As Democrats look to take back control of the U.S. House next year, they see opportunity in Texas, where voters could have a lot to say in how the midterm election narrative is written: Will House Republicans maintain power or will their majority disappear amid a rising blue tide?
Democrats probably would have to flip at least 24 seats to take control, with targets in states from California to New York.
There are three Texas districts on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red-to-Blue” target list, and at least one other is on the cusp of joining that list, noted Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, leaving the Lone Star State poised “to make a huge dent in the national story on Election Day.” And the Democratic candidate in a fifth district, anchored in Austin’s northern suburbs, has attracted big donations from national political action committees supporting Democratic candidates.
Tuesday’s runoff elections in those districts left Democrats with the better-financed, better-organized nominees the party’s national leadership thought stood the best chance of making a go of it in the fall.
But in each contest, the Democrats are seeking to take districts where Republicans have a history, usually a long history, of winning, and the chances of Democrats running the table in those districts are not great.
The most obvious Democratic target is the majority-Latino 23rd Congressional District, stretching from San Antonio south and west along the border to the eastern edge of El Paso. The seat has been intermittently held by a Democrat, and Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the district by better than 3 points against Republican Donald Trump in 2016.
It ought to help that Gina Ortiz Jones, a Democratic nominee making her first run for elective office, can cling to the coattails of U.S. Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke, the only candidate above her at the top of the general election ballot. O’Rourke, a three-term congressman from El Paso representing an adjacent border district, will almost certainly carry the 23rd, whether or not he succeeds in his long-shot bid to end the Senate career of Republican Ted Cruz.
But complicating matters, O’Rourke is not actually backing Jones. He has promised to stay out of that race because of the friendship he forged with U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, a two-term incumbent, on a livestreamed, cross-country San Antonio-to-Washington road trip the two made in March 2017 that went viral, burnishing both politicians’ bipartisan credentials. That bond makes it harder for Democrats, such as Jones, to cast Hurd as a Republican stooge and a Trump lackey, despite a voting record that has been overwhelmingly loyal to his party and the president.
O’Rourke, meanwhile, can’t renege on his promise to stay out of the race without risking his own brand of post-partisan authenticity, leaving him to puzzle whether it is more important to send a Democrat from Texas to the Senate or help elect a Democratic speaker of the House.
In the meantime, Hurd, one of only two black Republicans in the House, has become well known in the vast district with his Dairy Queen public meetings and his flair for the dramatic gesture — most recently an attempt to bypass the House leadership and force a floor vote on immigration reform measures, including protecting young immigrants threatened with deportation.
“Hurd is the candidate best positioned to weather a Democratic surge in his district,” said Josh Blank, manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.
Whether it’s courage or showboating, Blank said, “it’s hard not to look at the way he’s been positioning himself and not say that he is doing everything he can looking ahead to the election and doing it in a really thought-out and I think well-executed way so far. He can credibly go back to the district and say, ‘I’ve been fighting for you on this issue,’ and it’s true.”
In the Houston area’s 7th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. John Culberson is seen as vulnerable. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan website that forecasts congressional races across the country, rates the seat a toss-up.
Culberson’s professed confidence — “This is a Republican seat; it always has been and will continue to be,” he has said — unnerved some Republicans who fear that, in the words of Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson, Culberson might be “asleep at the switch” in a part of the state that has been trending Democratic.
But Jillson said it appears Culberson has “picked up the pace” of late as the Democratic runoff provided him, in Houston attorney, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a capable adversary.
“Houston, each election cycle, has been looking more and more Democratic, and this election invites another step in that direction,” Jillson said. “The question is, will that step be far enough to carry Fletcher past Culberson?”
Culberson first won election to the seat in 2000. Among his constituents is former President George H.W. Bush, who won the seat in 1966. Culberson has said that Clinton’s narrow win over Trump in the district — which went for Republican John McCain over former President Barack Obama by 19 points in 2008 and for Republican Mitt Romney over Obama by 21 points in 2012 — might have something to do with it being the elder Bush’s home turf.
The fall campaign promises to be a battle royal.
House Majority PAC, which works to elect House Democrats, has already reserved $1.9 million in television air time in the district.
Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, can be expected to tout to his importance to post-Hurricane Harvey recovery.
“We don’t want to imagine what would have happened after Hurricane Harvey without U.S. Rep. John Culberson in Congress,” the Houston Chronicle, which noted it was not impressed by his previous record, said in its editorial endorsing Culberson in his Republican primary.
The third prime Democratic target is the Dallas-area 32nd Congressional District, represented by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions.
