texas showdown

In Texas special election, a congressman’s widow fights for his seat

Susan Wright is expected to garner a plurality of the vote in the May 1 election

Courtesy

Susan Wright

In early February, Rep. Ron Wright (R-TX), who was entering his second term in the House of Representatives, became the first sitting member of Congress to die from COVID-19 complications. Wright’s death kicked off a stampede of candidates — including his widow, longtime local GOP operative Susan Wright, who is considered to be a favorite in the crowded field — hoping to fill his Dallas-area congressional seat. 

Nearly two dozen candidates — 11 Republicans, 10 Democrats and two independents — have announced their candidacies for the May 1 special election in Texas’s 6th congressional district. For any candidate to win outright on May 1, they’ll have to gain more than 50% of the vote in the all-party, all-candidate election, which analysts see as unlikely given the wide field. Should no candidate clear 50%, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will face each other in a runoff later this year.

Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University, explained to Jewish Insider that Wright’s experience in area politics, as well as the spate of endorsements she’s received from local politicians, make her a formidable candidate. 

Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, added that widows of deceased members of Congress “have a pretty good track record” of winning the seats, given their existing connections within the party and public sympathy. In Louisiana on Saturday, Republican Julia Letlow won the special election to fill the seat that would have been held by her husband, Luke Letlow, who died of COVID-19 complications days before taking office.

Wright said that in her late husband’s last days, he, as well as their friends, encouraged her to run for his seat, and she seeks to honor her husband’s service.

“I really admired his commitment to his constituents. I admired his style. He was a statesman and I want to continue that,” Wright told JI. She added that her experience as a congressional spouse has given her unique insights into how Congress operates, and that she and her husband were “pretty much the same ideologically.”

Wright emphasized that she has been active politically in the district for 30 years, including as a staffer for state representatives. “I understand the constituent work and the outreach and bringing people together with their government to address their problems and access to services,” she added. 

Wright’s husband served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and she traveled with him to Israel on a trip with the AIPAC-linked American Israel Education Foundation in 2019.

Wright described her visit as “the trip of a lifetime” and said she would be excited to return. “The people were delightful, the food was delightful. The hospitality was wonderful. I was very intrigued and found it very captivating. The people were just so welcoming,” she said.

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Other than Wright, State Rep. Jake Ellzey and former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Chief of Staff Brian Harrison are two of the most competitive candidates on the GOP side, analysts told JI. 

Ellzey’s district overlaps with a portion of the 6th congressional district, where he ran in 2018, losing to Ron Wright in the primary. His previous congressional bid, during which he fell short of Wright by just over 1,000 votes, provides him with a potential advantage, said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at SMU. Harrison has put up strong early fundraising numbers, and may be able to use his service in the Trump administration to mobilize some supporters — particularly if the former president offers his endorsement, Jones and Jillson explained.

Jillson and Jones both regard retired professional wrestler Dan Rodimer — who drew media attention for relocating from Nevada to run for the seat just before the filing deadline, claiming to have the support of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and the Trump family — as a sideshow in the race. Rodimer was the Republican Party’s candidate in Nevada’s 3rd congressional district in November, losing to Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV).

On the Democratic side, political organizer and former journalist Jana Lynne Sanchez, who was the 2018 Democratic nominee for the seat, and Lydia Bean, an author and sociology professor who has previously run for state office within the district, are the top contenders, according to Jones. Shawn Lassitier, a former teacher from outside the district, is also running, with endorsements from local education officials.

A Sanchez campaign poll of 450 likely voters in the district conducted from March 9 to 12 found Wright leading the race with 21% support, tailed by Sanchez at 17%, Ellzey at 8% and Bean at 5%. The margin of error for the poll was 4.6% — meaning Wright and Sanchez are statistically tied.

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In interviews with JI this week, the other candidates laid out a range of reasons for jumping into the crowded candidate field.

Sanchez, who lost to Ron Wright 53-45 percent in 2018, told JI that she entered the race because “our democracy [is] at great risk.”

“We need to have people like me who will stand up for what’s right and stand up for the people in the district,” said Sanchez, who is banking on name recognition from her earlier congressional bid. She is hoping that recent challenges for the GOP — including the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol — will tilt the scales in Democrats’ favor. The last Democrat to represent the district was Rep. Phil Gramm, who switched parties in 1983, going on to serve one term as a Republican.

Jana Lynne Sanchez (Courtesy)

Ellzey’s military service — he was a Navy fighter pilot from 1992 to 2012, serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — has played a central role in his desire to run for public office. 

“I’ve just never been one who feels like I can just sit back and enjoy life living in the United States without giving back,” Ellzey told JI. “I’ve seen my enemies. Our environment right now in the culture of politics is one of contempt. And I don’t work that way. So I think I have a unique voice.”

Ellzey also said that his experience as a veteran and member of the Texas Veterans’ Commission gives him a “unique perspective” on issues like defense and the national debt.

Bean cited recent challenges in Texas — particularly the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread blackouts that left millions of Texans without power for days after a February ice storm — as motivation to run for the seat. “Texans are dealing with a situation where our leaders are completely and catastrophically failing us,” Bean explained. “I just can’t stand by while Texas Republicans continue to fail.”

Harrison said that he has deep roots in the district, where he went to high school and ran a small business, and that people familiar with his work in Washington encouraged him to run.

“I believe deeply in America, I believe she is worth saving, but that we’re on the wrong course, perhaps faster than ever, and that the time we have to course-correct is limited,” Harrison said. “I think that Texas needs not somebody that just believes the right thing but who’s been tested and been proven able to go to Washington and actually make government more accountable.”

