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Days after getting locked out of a special election runoff for Congress in North Texas, Democrats are mulling over what went wrong — and assigning some blame — for the unflattering start to the 2022 election cycle.
At the same time, Republicans are preparing for a contentious runoff between Susan Wright and Jake Ellzey, even though Wright, backed by former President Donald Trump, would appear to start as the favorite.
National Democrats had kept their distance from the first round and few in the party touted it as a certain bellwether. But the failure to advance to the runoff still stung, and left Democrats — especially their top vote-getter — openly speculating about their shortcomings.
That top vote-getter, Jana Lynne Sanchez, said Monday she was “sounding the alarm bell” that 2022 could serve a “major setback” for Democrats if they do not better organize and prepare. She also said that recent events — like the deadly U.S. Capitol riot in January and Texas’ winter power crisis — did not galvanize Democratic voters as much as she thought they would. And she has blamed an intraparty opponent, Lydia Bean, for siphoning off key Democratic support when Bean, Sanchez argues, had little chance of winning.
To other Democrats, the die was cast when 10 Democrats filed to run and there was no obvious effort by the party to cull the field before or after.
“I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but a race with 10 Democrats in an already GOP-favored district is a foolish errand,” said Joel Montfort, a Democratic strategist in North Texas who was not involved in the special election. “We played right into their hands, that’s for sure.”
In the final results, Sanchez missed the runoff by 354 votes. Wright finished first with 19%, and Ellzey, a freshman state representative from Waxahachie, came in second with 14%, advancing to the yet-to-be-scheduled runoff to fill the seat of Wright’s late husband, U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, R-Arlington, who died in February after contracting coronavirus.
Not only did Democrats fail to advance to the runoff, but their total vote share dropped after President Joe Biden got 48% of the vote in the district just six months ago. On Saturday, the 10 Democrats combined to make up 37% of the ballots cast.
On the Republican side, Susan Wright appeared to get a late boost by Trump, who endorsed her on the second-to-last day of early voting. While she came out of early voting with just a 10-vote edge over Ellzey, she decisively won election day, getting 24% of the vote to 11% for Ellzey. (Sanchez placed second among election day ballots, with 13%.)
Wright’s campaign wasted little time setting the stage for the runoff, issuing an election night statement blasting Ellzey as an “opportunistic ladder-climbing RINO,” or Republican In Name Only. The head of the Club for Growth, easily Wright’s biggest outside ally in the first round, reportedly called on Ellzey to drop out of the runoff. His campaign rejected that.
The runoff candidates themselves have kept the temperature lower in post-Saturday statements and interviews, agreeing that they do not have many — if any — policy differences. Ellzey’s campaign cited that in responding to the election night salvo by Wright’s team.
“This statement ... by her young political consultant is in direct opposition to what she is saying publicly,” Ellzey consultant Craig Murphy said in an email. “Perhaps he did not run it by her before he sent it out.”
National Republicans, as well as Trump, have spent the time since Saturday relishing the Democratic shutout and heralding it as a promising sign of their hopes to take back the House next year. But for the two GOP campaigns that made the runoff, now is the time to reset for a unique matchup — one that pits the Trump-endorsed widow of a late congressman against a rookie state lawmaker — but not a political neophyte — whose biggest supporter is Rick Perry, Trump’s former energy secretary and the ex-Texas governor.
Ellzey has a history with the Wrights, too. He faced Ron Wright in the 2018 Republican primary runoff for the congressional seat, which was then open, and lost by a small margin. While the runoff turned negative, the two later seemed to bury the hatchet when Ron Wright endorsed Ellzey in the three-way GOP primary for the state House seat that he captured in November.
In an interview Monday with Mark Davis, the North Texas conservative radio host, Susan Wright said she and Ellzey may differ more on “style” than policy and said voters will need to decide who they most trust to fight for them. She stood by attacks that her campaign has made against Ellzey on immigration, citing a 2018 interview where he expressed support for a path to citizenship for “people who are willing and able to serve their country for five years, honorably, in the United States military.”