In 1996, on his third run for Congress, Sessions, the son of former FBI Director William Sessions, was elected to represent the 5th Congressional District. When districts were redrawn after the 2000 census, he moved to the newly created 32nd District, winning election there in 2002. Two years later, in the most expensive House race in the nation that year, he defeated U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, who had chaired the House Democratic Caucus and also had moved to the 32nd after his district was altered in redistricting.
Session’s Democratic opponent this year is Colin Allred, a former NFL player and voting rights attorney, whom Jillson described as a formidable candidate.
“What he has to worry about is whether he can raise enough money locally and nationally to contest with Pete Sessions, who can raise whatever he needs with one bugle call,” Jillson said. “As chairman of the House Rules Committee, he is integrated into the Republican leadership, and he and they can do whatever needs to be done.”
“He is embedded in the district,” Jillson said of Sessions. “I would say he is not broadly beloved. He’s respected.
“If you get a little bit more blue wave action going as the cycle goes along, he’s not invulnerable,” Jillson said. “But if you had to bet today, you’d bet he holds this seat, but more narrowly than he has in the past.”
The Hill Country
After the trio of top-tier battleground districts comes the 21st Congressional District, stretching from parts of Central and South Austin to the north side of San Antonio and encompassing six Hill Country counties.
In the runoff, Joseph Kopser, a 20-year Army veteran and tech entrepreneur, won a decisive 16-point victory over Mary Wilson, a minister and former math professor, even as former Cruz Chief of Staff Chip Roy defeated Matt McCall by a margin of less than 6 points.
“That’s a warning sign to Republicans because even among Republicans, Roy hasn’t done a good job of convincing them that he’s the best person to represent CD 21,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “He will have the great advantage of having an R next to his name in November, but if you’re Joseph Kopser, you have to look at that and say, ‘Hmmm, he didn’t blow out McCall even outspending him substantially and also having pretty much every single Republican officeholder and consultant on his side.”
Joe Trippi, a national Democratic political consultant advising Kopser’s campaign, said the Kopser-Roy “matchup is one that puts the race into play in November, and I think most independent observers would say that that’s the case.”
Trippi believes Kopser’s military and business background have crossover appeal with some Republicans in a district drawn to elect a Republican, and that Roy, in the hard-edged political mold of Cruz, “is the kind of Republican who can put a lot more of those votes in jeopardy.”
Trippi said that what voters are looking for is calm amid the chaos in Washington and that Roy is seen as someone who “is more likely to add to the division in Washington and not bring people together.”
But Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based Republican consultant who knows and respects Roy as a leading conservative voice, said that Roy comes across as reasonable and thoughtful and should have no trouble holding a seat that U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, held for three decades in a district that Trump won by 10 points.
Just north of Austin, in one of the fastest-growing regions of the country, is the 31st Congressional District, represented since 2003 by Republican John Carter. Mary Jennings “MJ” Hegar, an Air Force rescue helicopter pilot who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, winning the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross, and whose memoir, “Shoot Like a Girl,” may be made into a movie starring Angelina Jolie, easily won the Democratic runoff to face Carter.
But if she wins in November, Hegar will almost certainly be riding a huge blue wave and joining a Democratic House.
The Texas Democratic Party’s Garcia believes what Democrats have going for them this cycle is, in the thick of the Trump presidency, an energized Democratic electorate versus a demoralized Republican electorate, noting that in red Texas, the president’s job approval numbers are more negative than positive.
“Trump is underwater in terms of his overall job approval in Texas,” said Blank, who manages the UT/Texas Tribune poll. But, Blank said, “Trump is also sitting at north of an 80 percent job approval among Texas Republicans, so, among the party that turns out the majority of voters in all elections in recent memory, he’s extremely popular and remains so.”
The best evidence of this is how Republican primary and runoff candidates in Texas competed to most closely associate themselves with the president.
In Texas, Blank said, “there is little evidence that Trump is creating some sort of large bloc of disaffected Republicans,” and in recent Texas politics, he said, “we haven’t seen an electorate where a majority of the electorate are not Republicans.”
Could this year be different?
“They’re not voters until they are,” Blank said, “and so far, the Democratic Party has shown little ability to motivate the groups of voters to turn out and vote for them en masse that they say support their agenda, and that’s really the challenge for them.”
7th Congressional District
The matchup: U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, vs. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, Democrat
The district: The 7th, one of the state’s wealthiest districts, serves a small area of western Harris County, including affluent enclaves of Houston and nearly a dozen incorporated suburbs. The district is 44 percent white and 32 percent Hispanic, with a median household income of $71,183.
The Trump margin: In 2016, 48.5 percent of district voters opted for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, 47.1 percent for President Donald Trump.