Harrison pointed to his work tackling COVID-related issues while working for the administration, noting his involvement in the Operation Warp Speed vaccination development program and implementing a border shutdown using public health authorities.

Wright, Sanchez and Bean all said that COVID-related challenges would be among their top priorities if elected. Wright said that she wants to help her constituents safely return to work and reopen schools. 

Sanchez said she’d focus on ensuring that COVID aid goes to businesses that need it and that constituents are receiving vaccines. She also expressed concern about healthcare inequities in the Black and Latino communities. More broadly, she framed herself as a moderate looking to join the Problem Solvers Caucus or the New Democrat Coalition.

Harrison said that he seeks to “maximize Americans’ freedom and… protect this country” through initiatives like immigration reform, expanding healthcare choice and decreasing taxes and regulation.

Ellzey expressed deep concern about border security and the Biden administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, a planned high-speed rail project through his district.

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All five candidates expressed concern about Iran’s nuclear activities — but each offered a different take on how to address the regime.

Wright said the U.S. needs to strictly enforce sanctions against the regime to force Iran to come to the negotiating table, and argued that Iran continued to expand its nuclear program despite the 2015 nuclear deal. 

Ellzey was also critical of the 2015 deal, and said he wants any future deal to be ratified by the Senate as a treaty. “You don’t treat them as though we just need to normalize relations with them… Until they start acting as a responsible world actor, which they haven’t, we don’t deal with them,” Ellzey added.

Jake Ellzey (Courtesy)

Harrison called the 2015 deal “even worse” now than when it was first inked, and said that strengthening U.S. relationships with other nations in the region through agreements like the Abraham Accords can limit Iran’s potential to destabilize the region.

Sanchez said that, prior to rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the U.S. needs to address Iran’s violations of the enrichment limits in the original agreement, as well as shortcomings in the verification process that were in the 2015 deal. “Whatever deal we go back into, it must be verified. We must have the opportunity to demonstrate and to be sure that Iran is not developing nuclear capabilities,” she said.

Bean was more bullish, saying that the Trump administration was “extremely short-sighted” to pull out of the JCPOA, and that she “[supports] rejoining it now.”

All five candidates also framed themselves as supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and said they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Wright wants the U.S. to remain at the table facilitating peace talks, and added that she sees the Abraham Accords as a “perfect roadmap” for Israeli-Palestinian peace. “That is positive progress towards peace, that uses diplomacy and not violence,” she said. “The Abraham Accords initiated a new chapter of Mideast peace, and I would encourage the current administration to follow that same pattern.”

Harrison also called the Abraham Accords a “template” for a two-state solution, and emphasized his support for the defense relationship between the U.S. and Israel.

Sanchez broadly expressed support for the U.S. to continue “its role as a peacemaker” between the two sides, as well as continuing to support Israel. 

Bean agreed that the U.S. should be facilitating diplomacy by “encouraging” but not pressuring the sides to come to the table. “No third party can make these two groups come together. They have to come together on their own,” she said. “The best thing we can do is support diplomacy as an ally of Israel.”

Ellzey told JI that “the two-state solution has been proposed many, many times and rejected by the Palestinians. So it’s not that offers haven’t been made to make peace.” He added that the U.S. must support Israel and let the Israeli government take the lead in determining what a final agreement between the two parties should entail.

Harrison and Sanchez have, like Wright, traveled to the Jewish state — Harrison as part of a Defense Department delegation with then-Vice President Dick Cheney in 2008 and Sanchez as a reporter and tourist in 1997. 

Harrison called his Israeli hosts “welcoming and hospitable” and said that the trip underscored the importance of a “cooperative” relationship between the U.S. and Israel, rather than “one or the other sort of dictating the terms of our relationship.”

A Sanchez campaign spokesperson told JI, “What [Sanchez] took away from the trip was a deeper sense of the strength and resilience of the Israelis, as well as the [country’s] enormous economic potential.” 

Within the U.S., none of the candidates said they see antisemitism as a pervasive issue within their own parties, although some of them acknowledged some concerns.

“I have not experienced that in the circles I’ve been in,” Wright said of the GOP. “But I do believe that there certainly could be some and obviously some people hold those views. So I would hesitate to say that it’s an issue within the party as a whole. From top to bottom, nationally, and locally, the Republicans that I deal with… are very supportive of Israel.”

“I haven’t been thrilled with some of the language that has come out of some sections of the Democratic Party, I must say,” Sanchez said. “But I do believe that the Democratic Party in main is not supportive of these comments.” Sanchez and Bean also both told JI they oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

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Heading into May 1, analysts are primarily working to determine who are the most likely candidates to advance to a runoff.

“The real focus here is not so much on who’s going to finish first, but who’s going to finish first and second,” Jones said “The most likely scenario is that one of the two candidates in the runoff will be Susan Wright.”

Jones and Jilson both noted that the district has been trending more Democratic in recent elections, but said it currently remains a red district.

“A weaker Republican candidate and a good race by Sanchez, if she turns out to be the leading Democrat — or Bean — could produce a close race, but you sort of expect a Republican win somewhere in the mid- to upper-single digits,” Wilson said.

“Realistically, if Susan Wright is a candidate in the runoffs, she’s likely to win,” Jones added.

If Democratic voters are divided on May 1, they risk being shut out of the runoff entirely, with two Republicans advancing to that round, Cook Political Report U.S. House editor Dave Wasserman noted. He argued that Sanchez is likely Democrats’ best hope for a runoff slot.

A Trump endorsement could also dramatically reshape the race, Wasserman added, although Trump does not appear to be particularly engaged at this point. 

Regardless, given Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the House and the relative competitiveness of the district compared to other upcoming special elections, this race is likely to be closely watched both in and out of the Lone Star State.