Nearly two dozen candidates filed for the special election to succeed the late U.S. Rep. Ron Wright (R-Arlington) in a district that has become increasingly competitive in general elections over the past decade. President Trump carried the district by 3 points over Joe Biden in 2020, and the average Republican won the district by just over 6 points. Trump won the district by 9 points over Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Mitt Romney carried it over President Obama by 17 points in 2012.
This is not a general election, and turnout is expected to fall well short of the 69% of registered voters who came to the polls in November. The 2018 special election for CD27, which was held in June, drew 15% of the number of voters as in the 2016 general election. A similar result for CD6 would result in around 55K votes cast.
All candidates run on the same ballot regardless of party, and the top two candidates advance to a runoff, regardless of party, if no one secures a majority vote. Given the number of Republicans (11) and Democrats (10) in the race, a runoff is almost certain. The question is, what will be the partisan makeup of the runoff?
The last time a field this size ran in a special election was 1993, when 24 candidates filed to win the unexpired term of former U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D). There were 10 Republicans, five Democrats including the appointed incumbent, one Libertarian, six independents and two other minor party candidates. The Republicans collectively received 58.2% of the vote to the Democrats’ collective 40.5%, and the minor party and independent candidates combined for 1.3%. Eighteen of the candidates each received less than 1% of the vote, 16 of which received less than 0.5%. That left three Republicans and three Democrats with more than 1% of the vote:
- 29.0% – Kay Bailey Hutchison (R)
- 29.0% – U.S. Sen. Bob Krueger (D)
- 13.9% – U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Ennis)
- 13.6% – U.S. Rep. Jack Brooks (R-Humble)
- 8.1% – Richard Fisher (D); and
- 2.6% – Jose Gutierrez (D).
Obviously, this was a statewide race, so it was theoretically more difficult for a lesser-known candidate or lesser funded candidate to get any traction. Nonetheless, in a field of that size, a lot of candidates will get no traction regardless of the district’s size.
Let’s take a look at the 2018 Republican primary for CD6, which featured 11 candidates. Only one candidate received less than 1% of the vote, but only four got more than 5%:
- 45.2% – Ron Wright (R)
- 21.8% – Jake Ellzey (R)
- 7.7% – Ken Cope (R); and
- 6.3% – Shannon Dubberly (R).
There were five Democrats running in their primary for what was an open seat. If we put them all together, as a “combined primary,” then the top six vote-getters would have been:
- 20,750 – Ron Wright (R)
- 10,895 – Ruby Faye Woolridge (D)
- 10,880 – Jana Lynne Sanchez (D)
- 9,999 – Jake Ellzey (R)
- 3,987 – John Duncan (D); and
- 3,540 – Ken Cope (R).
In both of these races – the real 1993 special election for U.S. Senate and the theoretical “combined primary” for CD6 in 2018 – there was some separation between three of the four “runoff” candidates and everyone else. In the Senate race, Hutchison had more than double the votes of the next nearest Republican, and Krueger had more than triple the votes of the next nearest Democrat. In CD6, Wright had more than double the votes of Ellzey, who would have been in a tight race against the top two Democrats in this theoretical “combined primary.”
What does this tell us? For starters, we should expect the majority of the CD6 special election candidates will receive less than 2% of the vote individually and less than 10% collectively.
We’ve seen this pattern in other large-candidate fields, such as the 2018 Republican primary for CD21, where only four of the 21 candidates received at least 10% of the vote, and nine of the candidates each received less than 2% and just under 10% collectively. In the 15-candidate field seeking the 2020 Republican nomination for CD13, eight candidates individually received less than 2% of the vote and collectively received 8%.
If this dynamic were to happen in this special election, it would leave around 10 candidates receiving a little over 90% of the vote, which is about 50K votes if there are a total of 55K. How might this play out?
Republicans. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Susan Wright is the front-runner.* She has released a significant number of endorsements, would appear to have long-standing relationships with the district’s activists and donors as a former district director and political spouse, and voters tend to be friendly to the surviving spouses of elected officials who die in office.
* Remember, this is a theoretical exercise exploring the math of a special election. Feel free to swap the names of any candidates for any reason – the math is still the same.