Money raised: Culberson: $1.5 million ; Fletcher: $1.4 million (this election cycle, according to the campaign finance data through early May)
The race: Despite Clinton’s victory in this district, Culberson, who has represented the district since 2001, was re-elected in 2016 with 56 percent of the vote. Fletcher, an attorney and the more moderate candidate in the Democratic runoff, comes into the race with the support of Emily’s List, a political action committee that helps elect pro-abortion rights Democratic women. Democrats are hoping that dissatisfaction with Trump among well-to-do Republican women will translate into victory. As of Tuesday, the Cook Political Report rates the seat as a toss-up.
21st Congressional District
The matchup: Chip Roy, Republican, vs. Joseph Kopser, Democrat
The district: The 21st includes swaths of Central and South Austin, parts of Hays and Comal counties, the north side of San Antonio and six Hill Country counties. The district is 62 percent white.
The Trump margin: In 2016, 52.5 percent of district voters opted for Trump, 42.5 percent for Clinton.
Money raised: Kopser: $1.2 million; Roy: $700,000
The race: For three decades, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, had a lock on this seat. After Smith announced his retirement last fall, the district is up for grabs. Cook rates it likely Republican. This promises to be an expensive race, as outside groups have already poured in hundreds of thousands of dollars, including the conservative-minded Club for Growth and the Serve America Victory Fund, which helps elect Democratic military veterans to Congress. Kopser, an Army veteran and Austin tech entrepreneur, will have to run up the score in liberal Austin to have a chance, while Roy, former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, will depend on turnout in reliably Republican swaths of the Hill Country. Cruz, devoted to Roy and eager to kick up the vote in his own re-election campaign, could be a force.
23rd Congressional District
The matchup: U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, vs. Gina Ortiz Jones, Democrat
The district: This massive, mostly rural district runs from San Antonio to El Paso and includes the border cities of Eagle Pass and Del Rio, as well as Fort Stockton, a ranching and oil and gas production center. The district is nearly 70 percent Hispanic, with a median household income of $51,293. It encompasses Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and the nearby towns of Alpine and Marfa.
The Trump margin: Clinton took this district by 49.8 percent to Trump’s 46.4 percent.
Money raised: Gina Ortiz Jones: $1.2 million; Will Hurd: $2.4 million
The race: The 23rd is a swing district, going back and forth between Republicans and Democrats over the past decade. Hurd, a former CIA agent who is one of two African-American Republicans in the U.S. House, was elected in 2014 and narrowly won re-election in 2016. He has opposed Trump’s border wall plan, a popular stance in the district. Ortiz Jones is an openly gay former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer making her first political bid. The daughter of a single mother from the Philippines, she is Asian-American. Cook rates the seat leaning Republican.
31st Congressional District
The matchup: U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, vs. Mary Jennings “MJ” Hegar, Democrat
The district: Created after the 2000 census, the 31st is largely suburban and nearly 60 percent white. It encompasses fast-growing Williamson County and most of Bell County, including Temple, Belton and Killeen, adjacent to Fort Hood.
The Trump margin: Trump carried this district by a margin of 53.5 percent to 40.8 percent.
Money raised: Hegar: $500,000; Carter: $700,000
The race: John Carter, a former state district judge, has represented this district since 2003. In 2016, he won the general election with 58.4 percent of the vote. He may face his stiffest opponent in Hegar, a former Air Force helicopter pilot who won medals for her bravery in Afghanistan. Hegar’s path to victory lies in the southern part of the district, in the areas closest to Austin. Hegar hopes to appeal to moderates and women unhappy with the Trump administration. Cook calls the 31st a solidly Republican district, suggesting a Democratic win here in November would mean an enormous national wave for Democrats.
32nd Congressional District
The matchup: U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, vs. Colin Allred, Democrat
The district: The 32nd includes part of Preston Hollow, the affluent North Dallas neighborhood that George W. Bush has called home since the end of his presidency. The district covers mostly the northern and eastern Dallas County areas and a small portion of Collin County. It’s 53 percent white, 14 percent African-American, 8 percent Asian and 24 percent Hispanic.
The Trump margin: Clinton carried the district 48.5 percent to 46.6 percent for Trump.
Money raised: Sessions: $2 million; Allred: $1 million
The race: Sessions, first elected to Congress from the 5th Congressional District in 1996 and then from the 32nd since 2004, has sounded bullish about his chances. In December 2016 he told The Dallas Morning News, “If the Democrats want to think they can take their party, that is dead, and resurrect something in Texas 32, bring it on.” Now he faces Allred, a voting rights attorney and former pro football player, who accuses Sessions of loyally supporting the president to the detriment of the district. “For too long, the people of this district have not had a choice,” Allred said at a runoff party Tuesday. Cook says the district leans Republican.