Republicans girding for a potentially difficult playing field in the November midterm elections, after Democratic wins in Virginia and Alabama late last year, might have less to worry about in deep red Texas.
Still, Democrats, who would have to flip 24 seats to wrest control of the U.S. House, see opportunities in Texas.
“The blue wave is cresting, but in Texas it is more like a choppy sea than a tsunami,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor. “Some districts will benefit from the wave of Democratic enthusiasm, but other districts will be bone dry.”
With the March 6 Texas primaries fast approaching, leaders in both parties see three GOP-held districts as critical to writing the November election narrative in Texas:
• The 23rd Congressional District, which runs from San Antonio to El Paso and has changed hands three times in the past decade, is held by Will Hurd, who lives in suburban San Antonio.
• The 7th Congressional District, which runs from Houston’s tony River Oaks neighborhood to the city’s western and northwestern suburbs, is represented by John Culberson.
• The 32nd Congressional District, which runs from near downtown Dallas to suburbs Richardson, Garland and Wylie, is represented by Pete Sessions.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton outpolled Donald Trump in those three districts in 2016.
Adding to the uncertainty: Eight Texas congressmen, including six Republicans, are not seeking re-election. Those departing include two whose districts extend into Central Texas: Reps. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, and Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi.
Farenthold, who represents parts of Bastrop and Caldwell counties, announced last month he wouldn’t seek re-election amid sexual harassment allegations. Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from North Texas, also dropped his re-election bid after a nude photo of himself and sexually charged text messages he sent were exposed online. But their departures might make for tougher sledding for the Democratic candidates in those races.
“I think the resignations of Barton and Farenthold make their seats safe again,” said Daron Shaw, a University of Texas government professor. “This is one of the reasons incumbents rarely lose an election — vulnerable ones either resign or are defeated in primaries.”
Democrats hold 11 of the 36 Texas congressional districts, and experts do not consider any of their seats to be in danger from Republicans. One sign of Democratic enthusiasm, fueled by anger at Trump’s presidency: For the first time in 25 years Democrats are running in all Texas congressional districts. In 2016, the Democratic Party didn’t field a candidate in eight districts.
“One of the best candidates in the country”
A staggering 18 Republicans are competing in Smith’s 21st District, which includes parts of Central and South Austin. Four Democrats are running, with many national Democrats banking on Austin businessman and Army veteran Joseph Kopser as the party’s hope in a red district.
“Kopser is one of the best candidates in the country, and I would not be shocked if he breaks through,” said Democratic strategist Matt Angle, who is based in Washington, D.C., and since 2005 has directed the Lone Star Project to challenge GOP dominance of Texas politics. Angle said he sees the district as a “sleeper” because it is predominantly Republican.
Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak said, “Democrats have been more active on the recruitment front and that’s to their credit.” He agrees that the three GOP districts where Clinton won are “the ones to watch” but makes a bold prediction: “I’m happy to take wagers — I believe Republicans take all three of those.” As for Democrats eyeing Smith’s district, which includes conservative swaths of the Hill Country, he said, “That district is not winnable” by a Democrat.
But Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political tip sheet at the University of Virginia, said of the 21st District: “The district may not be as safely Republican as it looks on paper.”
Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political science professor, puts Smith’s district in the wild card category — ones that could change if there is a “perfect storm.”
“Under the most ultraoptimistic scenario, the most seats Democrats can hope to flip is five, while the most pessimistic scenario would have them not flipping any seats,” Jones said. The components of a “perfect storm,” he said, are top-tier Democratic candidates who could persuade Republicans to cross over, flawed Republican candidates in the open seats, and Trump continuing to register record low approval ratings.
Air Force veteran
The 31st Congressional District, represented by Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, which includes most of Williamson and Bell counties, could become competitive, Kondik said, although at the moment his publication rates it “safe Republican.”
He is watching Democratic candidate Mary Jennings “M.J.” Hegar, an Air Force veteran and author, one of four Democrats running in the district. A recent poll by North Carolina-based Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, found Hegar trailing Carter by 6 percentage points. “If we have a wave environment maybe some of the seats we’re not talking about would become competitive,” Kondik said.
Democrats have flocked to other Central Texas contests in districts that are considered safe Republican territory:
• The 10th Congressional District, which runs from Lake Travis to the Houston suburbs, represented by Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, has drawn seven Democrats to the primary.
• The 25th Congressional District, which runs from East Austin to near Fort Worth, represented by Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, has drawn five Democrats.
One big reason for Democratic optimism is that some districts, particularly the three GOP districts won by Clinton, have changed. “Some incumbents in districts drawn to be safe in 2010 have changed demographically and are closer than they were drawn,” said Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor.
Sessions’ Dallas district has seen an influx of educated, white collar voters. “The district is less Republican than it used to be,” Jillson said. It’s also attracted a marquee Democratic candidate — former NFL linebacker Colin Allred, now a Dallas civil rights attorney — one of seven Democrats who have filed to run.
Democrats’ best chances are in Hurd’s district, which is majority Hispanic and includes 800 miles of the border. Since 2010, the district has had four different representatives — two Democrats and two Republicans. One of them, Republican former Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco, is now running in the 21st District.
“The Democrats,” said SMU’s Jillson, “have a systemic advantage with low approval rating of President Trump and low expectations for them.”