Texas

How Republican Jake Ellzey’s bipartisan appeal, positive campaign helped him upset Trump’s pick for Congress

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Susan Wright’s campaign had reasons to feel good Tuesday morning, coming off a tele-rally with former President Donald Trump the night before and armed with internal polling showing she had a comfortable lead over her fellow Republican opponent.But anxiety set in as the day went on and her campaign saw higher-than-expected turnout. Then, a couple hours before polls closed, her consultant, Matt Langston, got a call.

It was from a campaign worker at a polling place, and they said the kinds of voters who were showing up had “definitely changed.” How do you know that? Langston asked.

“Because they’re all wearing masks,” the worker replied.

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Data is not immediately available on exactly who voted in the special election runoff to replace Wright’s late husband, U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, R-Arlington — including how many Democrats, more concerned about COVID-19, may have turned out. But at the end of the day, Wright’s coveted endorsement from Trump — which appeared so powerful in propelling her to the top in the initial election — may have contributed to her undoing in the runoff where state Rep. Jake Ellzey benefited from a more bipartisan appeal, coupled with a more positive, energetic campaign.

The bipartisan appeal was driven not just by Ellzey’s campaign but also by at least one outside group that explicitly targeted Democrats for him.

“This was not a surprise,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the super PAC Defending Main Street.

Ellzey’s campaign and its supporters saw Wright as using Trump’s endorsement as a crutch, running an otherwise lackluster campaign that was propped up by a big-spending outside group, the Club for Growth. Her campaign denies that.

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“Susan did everything possible to win this race,” Langston said.

In any case, Republicans on both sides of the runoff dispute the suggestion that the outcome was a repudiation of Trump. Ellzey was anything but an anti-Trump candidate, and the former president called to congratule him the morning after the runoff in a conversation that his campaign described as “very, very cordial.”

“That’s nonsense,” Ellzey said Wednesday morning when asked about the idea the runoff was a referendum on Trump’s intraparty clout. “The president is still exceptionally popular in this district.”

Ellzey’s persistence

Going into the race, local political observers knew not to discount Ellzey. It would be his fourth competitive campaign in the region in seven years. He first ran for the Texas House there in 2014, then for the congressional seat in 2018 — facing Ron Wright in a primary runoff and losing by a small margin — and then for the state House again last year.

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Wright’s campaign knew Ellzey could be a serious threat, and her supporters sought to get him to reconsider. He was unswayed.

Even before the May 1 special election, which featured 23 candidates total, Wright and her allies zeroed in on Ellzey, spending six figures to keep him out of the runoff. They were unsuccessful, and Ellzey squeezed into the second round past a Democratic candidate, Jana Lynne Sanchez, crushing her party’s hopes of flipping the GOP-leaning district.

While Wright would have preferred to face a Democrat in the runoff — at one point in April she attacked Sanchez by name in an apparent attempt to elevate her — Wright’s campaign was optimistic heading into the runoff. She had secured Trump’s endorsement on the second-to-last day of early voting and saw a surge in support, beating Ellzey by 13 percentage points on election day after virtually tying him in the early vote.

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A little over a month after the May election, Wright’s campaign released an internal poll that gave her a 15-point lead over Ellzey.

Then the Club for Growth started spending — a lot. The national anti-tax group poured $1.2 million into the runoff, emphasizing Wright’s Trump endorsement and ripping Ellzey as an absentee legislator in the state House, casting him as pro-tax hike for supporting a bill that extended the state’s rental-car tax to peer-to-peer car-sharing platforms.

The negativity began prompting some notable GOP names to come off the sidelines. U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Houston threw his support behind Ellzey, saying he “hate(s) dishonest campaigns.” Ron Wright’s predecessor in the seat, Joe Barton, also broke his silence and endorsed Ellzey, citing in part the tenor of the campaign against him. Langston responded by calling Barton a “disgraced creep,” a reference to the nude-photo scandal that he went through before deciding not to seek reelection in 2018.

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As Wright’s side tore into Ellzey, both in the initial election and runoff, Ellzey largely stuck to a sunny message, playing up his background as a former Navy fighter pilot and “NOT a politician” — a dubious claim given his current job and three previous campaigns — and highlighting his involvement in the stridently conservative session that lawmakers were having in Austin.

After Trump backed Wright, Ellzey praised her for earning the endorsement but made clear he was not entirely ceding the pro-Trump lane, releasing a video featuring testimonals from previous Trump voters who were supporting him.

Ellzey and his allies struck a more negative tone when they began pushing back on the Club for Growth attacks. But the group was nonetheless a welcome target — it meant Team Ellzey did not have to directly criticize his opponent, a widow, or create tension with a former president who was still popular with Republicans in the district.

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Watching it all was Mark Davis, the conservative radio host in North Texas who had interviewed both candidates and had become a vocal critic of the anti-Ellzey crusade.

“It’s impossible to know if some of the Ellzey votes were voters repelled by the attack ads from Club for Growth,” Davis said to the Tribune on Wednesday. “I do know there were many voters who were generally undecided, and some may have leaned toward Ellzey because they grew weary of seeing him portrayed as such a villain so dishonestly by Club for Growth.”

The Club for Growth had previously gone up against Ellzey in the 2018 primary runoff for the seat, and as early voting neared for Tuesday’s election, the group’s animosity toward him was becoming near-legendary in real time. In early July, Ellzey and the group’s president, David McIntosh, ran into each other at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas.

