By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A Texas Republican backed by former President Donald Trump has advanced to a runoff election to fill a U.S. House of Representatives vacancy left by the death of her husband, while Democrats were shut out of the contest.
Susan Wright, whose husband Ron Wright in February became the first sitting member of Congress to die of COVID-19, was the top vote-getter on Saturday in a crowded field of 23 candidates vying to represent the state’s 6th Congressional District.
Wright was headed to a runoff against another Republican in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs, a longtime Republican-held district.
Democrats had hoped to pick up the seat to expand their slim House majority. But they conceded Sunday they had missed the chance.
Wright received 19.2% of the vote, followed by former military fighter pilot Jake Ellzey, another Republican, who drew 13.8%, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office. Just 354 votes and less than half a percentage point separated Ellzey from Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez, who was in third place with 13.4%.
“Democrats have come a long way toward competing in Texas, but we still have a long way to go,” Sanchez, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, said in a statement. “Two Republicans will be competing to represent this congressional district.”
Trump, in a statement, congratulated Wright. “Susan surged after I gave her an endorsement last week,” he said.
A runoff between the top two vote-getters is required since no candidate received a majority in the first round. A runoff date has not yet been set.
In a bizarre twist on election eve, Wright’s campaign asked federal law enforcement authorities to look into reports of robocalls falsely alleging she had murdered her husband.
The election was the first test of the Texas electorate since President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory. Trump defeated Biden in Texas, a state where Democrats hope to make inroads.
The outcome may deprive Democrats of their best shot at winning a Republican-held House seat in several special elections scheduled for this year to replace House members who have either died, retired or taken posts in Biden’s administration.
The national Democratic Party did not back any candidate in the contest, although Democrats have made gains in the north Texas district in recent years. Trump won the district by 3 percentage points last year.
“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,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor.
Jones said Trump’s endorsement, coming just a few days before the election, appeared to have helped Wright.
There were 10 Democrats in the race, as well as 11 Republicans, an independent and a Libertarian. Every seat in the House counts, as Democrats currently have a narrow six-seat majority and will be battling to keep control of both chambers of Congress in the 2022 mid-term elections.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Will Dunham and Daniel Wallis)