Former state Rep. John Wray vying for old seat in Tuesday special election

State Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie, chats with state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst R-Brenham, on the House floor on May 22, 2017.
State Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie, chats with state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst R-Brenham, on the House floor on May 22, 2017.

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Former state Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie, is running to reclaim his old seat Tuesday in a special election that includes seven other candidates, including four fellow Republicans.

The contest for House District 10 was triggered last month after the former incumbent, Jake Ellzey, R-Waxahachie, won a promotion to Congress. Wray quickly declared his candidacy and got Ellzey’s endorsement days later, though an outright win Tuesday is not certain given the size of the field and a strong GOP rival in Brian Harrison.

Harrison, the former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Donald Trump, has been angling to be the top conservative alternative to Wray, a status that got more credence Saturday when he announced a late endorsement from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Look for election results below after 7 p.m. CT.

“Brian Harrison is a fighter for freedom and the type of leader we need in the Texas legislature,” Cruz said in a statement. “I urge conservatives in House District 10 to join me in supporting Brian Harrison for State Representative.”

The district is reliably red and covers largely rural areas south and southeast of Dallas. The field includes one Democrat, Ennis immigration attorney Pierina Otiniano, who is hoping to beat expectations and at least advance to a runoff thanks to the fractured GOP lineup.

Wray represented the district for three terms starting in 2015, announcing early on last election cycle that he would not seek reelection. He said at the time that elected jobs like the one he had “are not meant to be lifetime positions.”

“It’s hard to remember that that was a time before the COVID, and the world has changed quite a bit since then, and that’s motivated me to go back and work on these important legislative issues that have come to the forefront because of COVID,” Wray said in a radio interview Thursday, citing as an example “overuse of executive power” by elected leaders at all levels.

Wray has seized on the recent Democratic quorum break in the House to bolster his case for returning to the lower chamber. In one digital ad, Wray’s wife asks viewers to send her husband back to Austin “to hold the runaway Democrats accountable for their actions.” Sharing the ad Monday, Wray tweeted that “this is NO time for someone who needs on-the-job training.”

Wray and Harrison do not seem to have many policy differences, and both have staked out positions that are pleasing to the most conservative voters. Harrison wants to eliminate property taxes, while Wray said in the radio interview he supports legislation to ban “gender modification” even after Gov. Greg Abbott took steps recently to ban rarely used gender-affirming surgeries for kids unilaterally.

But Harrison’s supporters believe he would be a more trustworthy conservative in the House, and Wray’s allies are working to prevent a runoff that could force a more contentious contrast between the two.

In a sign of the desire by Wray’s side to distinguish him as the frontrunner, the pro-Wray Texas Alliance for Life has sent out a mailer comparing Wray to a scrum of faceless competitors. The mailer suggests his opponents jumped in the race “at the last minute” to create confusion and cause a runoff that would not fill the seat until after the special session, comparing the alleged obstruction to that of the quorum-breaking House Democrats. The mailer has especially miffed supporters of Harrison, who did not enter the race at the 11th hour but a few days before the filing deadline.

Wray and Harrison have received almost all of the notable endorsements in the race. Wray has led the way with establishment nods, including from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Association of Realtors.

Wray’s biggest individual endorsement has been Ellzey, who competed against Harrison in the May special election for the 6th Congressional District and finished one spot ahead of him among Republicans on his way to winning the runoff. In backing Wray, Ellzey prominently cited Wray’s opposition to high-speed rail, a hot topic in a district that is in the path of a Houston-to-Dallas train project. Harrison also opposes the project.

It is the third election this year where Ellzey finds himself clearly at odds with Cruz. The schism goes back to the 2012 U.S. Senate primary runoff, when Ellzey campaigned against Cruz as a supporter of then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Cruz publicly opposed Ellzey in the special congressional election and then endorsed his rival in the runoff, Susan Wright.

Beside Cruz, Harrison’s endorsements include Texas Right to Life, the more hardline anti-abortion group, and seven House conservatives, including Rep. Mayes Middleton of Wallisville, head of the Freedom Caucus. Harrison also has the support of his old boss, U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar, and another former Trump Cabinet official, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Harrison has also been backed by one of the other Republicans on the ballot Tuesday, Susan Mellina Hayslip, a Waxahachie attorney who made clear in her endorsement of Harrison that she does not want Wray returning to Austin.

Wray and Harrison have been among the leading fundraisers in the race, collecting $109,000 and $75,000, respectively, according to filings with the Texas Ethics Commission as of Sunday. Wray has loaned himself $100,000, while Harrison has loaned himself $50,000.

But the top fundraising spot has gone to a lesser-known candidate, Midlothian rancher and businessman Kevin Griffin. He has reported $121,000 raised, including $100,000 from a single donor, Dallas consultant Thomas Kelly. It is an unusually large individual donation for a race like this one.

The fifth Republican on the ballot Tuesday is Clark Wickliffe, a member of the Midlothian City Council. He is running on his local government experience and notably received a $500 donation from Jim Pitts, who held the seat before Wray. Pitts also gave the same amount to Wray and confirmed to The Texas Tribune that he is supportive of both candidates based on his personal histories with them. Pitts’ son, Ryan, had considered running in the special election but decided not to after placing second to Ellzey in the 2020 primary for the seat.

Also on the ballot are Libertarian Matt Savino and an independent candidate, Scott Goodwin.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform, Texas Association of Realtors and Texas Medical Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Correction, Aug. 31, 2021: ​ Correction, Aug. 31, 2021: A previous version of this story misidentified a donor to Kevin Griffin. The donor's name is Thomas Kelly, not Kelly Thomas. ​