While one special election doesn’t necessarily set the pattern for the midterms—which are still 18 months off—both parties should study the results of Saturday’s “jungle primary” to fill the vacancy created by the death of Texas Sixth District Republican Rep. Ron Wright.
The contest drew 11 GOP candidates, 10 Democrats, one independent and one Libertarian—all vying for two spots in a runoff to be held this summer.
The North Central Texas district includes southeast Tarrant County (dominated by Arlington, home of the Rangers and Cowboys), Ellis County (an exurb south of Dallas), and Navarro County (a more rural area to the southeast).
Democrats were guardedly optimistic about flipping the district, which Mitt Romney carried by 17 points in 2012 but President Trump won by only 3 in 2020. National media also hyped the contest, with NBC depicting it as a “battle for the once-safe GOP district that has trended to the left.”
But on Saturday, voters picked two Republicans for the runoff— Susan Wright, the former congressman’s widow, and state Rep. Jake Ellzey, a Navy aviator and airline pilot—killing Democratic chances for a pickup. The four remaining House vacancies are in seats previously held by Democrats, making it likely the chamber will be 222 Democrats to 213 Republicans when all the contests are settled. This means a shift of five seats in 2022 would give the GOP control.
There are three big takeaways from Saturday’s results. The first is that the Biden administration’s agenda has energized Republicans without galvanizing Democrats.
Texas doesn’t have party registration. Voters are labeled Republican or Democrat based on which party primary they last voted in. In the 2020 primaries, 54% of the Sixth District’s total turnout voted in the GOP primary while 46% voted in the Democratic.
By comparison, about 62% of Saturday’s turnout was cast for Republican candidates while roughly 37% went to Democrats, with a little under a point split between the other two candidates. This suggests President Biden’s administration so far has managed to unify and invigorate Republicans more than it has motivated Democrats.
The higher GOP turnout certainly can’t be credited to Republican communication efforts. Except for Sen. Tim Scott’s very effective response to President Biden’s address to Congress, GOP messaging has been uneven and sporadic. The Texas returns are the result of an organic reaction by center-right voters to proposals for trillions in new federal spending, gigantic tax increases on savings and enterprise, and a massive expansion of the nanny state. Imagine what could happen if the Republicans got their messaging right!
The nearly 25-point gap between the GOP and Democratic totals should also disabuse Mr. Biden’s West Wing ideologues of the notion that his progressive agenda is supported by Republicans and independents because crosstabs say so in polls describing the administration’s policies as Mom, Apple Pie and the American Flag.
The second takeaway is that basing a GOP primary appeal solely or largely on opposition to Mr. Trump is a losing strategy. One Republican, a decorated Marine combat veteran and small-business owner, based his campaign on criticism of Mr. Trump’s conduct in office, particularly his Jan. 6 rally and the subsequent attack on the Capitol. He lambasted the GOP as “a cult of personality.” That won him about 3% Saturday, which translates into 5% of the Republican vote. Rather than turning off many conservative voters, GOP candidates who have problems with Mr. Trump should focus on the actions of congressional Democrats and the future, not the former president.
The third takeaway is that Mr. Trump’s backing is potent but won’t by itself clear the field or guarantee victory. The former president endorsed Ms. Wright on April 24, two-thirds of the way through the early-voting period, and then appeared on a “tele-townhall” four days later. Ms. Wright went from 16% among early voters before Mr. Trump’s endorsement to 24% among Election Day voters afterward, giving her a combined 19% and a first-place finish.
Yet this means about 2 out of every 3 GOP voters ignored the former president’s endorsement and chose another Republican. Further, some of Ms. Wright’s movement may have been the result of endorsements coming down the stretch by popular local mayors and members of Congress.
Saturday’s special election tells us some things but hardly everything, and Republicans will rarely have the advantage of a jungle primary where two GOP candidates prove stronger than the strongest Democrat. The 2022 contests that will decide control of the U.S. House will be one-on-one cage matches. And since Democrats will have more money, Republicans will win only if they offer a more attractive agenda, articulated more effectively by more diverse candidates. Mr. Biden won’t do all the work for them.