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 a Republican party firmly under Donald Trump’s sway.
Endorsed by the former president, Wright led after polls closed with 19% of the vote. The lone anti-Trump conservative in the field, former marine Michael Wood, was way off the pace. The Republican Jake Ellzey and the Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez were contesting second and a spot in the runoff.
Sanchez, a journalist and communications professional, was the Democratic candidate for the seat in 2018. Ellzey is a state representative and navy veteran. One candidate who attracted attention for a strong fundraising haul, the former wrestler Dan Rodimer, failed to show strongly.
The district in the north of the state, close to Dallas and Fort Worth, is a Republican stronghold that has nonetheless been trending towards the Democrats. Trump won it in the presidential election in 2020 but only by three points after winning by 12 in 2016, that lead down five points on Mitt Romney’s win 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 at roughly 60% to Republicans and 40% to Democrats. Democrats hold a narrow majority in the US House.
The contest in Texas is to fill the seat vacated when congressman Ron Wright died in February, after contracting Covid-19. He was 67 and had lung cancer. Trump endorsed his wife this week.
The day before the election, Politico reported that Susan Wright was seeking 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 contain a description of 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 to Wright, said: “Susan’s opponents are desperate and resorting to disgusting gutter politics.”
Other Republican candidates condemned the call.
Before polling day, Wood 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.