Susan Wright, the widow of the Republican congressman whose death prompted a special election in Texas on Saturday, made the runoff after reporting to law enforcement a bizarre robocall in which she was accused of murdering her husband by contracting Covid-19.
The election in the sixth congressional district on Saturday drew 23 candidates and was seen as a key test of both a Republican party under Donald Trump’s sway and of Democratic hopes of making inroads in Texas.
Endorsed by the former president, Wright led with 19% of the vote. The lone anti-Trump conservative in the field, former marine Michael Wood, was way off the pace.
A Republican, Jake Ellzey, edged out a Democrat, Jana Lynne Sanchez, for second place and a spot in the runoff.
Ellzey, a state representative and navy veteran, drew 13.8% of the vote. Just 354 ballots and less than half a percentage point separated him from Sanchez, a journalist and communications professional who ran for the seat in 2018, with 13.4%.
In a statement, the chairman of the Texas Democratic party, Gilbert Hinojosa, put a brave face on the outcome.
“The new Democratic south is rising,” he insisted, “and we will continue to rally our movement to take back our state – including as we look toward the 2022 governor’s race. We’re ready to build Democratic power, ready to defeat Texas Republicans, and ready to elect leaders who defend our rights and put Texans first.”
Nonetheless, the sixth district, close to Dallas and Fort Worth, will again send a Republican to Washington despite trending Democratic for years. Trump won it in 2020 but only by three points after winning by 12 in 2016, that lead down five points on Mitt Romney four years before.
In Utah on Saturday, Romney, the only Republican senator to vote to convict in both Trump’s impeachment trials, was booed and called a “traitor” when he spoke at a state convention.
NBC News reported the split of the vote in Texas at roughly 60%-40% in Republicans’ favour. Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, told Reuters: “Democrats didn’t get their people out there, and then to the extent to which they did … they split up a lot of the Democratic votes.”
The contest was to fill a seat vacated when congressman Ron Wright died in February, after contracting Covid-19. Trump endorsed his wife this week.
The day before the election, Politico reported that Susan Wright sought help from local and federal law enforcement after voters received a robocall which said she “murdered her husband” and was “running for Congress to cover it up”.
The robocall claimed Wright “obtained a $1m life insurance policy on the life of her husband … six months before his death” and “tearfully confided in a nurse that she had purposely contracted the coronavirus”.
The call, in a female voice, did not say who paid for it.
“This is illegal, immoral, and wrong,” Wright said. “There’s not a sewer too deep that some politicians won’t plumb.”
Matt Langston, an aide, said: “Susan’s opponents are desperate and resorting to disgusting gutter politics.”
Other Republican candidates condemned the call.
Before polling day, Wood, the anti-Trump conservative, told CNN he ran because he was worried about Trump’s influence and “somebody needed to stand up and say this isn’t what the Republican party should be”.
He also said he was “afraid for the future of the country”, given the prevalence of belief in Trump’s lie that the election was stolen – 70% of Republicans in a CNN poll this week said they believed Joe Biden did not win enough legitimate votes to win the White House – and conspiracy theories such as QAnon.