AUSTIN, Texas -- Republican Susan Wright of Texas, the widow of the first member of Congress to die after contracting covid-19, secured a place in a U.S. House runoff for her late husband's seat Saturday night.
With votes still being counted, Wright was ahead with more than 18% of the vote in Texas' 6th Congressional District. Close behind were Republican Jake Ellzey and Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez for the other runoff spot.
Wright, a GOP activist, moved on with the backing of former President Donald Trump, who waited until last week to make an endorsement in a crowded field of 23 candidates. Wright's husband, Rep. Ron Wright, died in February; he was 67 and had also been battling lung cancer.
The date of the runoff has not yet been announced.
The North Texas district includes the booming corridor between Dallas and Fort Worth, and it has long been safe Republican territory. But Trump saw his support there plummet in last year's election, carrying the district by just three points -- a sharp fall from his double-digit advantage in 2016.
Ten Democrats in the running had hoped that was a sign of an opening in the special election. But the race drew little investment from Democrats nationally after their high expectations for Texas in 2020 foundered.
Strategists with both parties considered it highly unlikely -- and proved correct -- that any candidate would win more than 50%, making a runoff likely, potentially a contest between two Republicans if their turnout was high and the Democratic vote splintered.
Brian Harrison, former chief of staff at Trump's Department of Health and Human Services, ran on a return to Trump's policies with the slogan "Always America First." Dan Rodimer, a former wrestler who lost a 2020 House bid in Nevada, touted his Trump endorsement in that race to argue that he was the only candidate ever supported by the former president, and he campaigned with a cardboard cutout of Trump.
Wright, who raised less money than either of those candidates, has no substantive policy differences with them. All opposed the stimulus package passed by the Democratic congressional majority, and all blamed President Joe Biden's changes to immigration policy for the surge of migrants and asylum-seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border. Wright argued that she had the best understanding of the job and could continue her late husband's work.
"Anytime I can put people together with solutions, it makes me happy," Wright said. "I've spent most of my adult life doing that. It's how Ron and I met."
The special election is the second this year to feature a widow seeking to take the House seat previously won by her husband. Last month in Louisiana, now-Rep. Julia Letlow, a Republican, easily avoided a runoff as she won an election to replace her husband, Luke, who died of covid-19 complications before taking office.
Wright faced more of a slog, with polling for several campaigns showing her in a fight with Harrison, retired Navy fighter pilot Ellzey and Sanchez.
"It's a referendum on the leadership of Joe Biden and the folks in charge of the Senate and the House right now," Ellzey said.
The race got nastier Friday, when Wright's campaign flagged the FBI about a robocall that told voters she had murdered her husband to get his life insurance payout.
Information for this article was contributed by David Weigel of The Washington Post and Paul J. Weber of The Associated Press.