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In Texas, the most sought-after prize for a Republican candidate these days is an endorsement from Donald Trump.
Jake Ellzey does not have it in Tuesday’s special election runoff for the 6th Congressional District.
Still, the Waxahachie state representative is fighting from behind, hoping voters will look beyond the former president’s backing of his opponent, Susan Wright, and reward what he and his allies insist is a superior candidate and campaign. It’s a tough bet with Trump’s popularity still sky-high among Texas Republicans, but it is one that Ellzey is making, armed with a more positive message, his own cast of loyal endorsers and a significant fundraising advantage.
“I have done nothing but congratulate her for that endorsement,” Ellzey said in a recent interview when asked about the challenge of facing a Trump-backed fellow Republican. However, Ellzey quickly noted his own endorser lineup, which includes former Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Houston, and added, “You have to couple endorsements with being a good candidate and a good campaign and appealing to voters at the end of the day.”
Ellzey and Wright are vying to succeed her late husband, U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, R-Arlington, in the Republican-leaning 6th District in North Texas. Democrats had hoped to qualify for the runoff but narrowly missed it in the May 1 special election, making for a lower-stakes overtime round pitting one Republican against another.
The runoff is still packing drama. The Club for Growth, the national anti-tax group, has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the runoff attacking Ellzey, characterizing him as liberal, and drawing increasingly harsh rebuttals from Ellzey and his allies who have otherwise avoided direct criticism of Wright.
“Nothing irritates me more than the junk I have seen in the mailboxes talking about [Ellzey], and if you want to win an election that bad, I don’t want you to be my congressman,” Perry said during a rally with Ellzey and Crenshaw last week in Arlington.
“If you’re gonna allow the Club for Growth to put out the absolute trash they put out on Jake Ellzey and you don’t stand up and tell ‘em to stop it, that’s unacceptable, then that tells me everything I need to know about you, that you’re not a leader,” Perry added. “Susan Wright needs to stand up and say, ‘Club for Growth, cut it out. You are lying about Jake Ellzey.’”
In a statement for this story, the Club for Growth’s president, David McIntosh, did not back away from the group’s efforts in the runoff. He said Susan Wright was a “real conservative,” while “liberal Jake Ellzey has a long record of not showing up to vote, and when he does, too often it’s to vote with Democrats for higher taxes.”
Wright’s campaign has not addressed the Club for Growth attack ads, but expressed confidence that she is on a winning trajectory.
“With the support of President Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz, numerous local elected officials, dozens of precinct chairs, and hundreds of grassroots conservatives, Susan Wright has united the Republican Party behind her,” Wright strategist Matt Langston said in a statement, adding that Wright “is continuing to campaign hard in these final weeks.”
Early voting for the runoff started Monday and ends Friday.
On the issues, there does not appear to be much daylight between Ellzey and Wright. They both cite finishing the border wall, preserving election integrity and standing up for law enforcement among their priorities.
Ellzey has been running on his background as a Navy fighter pilot and his short tenure so far in the Texas House, during which Republicans have passed conservative priority bills like permitless carry of handguns. Wright has been campaigning on continuing her late husband’s legacy as a solidly conservative legislator, while playing up her longtime experience in Texas GOP politics, working for members of the Legislature and serving on the State Republican Executive Committee.
The dueling endorsements provide a sharper contrast.
Trump’s endorsement came on the second-to-last day of early voting for the special election, and it appeared to give Wright a major boost in the election-day vote after she virtually tied Ellzey in early ballots. Trump reiterated his endorsement in a July 10 statement, saying Wright is “working very hard, has already defeated the Democrat, and has a substantial lead to close it out on July 27, 2021.”
Trump’s favorability rating among Texas Republicans is 86%, according to a poll last month from the Texas Tribune and University of Texas at Austin. Last election cycle, all but one of the Texas Republicans he endorsed in congressional races were victorious.
Days into the runoff, Wright also got the endorsement of Cruz, who had expressed opposition to Ellzey in the first round but did not back any alternative. More recently, Wright was endorsed Tuesday by Jim Ross, the new mayor of Arlington, the biggest population center inside the congressional district.