Rep. Jake Ellzey (R-Waxahachie) is making his second run for the seat in three years, and he was just elected to represent HD10 in November. Ellis Co. represents less than a quarter of the total voter registrations in the district. He would appear to be in the best position to challenge Wright for the top Republican position.
A wildcard is Trump. Two veterans of his administration – former U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services official Brian Harrison and former Small Business Administration official Sery Kim – filed for the seat, but neither appears to have Trump’s endorsement at this point. That endorsement likely would have gone to former Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson had she filed. Trump’s involvement, assuming it is not for Wright, could greatly shake up the Republican race.
This intra-party race could very well look like the 2018 primary, with one candidate well ahead of the other, and both well ahead of anyone else.
Democrats. Waxahachie songwriter Jana Lynne Sanchez, who was the 2018 Democratic nominee, and Arlington sociologist Lydia Bean, who was the Democrats’ 2020 nominee for HD93, are the two candidates in the field who have proven their abilities to win primaries and raise money. Fort Worth educator Shawn Lassiter abandoned a race for city council to enter this race, and it remains to be seen whether she has the name identification and fundraising prowess to vault her into runoff contention.
Bean raised $1.2M for her unsuccessful challenge of Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth). Sanchez out-raised Ron Wright, $728K to $685K, in their 2018 race. Lassiter had not filed a campaign finance report by the time of her withdrawal from the city council race. We will not see campaign finance reports for this race until April 19.
Sanchez has the same geographic disadvantage as Ellzey. Though both have sought the seat before, they are from a county with less electoral heft than the Tarrant Co. portion.
Others. Neither Libertarian Phil Gray nor independent Adrian Mizher should be expected to eclipse 1% of the vote.
Outlook. Despite the fact that all candidates are on the same ballot, we may very well have two primary elections going on to determine a runoff.
A partisan front-runner’s odds of making the runoff increase with the amount of distance they can put between themselves and the next closest rival from their party. As we saw with the examples above, most of the leading candidates from a particular party more than doubled up the next closest candidate from their own party. The larger this gap, the less likely that two candidates from the same party will make the runoff and the more likely the party’s top candidate will make the runoff.
If the partisan split of special election voters is the same as for the 2020 general election, then there would be roughly 29K votes for the Republicans and 25K for the Democrats. If the split is the same as the 2018 “combined primary,” then there would be roughly 33K Republican votes and 21K Democratic votes.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that Wright doubles up Ellzey, who finishes comfortably ahead of the two former Trump administration officials, each of whom receives 12% of the Republican vote. At any realistic split between Republican and Democratic voters, Wright would finish in first place. Ellzey’s ability to make a runoff in that circumstance would depend on none of the top three Democrats’ separating themselves from each other, and Ellzey’s chances to make a runoff would improve as Democratic voters make up a smaller share of the electorate.
If the Republican front-runners stay closer together and the electorate follows the 2020 general election partisan split, then we could get into a wilder outcome. Let’s say that Wright, Ellzey and a third candidate who gets Trump’s late endorsement largely split around 85% of the Republican vote. That would give each of those three candidates between 8K and 10K votes. If the third-place Democrat received only half the votes of either of the two higher finishing Democrats, then the top two Democrats could receive as many as 9K to 10K votes. That would put five candidates withing a couple thousand votes of each other.
This second theoretical scenario would resemble the 2010 Republican primary for Place 3 on the Supreme Court. The fifth-place candidate finished just 2.2 percentage points behind the first-place candidate. Former Rep. Rick Green (R-Dripping Springs) finished first with 19% of the vote. Debra Lehrmann (R) made the runoff with 18% of the vote, narrowly edging out two other candidates who also received 18% of the vote. The difference would be, the clustered candidates would likely represent both parties in this CD6 special election.
Other assumptions lead to other outcomes, but it is challenging to get a result that puts two people from the same party – particularly the Democratic party – into a runoff absent a significant partisan shift in the special election electorate from the general election electorate. At this point, there is little reason to believe that such a shift, were it to occur, would benefit Democratic candidates.
So, the key is separation. If one Republican and one Democrat separate themselves from their respective packs, then those will likely be the runoff participants. The narrower the margins, the more likely that other outcomes could occur.
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