In 2014, no Democrat ran against Lamar Smith, the San Antonio-based congressman who was first elected in 1986.
Last year, two Democrats squared off for the right to challenge Smith; the winner of that primary was a first-time congressional candidate who lost to the Republican by 21 percentage points.
But in a sign of the general frustration of Democrats chafing under the presidency of Donald Trump, at least a half-dozen Democrats, most of them South Austinites, have signaled they will vie to run against Smith. And the primary is still nine months away.
Smith — who has been a staunch supporter of Trump’s and who has called for the dismissal of government scientists, long vilified the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency and has called climate science “wishy-washy” — helms the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, where earlier this year he convened a panel titled “Making EPA Great Again.”
Though he fashions himself a champion of scientific inquiry, Smith, whose office and campaign didn’t respond to interview requests, has alienated associations of American scientists, who have said subpoenas he has issued to scientists in the past have a chilling effect on research. And Smith had laid the groundwork for a Trump administration decision last month to oust scientists from an EPA review board; later two more scientists resigned from the review board in protest.
Still, even with a fired-up Democratic base, unseating Smith seems a nearly impossible task. The 21st Congressional District is engineered to deliver a Republican to Washington. The conservative-leaning district encompasses the north side of San Antonio and a wide swath of the reliably red Hill Country. Left-leaning pockets of San Marcos and South and Central Austin are outnumbered.
New congressional maps?
Federal judges ruled in March that neighboring congressional districts held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, were improperly drawn with race as a predominant factor. In a domino effect, a redrawing of those districts could lead to a redrawing of the 21st Congressional District, ultimately cutting many of the Austin-area Democratic candidates from the district.
A summer trial will determine if the districts will be redrawn.
And while Smith, 69, has continued to crush Republican primary challengers — Matt McCall, his nearest challenger in the last two primaries, has drawn no more than a third of the vote — his tenure might be nearing an end. Smith has now spent more than three decades in the U.S. House and, because Republicans have limited chairmanships to three terms, he will have to step down as head of the Science, Space and Technology Committee at the end of his current term. Potential GOP successors, among them state Sen. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, have been quietly shoring up support.
But Democrats are running on the current map — and some are determined to use Smith’s record on climate science against him.
Weaving personal with political
A recent Saturday afternoon found Derrick Crowe, a 36-year-old climate justice organizer and self-described nerd, consulting voter data on his cellphone as he tried to round up support block-walking in the Democratic-rich Zilker neighborhood.
It was sunny out, and Crowe, who lives in South Austin and who has fair, freckled skin and short, reddish hair, seemed in danger of getting burned. In a button-down shirt and khakis, he looked every part of the earnest former Capitol Hill congressional staffer that he is.
He found a simpatico audience at the home of Gregory Brooks and Margo Weisz, who peppered him with questions about why he was running and his prospects.
A white Subaru station wagon was parked out front of their home, with a bumper sticker that read, “May the Forest Be With You.”
Weisz, who had run a nonprofit aimed at improving economic opportunities, asked him why he thinks he can beat Smith.
As Austin grows, more Democrats are moving into areas along the Interstate 35 corridor, on the district’s eastern fringe, he said. They’re motivated, he told them. And Trump won the district by a far narrower margin than Mitt Romney did in 2012 — and Smith has shown himself to be a Trump loyalist.
“It feels like Lamar Smith pulled me into this race,” Crowe said, describing Smith’s unwillingness to hold town hall meetings in Austin.
Weisz told him she’s worried about climate change and the transition to a clean energy economy.
“That one actually keeps me up at night,” he told her — and then, weaving the personal with the political like a pro, he added, “I have a 3-year-old, Henry, and every year he’s lived has been the hottest on record.”
“Immigration is a big issue to us, and tolerance and diversity,” Brooks said. Yard signs on this stretch of Kerr Street include “Black Lives Matter” and “Hate has no home here.”
“They’re important to me, too,” Crowe said. “I’ve spent nights outside the Governor’s Mansion protesting (the ‘sanctuary cities’ law).”
