Special Elections Test Trump’s Clout, Highlight Democratic Split

  • Two Republicans face off in Texas special election on Tuesday
  • Ohio race pits mainstream Democrat against progressive

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Special elections to fill four vacant House districts are highlighting skirmishes within the parties as well as testing the influence of Donald Trump’s sway over Republican voters.

In all four districts, the defending political party is either guaranteed victory or heavily favored to win — thus heightening the importance of the intraparty battles.

Trump has endorsed candidates in a special election Tuesday in Texas and a Republican primary in Ohio next week.

Photographer: Dylan Hollingsworth/Bloomberg
Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas on July 11. His clout will be tested in a Texas special election Tuesday where he has endorsed candidate Susan Wright.

Meanwhile, a big-spending Democratic primary next week in Ohio pits a candidate from the liberal mainstream of the party against a candidate from its more progressive wing.

The contests will be among the last held in current districts before states redraw boundaries for the 2022 elections.

(Subscribe to Ballots & Boundaries , a weekly check-in as states change voting laws and revise political districts.)

Here’s what you need to know about the elections.

Texas’ 6th District

The two Republicans vying in the special election in Texas’ 6th District are Susan Wright, a political activist and former state legislative aide who’s the widow of the late Rep. Ron Wright (R), and Jake Ellzey, a state representative and former Navy fighter pilot who lost to Ron Wright in a 2018 Republican runoff for the same seat.

There’s little difference on policy between the two rivals. Susan Wright has Trump’s backing, while Ellzey is the preferred candidate of Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), a fellow Navy veteran, and former Gov. Rick Perry (R).

“Susan has my Complete and Total Endorsement. She will make our Country proud,” Trump said in a statement July 21 that reiterated an endorsement he made in April. Trump didn’t attack Ellzey.

Trump “wanted to notch an endorsement win,” Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said in an interview. “His endorsement of Susan Wright was not so much a policy endorsement.”

Wright probably began the runoff as the heavy favorite, though Ellzey has been the stronger fundraiser and is an energetic campaigner. The Club for Growth, a conservative group supporting limited government, spent more than $800,000 through its super political action committee supporting Wright and opposing Ellzey. The Club attacked Ellzey for missing votes after joining the legislature in January.

Wright and Ellzey advanced to the runoff after they were the top vote-getters in a first-round election May 1 that included 23 candidates of all political affiliations. Wright’s base is in Tarrant County in and around Fort Worth, while Ellzey is from Ellis County in and around Waxahachie to the southeast. Ron Wright, who had cancer and was diagnosed with Covid-19, died in February after representing the mildly Republican-leaning district for 25 months.

Predicting the outcome is difficult because independent polling is scarce and it’s hard to estimate how many Republicans will vote, given their party already clinched victory over the Democrats. It’s also unclear how many Democratic and independent voters will show up to try and influence the outcome.

If Susan Wright wins, House Republicans would have a record 32 women in their conference.

Ohio’s 11th District

The Democratic primary on Aug. 3 is the contest that matters in this Black-majority, overwhelmingly Democratic 11th District running from Cleveland south to Akron. Two candidates, with competing political coalitions, have dominated the race.

Nina Turner, a former Cleveland councilwoman and state senator who was a national co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, has the backing of Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

Shontel Brown, a Cuyahoga County councilwoman and the chair of the county Democratic organization, is supported by 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who helped Joe Biden secure the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Turner raised more than $4.5 million through July 14 from donors including Justice Democrats and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.). Brown’s $2.1 million in receipts included contributions from the PACs of the Congressional Black Caucus and its chair, Rep. Joyce Beatty, who’s also an Ohio Democrat.

Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) PAC, which aids pro-Israel Democrats, spent more than $900,000 supporting Brown and opposing Turner.

Brown and Turner overshadowed the other 11 Democratic candidates in the race.

The special general election Nov. 2 will be a formality in a district where Biden won 80% of the vote in 2020. Marcia Fudge (D) resigned in March to become Biden’s housing and urban development secretary.

Ohio’s 15th District

The 11-candidate Republican primary Aug. 3 in Ohio’s 15th District, a Republican-leaning swath in the south-central part of the state, is a proxy fight between Trump and ex-Rep. Steve Stivers, who resigned in May to lead the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

Trump endorsed Mike Carey, a former energy lobbyist who led the Ohio Coal Association, while Stivers aided Jeff LaRe, a state representative and former law enforcement official who’s running on a theme of safety.

Stivers, a former National Republican Congressional Committee chair, is no moderate though he was among the minority of House Republicans who voted in effect to certify the 2020 election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania that Trump supporters opposed. Stivers spent several hundred thousand dollars of leftover campaign funds to promote LaRe.

Other Republican candidates include state Sen. Bob Peterson, who raised the most money from individual donors; state Sen. Stephanie Kunze, who received donations from groups working to elect more Republican women to Congress; Ron Hood, a former state representative with significant outside backing from Protect Freedom PAC, which is aligned with libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.); and Tom Hwang, a golf course owner who self-financed his campaign.

The Club for Growth’s super PAC intervened in the race with spending against Kunze, LaRe, and Peterson.

The Republican primary winner will be a decided favorite to win the Nov. 2 special general election in a district that voted 57%-41% for Trump in 2020, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Government. No Democrat in the House holds a district that was as pro-Trump as Ohio’s 15th. While the district’s portions of Franklin County (Columbus) and Athens County lean Democratic, the other 10 counties wholly or partially in the district vote strongly Republican.

Still, Democrats have a serious likely nominee in Allison Russo, a state representative and public health policy consultant. Democrats are prepared to link Republicans to a corruption scandal that led to the expulsion of a former Ohio House Republican speaker in June.

Florida’s 20th District

The Nov. 2 Democratic primary is the key race in this Black-majority Democratic bastion in parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties in southeastern Florida that Biden won with 77% of the vote last year.

The victor will be a shoo-in to succeed the late Alcee Hastings (D) after the special general election Jan. 11.

After Hastings died in April following a lengthy battle with cancer, a long line of would-be Democratic successors formed for the seat he dominated for almost three decades. The candidate filing period ends Aug. 10.

State Sen. Perry Thurston and state Reps. Omari Hardy and Bobby DuBose are looking to move from the Florida Legislature to Congress. Thurston has partially self-financed his campaign and received donations from the PACs of Nextera Energy Inc., headquartered in Juno Beach, and Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, based in Miramar. Hardy is a self-described “bold progressive” who, at 31, is younger than the other major candidates.

Broward County Commissioners Dale Holness and Barbara Sharief and former Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor are also seeking the seat along with Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, the CEO of Trinity Health Care Services who loaned her campaign $2.3 million.

Cherfilus-McCormick is running for a third time after taking 26% of the vote in the 2018 Democratic primary against Hastings and then 31% in a 2020 rematch.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at ggiroux@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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