Special election a bellwether for Texas Democrats

Republicans and Democrats are lining up to replace the late Rep. Ron WrightRon WrightNewly elected Freedom Caucus chair tests positive for COVID-19 Early redistricting plans show GOP retrenching for long haul Photos of the Week: Olympic sabre semi-finals, COVID-19 vigil and a loris MORE (R-Texas) in a special election that is seen as a possible bellwether of Democrats’ ability to muster enthusiasm in Texas and take advantage of their newfound popularity in the suburbs.

Twenty-three candidates — 11 Republicans, 10 Democrats, a Libertarian and an independent — have filed to run in the May 1 election. While the 6th Congressional District has been controlled by Republicans since the 1980s, Biden came within 3 points of flipping the district, which is made up of the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs and more rural Ellis and Navarro counties.

“I think it is a bellwether, but I think it’s still on the verge of becoming sort of a swing district,” said Texas-based Democratic strategist Sawyer Hackett. “In the last [five years] the district has gotten a lot more competitive, the state has gotten a lot more competitive.” 

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A win in the district would put Texas squarely on the map for Democrats deciding where to invest money and energy in the midterm elections.

“This isn’t necessarily a bellwether. I think the biggest thing is if we’re able to pull this off, that means it’s going to be a Democratic landslide, like Texas is really on the verge of turning blue,” said one Texas-based Democratic strategist. 

The primary is set to take place on May 1 and will be the first election in the state since Republicans dominated up and down the ballot in November, dashing Democratic hopes of finally turning the state blue. Wright won his district – one of the races Democrats targeted – in 2020 by about 9 points

Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez, who lost to Wright by roughly 7 points in 2018, is seen by many Democrats as their party’s front-runner. Sanchez credits her work as a previous candidate as well as her involvement with Tarrant Together, an organization aimed at registering and engaging Democrats, for having an advantage in the field. 

“I already have a high name ID, so it’s a little easier for me than it is for other candidates,” she told The Hill. “I don’t think it’s quite as crowded of a field as people say. I think the voters on May 1 are going to be pretty sophisticated voters. These are going to be people who vote in municipal elections and primaries, and they’re going to be looking out for names of the candidates who they know have a connection to the district and want to serve them.”

On the Republican side of the race, Wright’s widow, Susan Wright, is seen as the front-runner. Wright’s name ID and presence in the district are also seen as advantages for her going into the special election. 

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“From a Tarrant County perspective, [she] is really the only known name candidate coming out of Tarrant,” said one Texas-based GOP strategist. “The good news for her is she’s got no competition in Tarrant and it’s still obviously on its own a pretty robust-turnout county.” 

Democrats see some advantages in the race.

In addition to Ellis and Navarro counties, the Dallas-area district also includes suburban portions of Tarrant County, a demographic Democrats saw success attracting in 2020. Demographic shifts, especially in the state’s suburbs, have led to more likely Democratic voters moving into the state. 

Additionally, the last two months have been filled with negative coverage for Republicans. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has faced criticism for his leadership during February’s deadly winter storm and power outage that impacted the entire state. Critics, particularly those in urban and suburban districts, have also hit Abbott for rolling back coronavirus restrictions in the state as public health officials urge Americans to remain vigilant. 

“Of course this is going to be an issue in this way in particular because it is so soon,” Hackett said. “It’s coming in the middle of a recovery and in the middle of Texas deciding to reopen ahead of those guidelines.” 

Democrats also argue that the passage of Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which did not garner a single Republican vote, will help the party in the district, given how popular the plan is with voters. 

“There’s no doubt that getting a relief check with Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE’s name stamped on it didn’t at least move some voters,” Hackett said. “The American people and Texas’s sixth district will see the impact of this bill. They’ll see the impact of what good governance looks like and good governance exclusively from Democrats in this case.” 

Still, Democrats caution that the race will likely be a challenging off-year election for the party in a district the Cook Political Report rated as likely Republican. 

“The way that we’re looking at this is that it’s going to be an uphill battle,” the other Texas Democratic strategist said, citing Republican advantages in special elections in Texas and across the country. 

Republicans say they are confident in their chances ahead of the election, citing their historical advantage in runoff races as well as in the already conservative-leaning district. 

GOP strategists say their candidates should plan on homing in on cultural issues that remain important to rural voters, as well as issues impacting more urban and suburban voters, like the pandemic. 

Texas-based GOP consultant Brendan Steinhauser called the conservative focus in rural areas like Ellis and Navarro “God, guns and babies” but added that the pandemic is more of a concern in more populated areas like Tarrant County. 

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“Those cultural issues are already front and center from what we can tell, but the urban areas are different; they are talking about the pandemic,” Steinhauser said. “Those voters are those swing voters.” 

Steinhauser is openly supporting Marine Corps Reserve veteran Michael Wood, who is an outspoken Trump critic. 

In his campaign launch video, Wood notably urged the GOP “a cult of personality, a vehicle for one man’s ambitions and grievances.” 

The field also includes Trump backers, including Sery Kim, who previously served as assistant administrator in the Office of Women’s Business Ownership at the Small Business Administration under the former president. 

“I am running this race because I think [the American dream] has been broken by the policies of Joe BidenJoe BidenCDC working to tighten testing requirement for international travelers On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Manchin seeks 'adjustments' to spending plan MORE and Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMcCarthy raised 0K after marathon speech Davis passes on bid for governor in Illinois, running for reelection to House Feehery: Why Democrats are now historically unpopular MORE,” Kim told The Hill. 

Retired professional wrestler and Republican candidate Dan Rodimer brushed aside any concern the GOP had about the district trending blue, saying the party was unified. 

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“No. Republicans are strong and united – especially now," Rodimer told The Hill. "We see the need of having strong conservative leadership – even in the few short disastrous months of the Biden Administration and those on the left that want to take our country in the wrong direction. It’s America First, not America last!” 

Steinhauser said the variety of candidates on the GOP side “is a good thing” because of its diversity.

Ultimately, insiders say it’s unclear what effect the outcome of the special election will have on the midterms, which are just under two years away. 

“It’s tough to take anything away from a race that’s going to be this close to the past election or more importantly, this far out from the next one,” the other GOP strategist. 

“I think if you were to map out what a bellwether county or a bellwether district would look like you would fashion it in this way, but I also think you’re playing a football game in a basketball arena right now.”