting his support. While most of the early vote was cast before Trump’s intervention, Wright surged with voters who turned out on Election Day.
“You will be very happy with this vote,” he said, adding that Wright’s husband “is looking down, and he is so proud of Susan.”
In the final day of the race, Wright’s campaign alerted federal authorities after voters began receiving unidentified robocalls that accused her of killing her husband to collect on his life insurance policy.
Many of Wright’s opponents, including Ellzey, condemned the call.
The date of the runoff between Wright and Ellzey will be set in coming days.