Two military veterans and political novices, tapping into broad discontent with Congress and President Donald Trump, have emerged as formidable Democratic challengers to entrenched Central Texas Republican congressmen — at least when it comes to raising money.
The surprising fundraising numbers don’t signal tight races necessarily, but more than a year before the general election, Democratic candidates in Republican-held districts in Austin and beyond are converting liberal outrage in the age of Trump into cash.
“Trump’s lower than average net approval ratings for a Republican in Texas, as well as anger and dismay within the activist ranks of the Democratic Party, has resulted in more than 50 Democratic candidates launching bids to flip the state’s 25 Republican held seats in 2018,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor.
“More than a dozen of these candidates are considered to be high-quality candidates, and 12 have already raised more than $100,000 so far this cycle,” said Jones. In the 2016 election cycle only one Texas Democratic congressional challenger, former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, raised more than $100,000. (Gallego narrowly lost to U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes.)
Joseph Kopser, an Austin tech executive and 20-year Army veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq, reported raising $213,000 during the three months ending Sept. 30 — $14,000 more than incumbent U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, raised during that period.
But Smith, who was first elected to Congress in 1986, has almost $1 million cash on hand while Kopser has a little over $219,000. The 21st District, which includes staunchly liberal pockets west and south of downtown Austin, encompasses conservative Hill Country counties, and was drawn to elect a Republican. Still, Kopser and two other Democratic challengers are counting on Smith’s climate change skepticism as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to draw Democrats and independents to the polls next year.
“Lamar Smith needs to be paying close attention,” said Calvin Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor. “His district is evolving, and he has some issue positions especially on global warming he’s going to have to defend.”
“There is an energy on the Democratic side that is showing in a larger number of candidates,” said Jillson, who added that Texas being a red state made it “very difficult” to defeat Republican incumbents.
Kopser, at least, is playing to that energy.
“It’s becoming apparent that Smith is so out of touch he doesn’t even realize how fired up his district is today,” said Kopser, who co-founded a clean energy transportation company and is being supported by a pro-science group, 314 Action. Other Democratic candidates challenging Smith: Derrick Crowe, an Austin organizer and former congressional staffer, who raised $25,000, and Elliott McFadden, CEO of the nonprofit Austin B-cycle, who raised $16,000.
Smith, who was re-elected last fall with 57 percent of the vote, didn’t return a request for comment.
Round Rock contender
In Round Rock, Mary Jennings Hegar, a former Air Force helicopter pilot, reported raising $93,000 July 1-Sept. 30, in her bid to run against U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, who raised $113,000 during the same period. Carter, a former state district judge who was first elected to Congress in 2002, has $437,000 in his campaign coffers, compared with just $54,000 for Hegar.
The district, which includes a large part of Fort Hood, skews Republican, but in several Round Rock and Cedar Park precincts, Democrat Hillary Clinton outpolled Trump last November.
“I’m really pleased we out-raised him by about $10,000 in individual contributions,” said Hegar, attributing Carter’s fundraising edge to corporate and PAC contributions. “We have the grass roots on the ground.”
Hegar is the author of the bestselling book, “Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front,” which is being made into a movie starring Angelina Jolie. Hegar was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart.
She was also a lead plaintiff in a 2012 lawsuit that challenged the Pentagon’s prohibition against women in combat, which was later repealed.
Also running for the Democratic nomination in Congressional District 31: Kent Lester, a 20-year Army veteran and former high school teacher in Belton, who raised $33,000 over the last three months.
Carter also has a GOP opponent, Georgetown businessman Mike Sweeney, who raised nearly $7,800. He also challenged Carter in 2016, losing in the primary.
Carter, who was re-elected last fall with 58 percent of the vote, said in a statement to the American-Statesman, “As I visit with my neighbors around District 31, I’m confident in their support for my re-election.”
U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, a former Texas secretary of state, raised $180,000 during the third quarter and has $1.1 million cash on hand. Democratic challengers Chetan Panda, who is from Austin and works in finance, raised $79,000; Kathi Thomas, a Hays County businesswoman, raised $14,000 and Austin attorney Chris Perri — who had been running in Smith’s district until a few days ago — raised $28,000.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, hasn’t drawn an opponent reporting contributions to the Federal Election Commission. McCaul raised $221,000 but has only $218,000 cash on hand, an indicator that he was weighing an exit from electoral politics. Last month McCaul was passed over to be secretary of homeland security — for the second time — and the Trump administration recently announced the nomination of Kirstjen Nielsen, a top aide to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, to the post.
“They went in a different direction — to a career official instead of a politician,” McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told the Statesman. “I think they valued my leadership in the House. I think that was part of the calculation.”
McCaul on Wednesday announced his re-election campaign co-chairs, who include Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
McCaul, who is expected to step down as head of the homeland security panel because he is reaching the end of a limited term, said he is pursuing the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, the only Democrat in the Central Texas delegation, does not have an opponent reporting contributions in the Federal Election Commission filings and raised $125,000 in the third quarter. A member of the House Ways and Means Committee, has a formidable $3.8 million cash on hand.
U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, reported $127,000 in contributions and had one Democratic challenger, University of Texas graduate student Dale Mantey, who reported $10,000 in donations.
U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, who represents parts of Bastrop and Caldwell counties, raised close to $100,000. He has drawn a primary opponent, Michael Cloud, a businessman and chairman of the Victoria County Republican Party, who reported $23,000 in contributions. No Democrat reported raising money to compete for the seat.
Other candidates could emerge. The deadline to file for election for the March primaries is Dec. 11.
Correction: This story was updated to include 25th Congressional District Democratic challenger Chetan Panda.