“I went and introduced myself and said, ‘Hey, I just want to meet my worthy adversary,’” Ellzey recalled. The meeting “wasn’t tense,” Ellzey added. “I gave him my card.”

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A bipartisan coalition

From the start of the runoff, there was speculation that Democrats could play a role in picking the winner. The 2020 Democratic nominee for the seat, Stephen Daniel, quickly announced after the May election that he would vote for Ellzey in the runoff, saying Democrats “may be the deciding factor in this election.”

While there is not data to support that yet, the anecdotal evidence is considerable.

Allison Campolo, the chairwoman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, said there were “two significant movements” regarding how Democrats should participate in the runoff. They were either voting for Ellzey as a way to stick it to Trump or undervoting — casting a blank ballot. But only 83 undervotes were cast in Tarrant County, according to unofficial results.

“Definitely I think [Democrats] were voting against something rather than for something,” Campolo said.

Similarly, Sanchez, the leading Democrat in the May election, said “a good number of my friends in Ellis County” voted for Ellzey — and not because they were particularly drawn to the candidate.

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“It was basically a fuck-you to Trump,” Sanchez said.

In the hours before polls closed Tuesday, texts surfaced from the Ellzey campaign that appeared to appeal to Democrats. The texts contrasted Ellzey and Wright, calling him a champion for public education and noting she was endorsed by Trump.

The texts were only part of the story, though. Defending Main Street, which works to elect moderate Republicans, was already on its way to spending close to $100,000 on fieldwork that in part targeted Democrats for Ellzey. If a Democrat was open to voting for Ellzey, the group showed them literature playing up his military experience.

“We sent in boots on the ground and we changed the turnout model, which is why the polling was off,” Chamberlain said.

Sure enough, in addition to the first internal poll that Wright’s campaign released in the runoff giving her a wide lead, the campaign released a second one the week before the election that had her up 10 points.

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The super PAC also went after Republicans in Tarrant County — Wright’s home county — who did not vote in the May election, figuring they were likely to vote against her in the runoff but just needed to be mobilized.

Ellzey ended up carrying Tarrant County by 6 points after Wright clobbered him there in the May election. Ellzey later recalled that he was still taking down a tent at a polling place in Midlothian on Tuesday evening when he got a call with some surprising news — he was winning the Tarrant County early vote by some 300 votes.

“I thought, ‘That’s different,’” Ellzey said.

On Wednesday, a Trump spokesperson squarely blamed Democrats for deciding the runoff.

“The Democrats went out to vote and they all voted for Ellzey,” Liz Harrington said in a one-sentence statement.

Ellzey’s campaign bristled at the suggestion they relied on Democrats for their win. Told about Harrington’s comment, Ellzey consultant Craig Murphy said Trump harbored no such ill will when he called Ellzey on Wednesday morning to congratulate him.

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“Trump couldn’t have been nicer,” Murphy said.

He said the Ellzey campaign “mainly focused on Republicans” in the runoff and “what we did was standard political communication and focused on our issue.” That issue, public education, “was a great issue for Republicans and Democrats,” Murphy said.

In the final days of the runoff, there were also mysterious texts that gave the impression they were targeting Democrats — asking people to “vote for moderate Ellzey against conservative Wright.” One text that was sent out on election day was addressed to “LIBERALS” and said “today is our final chance to defeat Trump-endorsed conservative Susan Wright.”

The texts, however, did not say who paid for them, and both campaigns say they were not responsible.

“There was no active effort on our end to turn out Democrats in this race,” Langston said.

Trump’s commitment

Toward the end of the runoff, Ellzey and his allies began openly questioning whether Trump had made an informed choice in backing Wright. Ellzey’s highest-profile surrogate, former Gov. Rick Perry, told the Dallas Morning News that Trump was “fed a bill of goods” before endorsing Wright. In a mid-July interview, another top Ellzey endorser, Crenshaw, downplayed the Trump endorsement as due to “just staff that was in good communication with Susan Wright’s staff.” And in another interview around that time, Ellzey made a similar — albeit more careful — insinuation, saying “Trump’s never met Susan Wright, Trump’s never met me.”

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Some Republicans were reluctant to publicly support Ellzey, perhaps wary of being seen as at odds with Trump. Take for example Brian Harrison, the third-place Republican finisher in the May election who had run hard on his time in the Trump administration. He never issued an endorsement in the runoff but attended Ellzey’s election-night party and revealed afterward that he voted for Ellzey.

The unflattering chatter may have been getting to Trump.

“I know her well,” Trump asserted during a telephone rally with Wright on the eve of the runoff.

The call, which clocked in at less than 10 minutes, was part of a burst of late activity by the pro-Trump universe of Wright’s behalf. The former president also recorded a robocall for her, and two super PACs with ties to him made last-minute ad buys. Throughout the runoff, Trump had also issued three statements reiterating his endorsement.

On Wednesday, Axios reported that Trump advisers were blaming the Club for Growth president, McIntosh, for pushing Trump to back a losing candidate. The Club for Growth did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

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One of Wright’s earliest endorsers, Tarrant County GOP Chairman Rick Barnes, said Trump “did what should be expected of a past president of his stature.” And Barnes defended the quality of Wright’s campaign, saying she “was out there, she was everywhere, she was doing her thing and working it.”

On Wednesday, Barnes said the county party was “kind of in analyzing mode right now,” including waiting for the data to see how many Democrats turned out.

“It’s hard to tell what happened,” Barnes said. “I think it was a surprise to a lot of people. … It went against polling, and it went against all kinds of things we were looking at.”

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