Ellzey did not back away from that position in his own interview with Davis on Monday, noting it is “already the policy” of the United States to give citizenship to those who have served in the military after a certain period of time. In the same interview, he said the entire U.S. border “with Mexico needs to be locked down right now because we’re past the time at which this has become a crisis.” And he said it was the “divisiveness” of the Club for Growth that almost allowed a Democrat to make it to the runoff.
The potential is ripe for more combat in the runoff. As a state representative, Ellzey has spent recent weeks taking countless votes that could be picked apart by political opponents, and the Club for Growth has already hit him on a bill related to rental-car taxes that he supported last month. The session ends May 31.
For the Democrats, the post-election period has also had some tension.
In a lengthy Facebook post, Sanchez took aim at Bean without naming her, taking issue with a digital ad she ran showing Sanchez raising concerns in late March with the rumored price tag of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan and how the money would be spent. Sanchez also alleged that Bean denigrated Sanchez to donors and gave them an overly rosy outlook of her chances of winning.
Bean, a 2020 nominee for a battleground state House seat in the region, ended up placing fourth among the Democrats on Saturday, getting 4% of the vote.
“I don’t blame [Bean] for running, but I am angry at the way she ran and that her focus seemed to be on destroying me rather than winning, which she never had any chance of,” Sanchez wrote. Sanchez later deleted most of the Facebook post, saying she decided to do so "in the interest of party unity."
Asked to respond, Bean offered a statement standing by the campaign she ran.
“We didn’t prevail on Saturday, but I’m proud of our effort and I’ll never stop standing up for the working people of this community,” Bean said.
Some Democrats have argued that the state party could have had a heavier hand in the race. They point out that party bylaws allow the party to endorse in a special election with multiple Democrats running. The same bylaws say precinct chairs in the district “shall meet at the call of the State Chair for the purpose of considering the endorsement of a candidate for the open office.”
That did not happen ahead of Saturday, but it seldom has in party history, and the party has long interpreted the rule as requiring an endorsement meeting only if the chair chooses to call it.
“That’s been everybody’s reading since the time the rule was there,” said Bill Brannon, a senior adviser to the state party.
While a handful of national Democratic groups got involved in the race — splitting support between Sanchez and Shawn Lassiter, the Democratic runner-up — their spending was meager compared to that of third-party GOP players. The Democratic outfits made up only 14% of the total outside spending disclosed to the Federal Election Commission as of Saturday.
Even then, one Democratic super PAC — Operation 147 — sought to seize credit, falsely claiming in a post-election email to supporters that it was the “only national group to support Sanchez on Saturday.” In fact, another pro-Sanchez national super PAC, Nuestro PAC, had started spending on her behalf weeks earlier and ended up investing more than double what Operation 147 did, according to FEC filings.
While it never spent significantly in the special election, Sanchez had a heavyweight supporter in BOLD PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. In an interview days before the election, BOLD PAC’s chair, U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, said he thought the lack of national Democratic involvement in the race reflected a “typical kind of coastal bias.”
“People from the East Coast and people from the West Coast tend not to understand these kinds of races, tend to undercount the ability of someone like Jana to put it in play,” Gallego said. “This is why BOLD PAC exists.”
While they do not have a candidate running under their banner in the runoff, Democrats could still prove to be an important voting bloc in the overtime round. The 2020 Democratic nominee for the seat, Stephen Daniel, announced Monday that he would vote for Ellzey in the runoff, saying Democrats “may be the deciding factor in this election and we need to do everything we can to make sure the Trump-endorsed Susan Wright loses.”
Wright, for her part, said in the radio interview that if elected, she sees an opportunity to work with “some moderate Democrats that could come across the aisle and vote with us and block some of these things.”
“And to the extent I’m able to do that,” Wright said, “I’m happy to do that.”