CORSICANA, Texas — Near the end of a Republican candidates forum at a Mexican restaurant last week, the cardboard cutout of former President Donald Trump someone had brought fell down.
Dan Rodimer, a former pro wrestler who calls himself "Big Dan" who is one of 23 contenders jockeying for a U.S. House seat representing a suburban swath of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, sprang to action.
"Don't worry, I got you!" Rodimer joked.
He put cardboard Trump back in position — standing behind the two candidates who occupied the makeshift stage.
Much like his nearly life-size cutout, the real Trump hovers over this race — the first hotly contested special election of President Joe Biden's term. The candidates, 11 Republicans, 10 Democrats and two others, are running in a jungle primary to represent Texas' 6th Congressional District and replace Ron Wright, a Republican who had won a second term but died this year after contracting Covid-19.
No candidate is likely to clear the 50 percent threshold to win outright on May 1. The two who might make the runoff appear to be anyone's guess, and as Election Day nears, candidates have been fighting for headlines and for the attention of the nearly 1-to-1 ratio of candidates to potential voters at some forums and events.
"It's like 'The Real Housewives' meets the Kardashians meets '90 Day Fiancé,'" said Sery Kim, a former Trump administration official who is in the running. "You don't know what's going to happen."
Depending on how a runoff shakes out, the battle for the once-safe GOP district that has trended to the left in recent years could offer some clues about whether embracing Trump helps or hurts Republicans in a contested race, a key question ahead of the 2022 midterms as Democrats hope to hang on to slim majorities in Congress. But such a chaotic field, and the nature and timing of special elections more generally, will likely obscure any broad lessons, experts said.
"If we get a Democrat versus a Republican in what seems like an inevitable runoff, I do think it'll be an interesting test of party strength in the usually Republican but Trump-skeptical suburbs," Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said in an email. "I am not sure we'll get such a runoff — there is a huge field of candidates, and we could see two members of the same party get through."
The Trump factor
Of his nearly two dozen challengers, it's the 6-foot-7 Rodimer who is giving Trump the biggest bear hug. With early polling having shown Rodimer barely registering in the deep GOP field, he, like many of his opponents, has been on a quest to boost his name recognition. How much they're tying that effort to Trump varies greatly. A few of the Republican candidates have appealed for an endorsement from Trump, who hasn't made any selection. A representative for Trump did not respond to requests for comment.
Wright's widow, Susan Wright, a longtime activist in local GOP politics, is considered the Republican front-runner. She and another top GOP contender, state Rep. Jake Ellzey, have largely avoided mention of Trump, and Michael Wood, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, has steered into an explicitly anti-Trump lane.
Perhaps that's a result of the North Texas district's voting trend over the past decade. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the district in 2012 by 17 points, but Trump won it last fall by just 3. Wright won his last election by about 9 points, and the seat has been held by a Republican since 1983.
At Republican voter forums last week, most candidates were questioned about border security and their records, their work in local politics and their views about government spending, while a few candidates sought to boost their Trump bona fides. Travis Rodermund, a local police officer, told voters at a forum in Waxahachie that had he been in Congress for the Jan. 6 vote count, he would have "stood on my chair" and shouted "false election."
In interviews, voters said they were left most impressed by Wright, Kim and former Trump administration official Brian Harrison.
Harrison, who has touted his record as chief of staff at the Department of Health and Human Services, has distributed mailers showing him standing alongside Trump in the Oval Office. Mailers from candidates like Wright and Ellzey are devoid of Trump's image.
Michael Egan, another former Trump administration official in the race, said: "There's a lot of people that want to frame this as a referendum on Trump. And I sort of reject that framework myself."
Kim said that while Trump policy, particularly on the economy and China, "very much resonates" with Republican voters, there was reason not to emulate him too closely.
"I do think that a lot of people don't like the Twitter, so, if you embrace his techniques and how he became ubiquitous, people don't necessarily like that," she said. "But they want you to fight. They want you to promote the policies."
During a candidates forum weeks ago, Sery made headlines for saying about China and potential Chinese immigrants: "I don't want them here at all."
"They steal our intellectual property, they give us coronavirus, they don't hold themselves accountable," she said, adding: "I can say that because I'm Korean."
Kim insists that she was referring specifically to the Chinese Communist Party, and she has said she welcomes those fleeing the regime. But the episode lost her key GOP endorsements and became the subject of national criticism.
"The positive aspects of all of this is that certainly everyone knows my name," she said. "It's very Googleable. People are paying attention to it. The downside of it is, forever, people are going to say, 'Oh, Sery Kim is a racist.' They're going to use it to not read the actual substance of it."
Rodimer, who only recently arrived in Texas, was subjected to some mockery after an ad that featured him and a stunt double riding a bull went viral. He said the attention helped him land interviews with outlets like CNN and "Inside Edition," which would in turn boost his ability to cross the aisle in Congress.
Then there's Wood, who said he voted for Trump last year but was "disheartened" by his actions after the election, particularly the lies about widespread voter fraud that inspired a deadly attack on the Capitol. Wood, who was awarded two Purple Hearts for his military service, tells voters that it's time to move past Trump and to stop embracing conspiracies. Backed by Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a frequent Trump critic, Wood said he knows his path to the runoff is narrow, pinning his hopes on the huge field and the chance that other GOP candidates could split a pro-Trump vote.
"I don't like that the Republican Party has become a cult of personality and sort of a haven for conspiracy theorists," he said. "I think the rest of the party is going to get to where I am eventually, or we can do it after we lose in '22, '24, '26 and cede the country to the Democrats for a generation."
Wright, meanwhile, has an advantage that has nothing to do with Trump or her longtime activism in GOP politics, experts said.
"If she ends up winning, and winning impressively, it could be because of voters showing deference to her as a widow — which might make the race less meaningful as a test of broader party strength in the first months of the Biden era," Kondik said.
Like 'being on the set of 'Suicide Squad'
Local Democrats have sought to manage expectations, especially after last fall's disappointing results across the state. Some even expressed concern that a Democrat could get locked out of the top two spots.
"Setting aside the absurd number of candidates and the likely low turnout, the district remains a likely Republican seat, with the Democratic track record, of late, pretty poor in flipping their targets," Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said in an email. "Democrats will be happy to have a candidate in the likely run-off."
Jana Lynne Sanchez, who ran for the seat in 2018, is considered the party's front-runner, along with contenders like Lydia Bean, a former state House candidate; Shawn Lassiter, a nonprofit leader and educator; and the Rev. Patrick Moses.
Sanchez, who lost her 2018 race to Wright by about 7 points, said this election feels different.
"Nobody, I mean, literally nobody, thought this district was winnable" two years ago, she said. "So trying to build a campaign in a time that nobody saw the potential was incredibly frustrating and really hard work."
Democrats here have focused on the widespread power outages this month and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, as well as kitchen table issues.
Much like their Republican counterparts, Democrats are contending with the sheer size of the field.
"A lot of folks, we'll call them, they say, 'Yeah, we'll vote for the Democrat,'" Bean said. "We have to explain to them that they have to know that they should go in knowing you're voting for Lydia Bean."
Bean said the experience of competing in a jungle primary against so many "Trump Republicans" was like "being on the set of 'Suicide Squad.'"
Lassiter said she hopes national Democrats "take this race serious."
"This is a flippable district. We've seen in the last decade that District 6 has become closer. It's been trending closer and closer to blue," she said. "We've seen Tarrant County flip blue. We've seen Fort Worth turn blue. Arlington. And so the votes are here, and I want to just create some urgency around this race for Democrats that we can win this."