Tomorrow's special election in Texas is the Democrats' best House hope in 2021

Tomorrow's special election in Texas is the Democrats' best House hope in 2021
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The November 2020 U.S. House elections left House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Republicans bash Democrats' China competition bill Man seen wearing 'Camp Auschwitz' sweatshirt on Jan. 6 pleads guilty to trespassing Democrats should ignore Senators Manchin and Sinema MORE (D-Calif.) with a narrow 222 to 213 majority. Among the seven special House elections on the 2021 calendar to date, only one has the potential to alter the partisan balance of power in the House: the May 1 special election in Texas’s 6th Congressional District. With a Cook Partisan Voting Index of R+6, and an Inside Elections rating of "Lean Republican," the TX-06 special election provides the Democratic Party with its best chance to expand its wafer-thin House majority this year. 

TX-06 is centered in southeast Tarrant County (Fort Worth), which contains 70 percent of the district’s voters, extending southeast into exurban Ellis County (25 percent) and rural Navarro County (5 percent).

During the past decade, TX-06 has transitioned from red to pink, with the GOP presidential candidate winning by 17 percentage points in 2012, 12 points in 2016 and 3 points in 2020. The TX-06 races followed a similar pattern, with the Republican margin of victory dropping from 19 points (2012), 25 points (2014) and 19 points (2016), to 8 points (2018) and 9 points(2020).

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Twenty-three candidates (11 Republicans, 10 Democrats, 1 Libertarian and 1 independent) are running to replace second-term Republican Rep. Ron WrightRon WrightPelosi, Schumer, McCarthy to hold moment of silence for 800K American COVID-19 deaths Newly elected Freedom Caucus chair tests positive for COVID-19 Early redistricting plans show GOP retrenching for long haul MORE, who passed away in February. The Republicans fall into four categories: contender (2), long shot (1), novelty (3) and unknown (5). The Democrats fall into three categories: contender (2), long shot (1) and unknown (7). 

The two Republican contenders are Susan Wright (Ron Wright’s widow) and state representative Jake Ellzey. Early on Wright, who has a long trajectory within the Tarrant County GOP, gained the support of several area GOP politicians, with her entry causing several potential candidates to desist. Wright’s supporters include former President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll US ranked 27th least corrupt country in the world MORE (at the last minute), six Texas U.S. House members, four of Tarrant County’s eight Republican Texas House members, the mayor of Fort Worth, Tarrant County’s chief executive (county judge) and sheriff, and dozens of Republican activists and local officials. Wright’s elite and grassroots support make her the most likely candidate to earn a spot in the virtually certain June runoff. 

Rep. Ellzey (a former Navy combat fighter pilot) was elected in 2020 to represent Texas House District 10, which covers all of Ellis County. In 2018 Ellzey narrowly lost the TX-06 GOP primary runoff to Ron Wright in what was an open seat. Ellzey has outraised all of his rivals, is endorsed by Rick PerryRick PerryTrump's relocation of the Bureau of Land Management was part of a familiar Republican playbook What we've learned from the Meadows documents Trump war with GOP seeps into midterms MORE, the longest serving governor in Texas history (2000-15) and Trump's secretary of Energy, and enjoys especially strong support among Ellis County Republicans. His contender status has, however, attracted the attention of the Club for Growth, and, to aid Wright, it launched a negative campaign against Ellzey.

The Republican long shot is Brian Harrison, chief of staff to Trump Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar. Harrison is second in fundraising so far (first counting self-loans) and is endorsed by some high-profile Trump administration officials, including Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosBetsy DeVosJury finds Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes guilty on four counts Mnuchin, Pompeo mulled plan to remove Trump after Jan. 6: book Republicans look to education as winning issue after Virginia successes MORE, Small Business Administration (SBA) Administrator Linda McMahonLinda Marie McMahonCawthorn 'likely' violated rules by bringing candidate on House floor Tomorrow's special election in Texas is the Democrats' best House hope in 2021 April's dumbest and most dangerous coronavirus declarations MORE and Azar.

The Republican novelty candidates have achieved some prominence by adopting provocative positions or having celebrity status. They are former Trump SBA staffer Sery Kim, who has been criticized for anti-China statements; Marine combat veteran Michael Wood, who is running as an unabashed anti-Trump Republican endorsed by Reps. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyRomney participating in fundraiser for Liz Cheney The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden faces Ukraine decision amid Russia aggression Cheney hits Gingrich for saying Jan. 6 panel members may be jailed MORE (R-Wyo.) and Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerHouse Republicans bash Democrats' China competition bill Romney participating in fundraiser for Liz Cheney Cheney hits Gingrich for saying Jan. 6 panel members may be jailed MORE (R-Ill.) and former professional wrestler (and a 2020 candidate for Congress in Nevada) Dan Rodimer, who has raised the third-most money and has the most entertaining ad, complete with a bull called Nancy Pelosi.

The Democratic contenders are Jana Lynne Sanchez and Shawn Lassiter. Sanchez is the preferred candidate among much of the Dallas-Forth Worth Democratic elite, enjoying the endorsement of more than a dozen local Democratic elected officials or recent candidates. She has raised the fifth-most amount of money and is being indirectly boosted by pro-Wright forces as part of their strategy to keep Ellzey out of the runoff. 

Lassiter has had considerable success in fundraising, first among Democrats and fourth overall. Her fortunes hinge in part on generating higher than normal turnout among the district’s African American population (who comprise 20 percent of voters). Lassiter is the only other Democrat to enjoy noteworthy local elected official support.

The Democratic long shot is Lydia Bean, who ran unsuccessfully for state representative in District 93 (only one-fifth of which is within TX-06) in 2018 and 2020, and ranks seventh in fundraising. But Bean has the most organized labor support of any candidate, including that of the Texas and Tarrant County AFL-CIO, Teamsters and Communication Workers of America.

The most likely scenario is a runoff between Wright and Sanchez. And while Wright would be the initial favorite, the more divisive the intra-GOP competition gets and the less resounding Wright’s first round performance, the better Sanchez would be positioned for a potential runoff victory, which is the Democratic Party’s most realistic hope to increase its narrow House majority in 2021. 

In a Wright v. Lassiter runoff, Wright’s initial odds of victory would be better than against Sanchez. If Ellzey faces either Sanchez or Lassiter in the runoff, his odds of victory would be similar to Wright’s. A runoff between Republicans Wright and Ellzey would not change the partisan balance of power in the House. 

Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University as well as a co-author of “Texas Politics Today: 2017-2018 Edition.” Follow him on Twitter @MarkPJonesTX.