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A crowded congressional special election in Texas’ 6th District could give Republicans a first look at Donald Trump’s staying power in the party ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. The race also gives Democrats a chance to compete after falling short of their 2020 goals in the state. 

Twenty-three candidates, including 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, have jumped into the race to succeed Republican Ron Wright, who died in February from COVID-19 and lung cancer. He had just won reelection in November by almost  9 points. 

All the candidates will appear on the same ballot on May 1 and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will move on to a summer runoff if no candidate cracks 50%. 

Republicans have garnered most of the out-of-state attention in this race.

Dan Rodimer, a former WWE wrestler, rode a bull in his campaign launch and showed off a southern accent  – that was lacking in ads from his 2020 House run in Nevada’s 3rd District. In a hit on CNN, Rodimer chalked up any perceived difference to losing his voice. 

Sery Kim, a Trump administration official in the Small Business Administration, said at a forum earlier this month that she didn’t want Chinese immigrants in the country.  The comment cost Kim, who is Korean-American, her endorsements from Korean-American Republican Congresswomen Young Kim and Michelle Steel. Sery claimed she was referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

Marine Michael Wood calls himself an anti-Trump Republican. He’s picked up financial backing from Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger (whom Wood says he talks with “every day”), Ohio Congressman Anthony Gonzalez and Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney. All three Republicans voted to impeach Mr. Trump in January. 

But local Republicans point to three others as the front runners: newly-elected State Representative Jake Ellzey; Brian Harrison, former Trump administration Health and Human Services chief of staff; and Wright’s widow, Susan Wright, a longtime local party activist.

Ellzey, who narrowly lost in the 2018 GOP primary for the seat, has been endorsed by former Texas Governor Rick Perry and has raised almost $500,000 in direct contributions, more than any GOP candidate since January. 

The conservative Club for Growth Action PAC has spent close to $160,000 opposing Ellzey.

Susan Wright has made her experience during her husband’s tenure part of her pitch, citing her familiarity with district outreach and how Congress works.

She’s been endorsed by the state party, local party officials and five Texas U.S. House members. Arizona Congressman Andy Biggs and New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik and her E-PAC organization are also backing her.

“Their support in my mind is a reaffirmation that I’m ready to do this job,” she said, adding that she’s also talked to Louisiana Congresswoman Julia Letlow, who also recently lost her own husband, the late Congressman Luke Letlow, to COVID-19 and won the special election to take his seat

“Running for this seat is both challenging and rewarding, but I don’t question my decision to do it,” she said. 

Part of Harrison’s pitch is his own time in Washington, particularly his work at HHS during the Trump administration. The occupation listed on his filing is “HUSBAND, FATHER, SWAMP DRAINER.” His campaign website shows a picture of him and Mr. Trump in the Oval Office and says he was “recruited by the Trump Administration.”

Mr. Trump has not endorsed anyone in this race, though Harrison’s campaign points to endorsements or donations from more than 100 “senior Trump officials.”

The district has been trending further away from national Republicans during Trump’s tenure. Mitt Romney won the seat by 17% during his 2012 run, while Mr. Trump won by 3% in 2020. 

Ellis and Navarro counties are GOP strongholds, but the district’s portion of Tarrant County has grown demographically and is where you’ll find the most “purple,” according to Tarrant County Republican Party Finance Chair Mona Bailey.

“I think we’re a 50-50 mixed bag right now concerning Trump,” said Bailey. “Most of us think he had the right message. Some people think maybe he wasn’t the right messenger. But in Tarrant County, you’re not going to find that said out loud a lot.”

“I do think that a lot of people are trying to figure out what 2022 is going to mean to us and ultimately 2024. And I’m not sure Trump is an automatic part of that conversation for everybody anymore,” added Tarrant County GOP Chair Rick Barnes. Both Barnes and Bailey have backed Wright.  

Harrison has no reservations about courting Mr. Trump’s base and doesn’t expect it to alienate other GOP voters. 

“Voters in Texas are tired of establishment Republicans talking a good talk in Texas but not fighting the fight and delivering victories in Washington,” Harrison said.

Democratic candidates are tying GOP candidates to Mr. Trump and Republican state leadership after a winter storm roiled the state’s power grid in February.

“Families who have power are bringing in strangers during a pandemic. But our Senator leaves for a beach vacation,” said non-profit worker and educator Shawn Lassiter in her campaign launch.

Republicans are betting on antipathy toward President Biden in their campaign pitches.

Mailers from Susan Wright’s campaign show President Biden with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and claim she’ll “End the Biden Border Crisis.” One from Ellzey says he’ll stop “the Biden Tax Increase, the Biden Border Crisis, the Biden War on Jobs,” and “Biden’s Attacks on the 2nd Amendment.”

Harrison has filed a federal lawsuit against the Biden administration over its actions around Title 42, which was invoked by Mr. Trump and allowed the suspension of U.S. asylum laws due to the pandemic. 

“We cannot solve the crisis at the border with brute force. We need to get to the core of the problem,” Democratic candidate Jana Lynne Sanchez responded when asked about the border. 

Democrat Lydia Bean, who was a state house candidate in 2020, says the stimulus checks and the American Rescue Plan have been popular with voters.

“People are mad that none of our Texas Republicans voted for the American Rescue Plan, which is just shameful,” she said. “People feel enthusiastic about the Biden administration so far.” 

Democrats are running a different race compared to 2020, this time, they’re knocking on doors in person instead of virtually. The remote campaign, according to a state party assessment that said it caused them to fall behind Republicans, who talked to voters in person.

“That’s probably the biggest mistake that Democrats made, was not doing the door-to-door canvassing in 2020. When I’m able to talk to voters directly about my plan to create a healthier, more equitable, more prosperous Texas, they respond to that,” Sanchez said.

Polls show Sanchez as the most likely Democrat candidate to reach a runoff, and prevent a Republican vs. Republican match-up, although Lassiter has raised more than any Democrat, with $322,254 in contributions according to her latest FEC report. Bean also has a slight advantage over Sanchez in cash on hand going into the remaining weeks before the election.

While the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee doesn’t play in primaries, Sanchez has been backed by BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The Collective PAC, which backs Black candidates, has given $5,000 to Lassiter.