Crowe, whose day job is as communications director for SAFE Alliance, which provides services to victims of child abuse and domestic violence, told them he wants to ban hydraulic fracturing — an oil and gas extraction method — and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
They chatted about the other Democratic candidates — Crowe said it’s “an embarrassment of riches” — and then, finally, after 25 minutes, he took his leave.
“I’ve got to rein myself in,” Crowe said out loud as he walked to the next house. “But I’m finding a happy audience.”
Like Crowe, Joseph Kopser, an Army veteran who has degrees from West Point and Harvard and who runs a clean energy transportation company, has made engagement with scientific facts a key part of his platform as he considers a full-fledged run.
He said that Smith was obstructing scientists and “not inspiring and providing for them the resources they need to find solutions.”
But even as they think the U.S. should do more to address climate change, many of the Democrats think talking about environmental issues isn’t a winning message come the general election.
Tom Wakely, 63, who lost to Smith in 2016 and, at this point, appears to be the sole Democratic San Antonio candidate, said he noticed last time around that “the majority of people I talked to in the Hill Country could care less about climate change.”
To the extent that he will talk with those voters about climate change, it’s not the hard facts approach of someone like Crowe: “I put it more in a religious context, that God gave us as people stewardship over the Earth, that we’re starting to screw things up, that God’s pissed off, and if you’re really a good Christian — and everyone says they’re good Christians — you’ve got to take care of the Earth.”
Another Democratic candidate, Mary Wilson, 58, a former math teacher who now works as a pastor and lives in Clarksville, said that “climate change issues are a long game, and when people are struggling with health care and jobs and other family issues and insecurities, their day to day doesn’t involve the long game.”
Thirty-nine-year-old Democratic candidate Rixi Melton, a music teacher and community organizer, said she is trying to be careful to “avoid buzzwords that scare people away.” Asked to name one of those buzzwords, she said, “climate change.”
Chris Perri, a 35-year-old criminal defense lawyer in South Austin, criticized Smith’s environmental stance but said “nobody is going to win on talking about one issue. You can’t just sit there and rant and rave that Lamar Smith is a climate change denier — that isn’t going to show how you’re going to make people’s lives better. I want to parlay environmental issues into a discussion of expanding jobs in solar.”
And 42-year-old Elliott McFadden, executive director of Austin B-Cycle, said that, while environmental issues remain critical, the future of the Affordable Care Act and “massive tax cuts to the wealthy at the expense of the middle and working class” will define the election.
‘An uphill climb’
By one measure, Crowe’s meeting with Brooks and Weisz was a success: A pair of likely voters got to know him.
In another sense, it was the sort of sprawling use of time that could frustrate a campaign manager trying to get a candidate in front of as many voters as possible. Over an hour and a quarter in a three-block stretch of the Zilker neighborhood, Crowe talked with a total of three likely voters and handed campaign material to a fourth.
Otherwise, doors went unanswered.
In the end, the winner of the Democratic primary is likely to be the person who has the endorsements of county Democratic parties and local media.
Winning in November 2018 is another matter.
Whomever Democrat voters ultimately select to run against Smith will have a choice: Run up turnout in neighborhoods like Zilker, rich with Democratic voters; reach out to and register people who are poor or of color — likely Democratic voters — who historically haven’t shown up to the polls in large numbers, especially in a midterm election; or spend time in the far-flung parts of the district — Fredericksburg and Johnson City, say — to cut into the margins of likely Smith voters.
Party maestros tend to say they want to do all of the above, but capsizing a gerrymandered district in a midterm election — even with a fired-up Democratic base — will likely see the Democratic candidate making tough choices.
Only 13 of Texas’ 36 congressional districts had a contested Democratic primary in 2016; at least nine congressional districts saw no Democrats file.
Texas Democratic Party spokesman Manny Garcia said he thinks every race will have a Democrat in it.
But will that enthusiasm translate into victory?
“These districts are designed intentionally to discriminate against Texas voters,” Garcia said. “It’s an uphill climb.”