Ellzey’s biggest get of the runoff has easily been Crenshaw, the rising-star congressman and a fellow Navy veteran. Crenshaw broke his silence in a late June video, saying he had not planned on getting involved in the runoff but “hate[s] dishonest campaigns” like the one he said Wright’s side was waging.
Asked how much he weighed Trump’s endorsement of Wright, Crenshaw said in an interview that it “definitely gives you pause.” But Crenshaw downplayed the importance of endorsements overall and said “it really is about the people in the race,” praising Ellzey’s experience in the military and now in the Legislature.
In any case, Crenshaw said, “I don’t think this is a passionate endorsement by Trump by any stretch of the imagination.”
Crenshaw is not the only Ellzey endorser who appears to have been galvanized by the Club for Growth attacks. Joe Barton, the congressman who held the seat before Ron Wright, endorsed Ellzey on Monday, citing in part the group’s negative campaign against Ellzey.
Ellzey’s clearest advantage in the runoff, however, has been financial.
On the latest campaign finance reports, covering April 12 through July 7, Ellzey nearly tripled Wright’s fundraising, $1.23 million to $454,000. He spent big to achieve the haul — $1.15 million, mostly on digital fundraising — but still entered the homestretch with a decisive cash-on-hand advantage, $485,000 to her $164,000.
The Club for Growth has easily led the way in third-party spending, dropping over $800,000 on the race since the May 1 special election, according to records from the Federal Election Commission. By all appearances, the group has usurped own Wright’s campaign as her chief advertiser in the runoff.
Ellzey has been the beneficiary of more modest outside spending led by the Elect Principled Veterans Fund, a super PAC that popped up earlier this year to support him in the May 1 special election. A recent filing with the Federal Election Commission revealed that the group has gotten all of its funding from the With Honor Fund, a national super PAC that backs veterans running for office in both parties.
Notably, all the third-party spending on Ellzey’s behalf has remained positive.
It is the Club for Growth’s activities that have drawn the most attention in the runoff, though. Its mailers have savaged Ellzey as an absentee state lawmaker, a tax-hike supporter and a puppet of Democrats — literally portraying him as a marionette in one piece.
The tax-hike claim relates to Ellzey’s vote for a bill during the regular session that would have extended the state’s rental-car tax to peer-to-peer car-sharing platforms, which let people rent their own cars to others. The legislation passed the House in April with splintered GOP support but not never got a committee hearing in the Senate.
Ellzey stood by the vote, arguing it is “not a new tax” but “a loophole on an old tax that was closed up.” The bill as introduced would have raised $61.1 million in revenue for the state over the next two years, according to its fiscal note.
The mailers yoke Ellzey to Democrats citing the fact that the 2020 Democratic nominee for the seat, Stephen Daniel, has said he will vote for Ellzey in the runoff. Daniel said two days after the May 1 election that Democrats “may be the deciding factor in this [runoff] and we need to do everything we can to make sure the Trump-endorsed Susan Wright loses.”
Asked if he welcomes Democratic support in the runoff, Ellzey argued he is campaigning as he always has — as a conservative concerned with divisiveness in his party and country — and “it’s gonna appeal to who it appeals to.”
Ellzey has also had to face scrutiny over his decision to run for Congress only months after getting sworn in to the Texas House. Paul Perry, a commissioner in Ellzey’s home county of Ellis County, said he supported Ellzey when he first ran for the congressional seat in 2018, facing Ron Wright in a primary runoff, but now he is backing Susan Wright because she will “put duty over ambition.”
“If he jumps offices without serving even a complete term in Austin, what would he do in Congress if there was an opportunity to run for another office?” Paul Perry asked.
Ellzey, who pointed out he has been endorsed by the rest of the Ellis County commissioners, said he likes to remind people that Ted Cruz was only in his first term in the U.S. Senate when he ran for president in 2016.
If a voter supports someone on their character and principles, Ellzey said, “that should be enough.”
Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.