Trump's failure in a Texas runoff means nothing else ... yet

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Donald Trump.
Donald Trump. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

An endorsement by Donald Trump is the most coveted prize in the GOP. For Republican candidates, the former president's imprimatur is a powerful way to stand out from competitors while courting base voters.

If a Trump endorsement helps, though, it's no guarantee of success. On Tuesday night, Republican state representative Jake Ellzey defeated Susan Wright in a runoff to represent Texas' 6th District in Congress. Trump endorsed Wright and recorded a robocall on her behalf, while his Make America Great Again PAC spent about $100,000 on pro-Wright ads. It wasn't enough. Ellzey won by 53 percent to 47 percent.

The obvious conclusion is that Trump's influence isn't all it's supposed to be. That might be true. But this outcome has quirky features that make it dubious evidence for that conclusion.

First, the contest was a special election to replace Wright's husband, who died last year. Special elections tend to be scheduled out of sequence to national or statewide campaigns and to attract low turnout. That makes them far less predictable or representative of broad trends than conventional races.

Second, this election was a runoff in which both candidates were Republicans (a non-partisan "blanket" primary was held in May). Without a candidate of their party on the ballot, it's possible that some Democrat chose Ellzey as the lesser of two evils.

There were few policy differences between Ellzey and Wright, both of whom advertised rather conventional conservative agendas. Yet Ellzey adopted a relatively non-combative tone that marked him as the "establishment" candidate. In a traditional primary, that probably wouldn't have worked. Under these circumstances, a coalition of less strident Republicans plus a few anti-Trump protest voters might have been enough to make the difference in a low turnout race.

Finally, the district outside Dallas-Ft. Worth has been shifting blue for decades — at least in presidential politics. In 2000 and again 2004, George W. Bush won the district with about two thirds of the vote. In 2020, Trump won just 51 percent, running behind his own 2016 mark of 54 percent. Like other prosperous suburbs, then, the Texas 6th is getting less receptive to Republican candidates in general — and Trump's brand of politics in particular.

It's too soon, then, to conclude that Trump's stock is falling. But the Texas result suggests that his domination of the party is less complete that his most fervent admirers or critics like to think. There will be another test on August 3, when Ohio's 15th District holds a primary for its own special election. If Trump-endorsed Mike Carey loses there, it might to time to think about the future of the party beyond the former president's shadow.

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