Texas election poses test of Trump’s power over GOP

A special House election in Texas on Saturday is shaping up to be the first major test of former President Trump’s sway among Republicans as the GOP fights to keep a seat in a rapidly diversifying suburban district.

Trump has thrown his weight behind Susan Wright, a conservative activist who is running in a crowded field in Texas’s 6th Congressional District to replace her husband, the late Rep. Ron Wright (R), who died in February after contracting the coronavirus.

Susan Wright is running against 22 Republicans and Democrats in a district that has been in GOP hands since 1983 but that has become increasingly competitive in recent years. Trump won the suburban district, which includes some of the Dallas suburbs and the city of Arlington, by 12 points in 2016, only to see his margin of victory drop to 3 points in 2020.

“Because it is so fresh, he is so recently out of office, yeah, it could tell us how deep really the Trump enthusiasm goes,” said veteran Texas GOP strategist Corbin Casteel.

The special election, which will see all 23 contenders face each other on the same ballot regardless of party, will send the top two vote-getters to a runoff should no candidate win an outright majority, an expected scenario given the breadth of the field.

While the district is precisely the kind of area that Republicans lost ground in during the Trump years, enthusiasm for the former president remains high among the GOP candidates.

Trump himself waded in with an eleventh-hour push for Wright, announcing his support for her Monday and boosting her in a virtual town hall Thursday night that was co-hosted by the conservative Club for Growth.

“Everybody knows that Susan is outstanding,” Trump said at Thursday’s virtual event. “Susan is a committed conservative who will fight for our ‘America First’ agenda, make America great again, and unfortunately we’re going to need that now more than ever.”

The GOP field is stocked with plenty of other candidates who have tied their reputation to the former president, including Brian Harrison, ex-chief of staff at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration; Sery Kim, a former official at the Small Business Association under Trump; and Dan Rodimer, a former professional wrestler who last year ran for Congress in Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District with Trump’s endorsement.

Those candidates centered their campaigns around the ex-commander in chief from the jump and had months to instill their pro-Trump bona fides into voters’ minds. Wright, meanwhile, did not spend much time discussing the former president before this week and instead focused much of her campaign on her ties to her late husband and the district.

That’s led candidates like Harrison and Rodimer to cast themselves as the true Trump candidates in the race.

“He’s the only one who has delivered President Trump’s agenda. And we have said that repeatedly in our TV commercials, in our mail. That is something he is very proud of, working alongside President Trump and delivering that America First agenda,” said Chris Homan, a consultant for Harrison’s campaign.

“Dan Rodimer proudly voted for Trump twice for President because he believes that his policies help the everyday American,” Rodimer’s campaign said in a statement, noting Trump’s endorsement of the candidate in the earlier Nevada race.

Wright’s campaign is hoping that Trump’s endorsement will put arguments like those to bed and bolster her credibility among a GOP electorate that largely remains supportive of the former president.

“We have heard from multiple candidates that they’re the Trump pick, that they’re the only ones that Trump would be behind. And his endorsement has taken that narrative completely away from them, which is also an indicator of their viability and their relevance within the race,” said Matt Langston, a consultant on Wright’s campaign who has worked with the Wright family for years.

“It’s a race that has been confusing,” he added. “Trump’s endorsement really clears up a lot of that confusion for voters.”

Beyond Trump, Wright has garnered the support of influential groups like Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that’s bolstered her by spending roughly $150,000 to tear down one opponent, state Rep. Jake Ellzey (R), as an “anti-Trump” Republican.

Still, given the district’s competitive setting and Trump’s narrow 3-point victory — compared with Ron Wright’s 9-point win — uncertainty lingers over how much the former president’s backing will help.

The race comes amid a debate within the Republican Party over Trump’s role in its future, animating both centrists who want to move on and Trump acolytes who say he holds the key to future electoral success.

“He is still a factor in the party, for better or for worse. There are dyed-in-the-wool Republican voters who will do whatever he says. And it’s not a huge percentage of them. I’d say the majority of Republicans are pretty pragmatic and not just disciples of Trump, if you will,” said Casteel. “But, yeah, he’s going to have a strong influence in it one way or the other.”

Only one GOP candidate in the race, Michael Wood, is betting that there are enough Republicans who are ready to look beyond the former president, running on an explicitly anti-Trump message.

Wood, a Marine veteran, told The Hill he hopes a spot in a runoff would send a message that the Republican Party has not been completely molded in Trump’s image.

“I think the message would be that he’s not 10 feet tall, that he’s not some sort of political genius and that if we stay a part of the conspiracy theories, a part of QAnon and above all a cult of personality, then that’s a recipe for being a minority party, not just across the country but even in Texas. So I think if I get into the runoff, it’s going to be a very strong message that Trumpism’s days are numbered,” Wood said in an interview.

“I think that this is definitely bigger than just me. And win or lose, I hope that I can sort of show people that it’s possible to stand up to these forces in the party and specifically Donald Trump himself, and I hope to create a blueprint for other Republicans across the country who are not happy with the state of the party and want to move past it or want to move forward,” he said

Still, Republicans are more confident than not that Trump’s sway remains strong — and that Susan Wright could be the beneficiary of lingering support for him.

“I think President Trump’s endorsement will have a big impact in this race with Republican primary voters. We haven’t polled it directly in this race for Susan, but in other races that we’ve been doing, it adds anywhere from 15 to 25 percent to the candidate’s bottom line on the votes they get,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh. “And it’s because Republican primary voters still are very favorable to President Trump and look to his endorsement as a signal that the member is going to be a fighter for the things that Republicans believe in.”

Via The Hill