With 23 Candidates, Special Election in Texas Is Headed for Runoff

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AUSTIN, Texas — Susan Wright, the Republican widow of a congressman who died of Covid-19, emerged on Saturday evening as the front-runner in a tight race to replace her husband in Washington.

Still, Ms. Wright, whose husband, Ron Wright, died in February, could not avoid a runoff for the state’s Sixth Congressional District, which includes mostly rural areas in three Northern Texas counties and a sliver of the nation’s fourth-largest metropolitan region around Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington.

Ms. Wright, who was assisted by a last-minute endorsement from former President Donald J. Trump, captured about 19 percent of the vote, far below the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff. It appeared she was headed to another contest with Jake Ellzey, a fellow Republican. Jana Lynne Sanchez, a Democrat, followed closely behind in third place.

The results disappointed Democrats, who had hoped to tap a reservoir of shifting demographics and Hispanic and African-American growth in a district where Mr. Trump won by only three percentage points in November.

Ms. Sanchez, who ran a tight race against Mr. Wright in 2018, held an election gathering at her home in Fort Worth and vowed to keep fighting for progressive values. The Sixth District was once a Democratic stronghold, until Phil Gramm switched party affiliations in 1983, turning the district into a reliable bastion of Republican strength for decades.

In February, Mr. Wright, who had lung cancer, died after he contracted the coronavirus. His wife was an early front-runner to replace him, but her chances of outright victory narrowed after the field grew to 23 candidates, including 11 Republicans, 10 Democrats, a Libertarian and an independent.

The battle took a bizarre turn in the final days when Ms. Wright’s backers reported receiving anonymous robocalls that accused her of killing her husband. She immediately sought an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the local authorities.

Saturday’s results signaled that Mr. Trump continued to have a hold on the Republican Party in Texas months after losing an election he falsely claimed had been stolen from him. Mr. Wright had been a vocal ally of Mr. Trump and a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

This is the second time that the widow of a member of Congress who died from Covid sought to keep her husband’s seat. Last month, Julia Letlow, a Republican from Louisiana, avoided a runoff when she secured the seat of her late husband, Luke Letlow, who died before having the chance to represent the district, which includes much of the central part of the historically red state.

In municipal races elsewhere in Texas, the mayor of San Antonio, Ron Nirenberg, easily won a second term. And voters in Austin overwhelmingly favored ending a ban on public camping, a decisive victory for those seeking to keep homeless people from erecting tents in certain spots across the city. Homelessness is a contested issue in the state capital, with critics arguing that the referendum didn’t offer alternatives to people with no place to sleep.

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