Donald Trump is haunting the North Texas special congressional election to replace the late Ron Wright.
Since his failure to accept defeat to Joe Biden, which critics say helped fuel the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Republicans have debated whether to continue to embrace Trump or dump him for new leaders.
That question has emerged in the May 1 special election in Congressional District 6, with GOP candidates touting contrasting views. The race—which features 23 hopefuls—includes Republicans who have worked for the Trump administration. Several current and former contenders have asked the former president for his backing.
It’s a delicate dance.
In 2020 Trump won the district by 4 percentage points, while Wright won his second term by 8 points. Trump was particularly weaker in Tarrant County, where he lost to Biden, even though every other down-ballot Republican won their competitive contests.
But Trump rolled up impressive victories in the rural and small town environs of Navarro and Ellis counties. Republican strategists say hardcore Trump supporters make up at least 30 percent of the Republican electorate in the district. That would make it difficult for an anti-Trump candidate in a 23-person field that includes 10 Democrats.
“In a district that has been Republican for a long time, they’re going to try to appeal to the Republican portion of the electorate, and the best way to do that is to at least have some appreciation for the President that the vast majority of Republicans in the district voted for,” said Mark Davis, a conservative radio talk show host who has had District 6 candidates on his 660 AM (The Answer) program.
“District 6 is not a hard-red district,” Davis said. “But out the Republicans who are voting…there’s simply not a large number of those who are going to gravitate towards someone who makes clear that they hated everything Trump did.”
Republican Janice Barlow, president of the Navarro County Republican Women, said Trump remains “absolutely very popular” in her area.
“I will say for myself their allegiance to Trump will be my #1 factor,” Barlow said in an email about the candidates running to replace Wright.
Marine veteran and Arlington businessman Michael Wood hopes Davis is wrong about Trump’s popularity. This week he announced the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois and one of the few elected Republican critics of Trump.
Kinzinger voted in favor of Trump’s second impeachment, agreeing that Trump’s Jan. 6 speech helped incite the Capitol riot.
Wood hopes other Republicans in the district agree that it’s time to move past the former president. He voted against Trump in 2016. After his judicial appointments, Wood said he voted for President Trump in 2020, but didn’t like Trump’s behavior after Biden beat him.
“There are a whole lot of Republicans and conservatives who are looking for an off ramp,” Wood said. “They want someone who can tell them that you can be a good conservative, you can be a good Republican and step away from this man who has been leading our party for the past five years.”
Wood, however, will have to share the anti-Trump lane with Democrats. And he may not have the resources to build his name recognition among Republicans, even those not enamored with Trump. He estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of Republican voters want a new leader for the GOP.
Meanwhile, several candidates are embracing Trump.
Republican Sery Kim served Trump as an assistant administrator in the Office of Women’s Business Ownership at the Small Business Administration. She also worked on Trump’s presidential transition team.
“I like to embrace the policies that the Trump administration did that were helpful to minorities because obviously I’m a minority,” said Kim, a Korean American. “We have the lowest unemployment ever among Asians, lowest among Hispanics, lowest among blacks. I’m hoping to stimulate the conversation that you can support a person’s policy without supporting their Twitter.”
Kim said that she doesn’t believe Trump incited the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, referring to words in his speech that called for “peaceful” and “patriotic” protests of the election certification. She also denounced to riot.
The first-time candidate has been actively pursuing Trump’s endorsement, even on social media.
🇺🇸I would be incredibly honored if I received President Donald J. Trump’s endorsement! His policies created the lowest unemployment among Asians, Hispanics, & Blacks EVER!! 🇺🇸If you believe the Trump policies are best for #TX06 watch my @newsmax clip here https://t.co/jMZrBqyrfw
— Sery Kim (@seryfortexas) March 23, 2021
“I tell people ‘Here’s my cell phone number, feel free to give it to the President,’” Kim told The Dallas Morning News. “If Trump endorses me, that’s instant name ID, good or bad, depending on who the voter group is.”
Other candidates from the Trump administration are also using their connections with the previous administration to score points with Trump supporters.
Brian Harrison, who served as chief of staff for the Department of Health & Human Services, has photos of Trump plastered on some of his campaign material and website.
When he entered the contest, Harrison told The News that he would push back against Biden, and he praised Trump.
“Americans are extremely grateful for the policy victories that we had, we were able to accomplish. The President Trump in Washington,” Harrison said. “They want government smaller, they wanted more accountability. They want leaders in Washington will put their interests first, ahead of the bureaucracy and ahead of the media.”
Republican activist Susan Wright, the frontrunner in the District 6 race and the former congressman’s widow, mentioned Trump in her campaign launch.
“As a Member of Congress, Ron Wright was a staunch defender of President Trump and his America-First agenda, voting in line with the President over 96% of the time,” the news release announcing Wright’s candidacy stated. “Susan will continue focusing on the issues most important to Texans such as cutting taxes and wasteful spending, rebuilding our economy, defending Constitutional freedoms, preserving the sanctity of life, strengthening our military, and reforming healthcare.”
When asked about Trump’s impact on the race this week, Wright reiterated the president’s popularity with the GOP.
“President Trump still has a strong influence in this district on Republican voters,” she said. “There is a resounding legacy that remains due to his economic and foreign policy initiatives.”
State Rep. Jake Ellzey of rural Ellis County, who in 2018 lost the District 6 primary to Ron Wright, agreed that Trump was still relevant in the district.
“President Trump, Congressman Wright and I were all on the same ballot in November. Trump supporters voted for all three of us,” Ellzey said. “Trump won this district. So the question of “how will you attract Trump voters?’ is best directed at Democrats. Democrats cannot hope to win this district without appealing to Trump voters and from what I am seeing, they are not appealing.”
In 2020 Trump backed former WWE wrestler Dan “Big Dan” Rodimer in a Nevada congressional race. Just four months after losing that race to Democrat Susie Lee, Rodimer is now running in District 6 seat in North Texas, but does not have Trump’s backing.
Political observers say while Trump will be a factor in the race, the qualifications of the candidates and their ideas are most important to voters.
“The whole issue of Trump at this point is kind of interesting part of the conversation, because I think a lot of people are trying to figure out where is he going to be on things as we get closer to 2022,” said Tarrant County Republican Party Chairman Rick Barnes. “I don’t see him playing a role in this election…he might have a role in the runoff, but right now it’s probably a little bit big for him to have a voice in it.”