There’s almost always an election of some sort on in the United States. Last week it was a House of Representatives by-election in Texas. The previous member for the state’s 6th district, Republican Ron Wright, died from Covid-19 in February, only a month after beginning his second term. His widow and fellow Trump supporter, Susan Wright, won Donald Trump’s endorsement to replace him.
Texas, however, has been changing – particularly suburban Texas. The 6th, located mostly in the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth, was once very safe Republican, but Wright had only 53.9% of the two-party vote last November, and in the presidential election Trump carried it with only 51.5%. If they’re going to fortify their current narrow House majority, this is the sort of seat the Democrats want to win.
But when the by-election went to a jungle primary or first-round vote on 1 May, the Republicans had 61.9% of the vote to just 37.3% for the Democrats (a Libertarian and an independent got the rest). More significantly, the leading Democrat, Jana Sanchez, could only manage third place with 13.4%. That left Susan Wright, who topped the poll with 19.2%, to fight out last Tuesday’s runoff with another Republican, Jake Ellzey, who had 13.8%.
In policy terms, there didn’t seem to be much to separate Wright and Ellzey. As you’d expect from the Texas Republican Party, both were thoroughly Trumpy candidates. But Trump solidly backed Wright, so Ellzey did what he could to turn that into an advantage, hinting to Democrat voters that instead of staying home they could strike a blow against Trump by turning out and voting for him.
And it worked. Ellzey prevailed in the runoff with 53.3% to Wright’s 46.7%. And while much of the commentary is presenting that as a rebuff to Trump’s influence in the GOP, it looks more as if Wright and her supporters made the mistake of assuming that Republicans were the only voters who mattered.
The question of the Republican Party’s future is a complicated one, and it won’t be settled quickly. It’s not just a matter of personal loyalty to Trump; if he were to disappear tomorrow, most of the same questions would remain, many of them because they predate him. The party cannot now return to being the same beast that it was pre-Trump, and even if it could it would still have the pathologies that made it vulnerable to the Trumpist takeover.
The Texas result is a reminder that whenever the day of reckoning comes, it’s not just Republican voters that will have something to say about it.