Texas’ sprawling 21st Congressional District was drawn to elect a Republican.
After U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, announced in November that he was retiring after 30 years in office, 18 Republicans launched candidacies.
The four Austin Democrats already in the race sensed opportunity.
While the six Hill Country counties that make up most of the district’s territory remain as conservative as they were nearly a decade ago when the map was drawn, the southern suburbs of Austin and the north side of San Antonio, swelling with newcomers, have moderated.
The district voted for Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president in 2012, by a 20-point margin. In 2016, President Donald Trump won the district by 10 points. National political forecasters have recently indicated the district could be in play for Democrats, as public opinion polls suggest tailwinds for the party heading into the November midterm elections.
The race for the party’s nomination in the 21st Congressional District has emerged as a microcosm of the sharp division among Democrats across the nation in how to respond to Trump — do they nominate a candidate like Joseph Kopser, a former Army Ranger turned tech entrepreneur who the smart party money says can appeal to folks in the middle who rarely if ever vote Democratic but are offended by Trump, or go with a candidate who taps the outraged passions on the left, like Derrick Crowe, Elliott McFadden or Mary Wilson?
The outcome matters not just to voters in the 21st Congressional District, which stretches from West Campus in Central Austin to Alamo Heights, just north of downtown San Antonio, to Camp Wood, not far from the headwaters of the Nueces River, 200 miles west of Austin. It also could figure in Democrats’ chances of taking over the House.
On Thursday, the Washington-based Cook Political Report, which forecasts political fortunes across the country, moved the 21st Congressional District from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican.”
In explaining the change, David Wasserman, Cook’s House editor, wrote that the district’s changing demography “gives Democrats a shred of hope that former Army officer Joseph Kopser ($337,000 on hand) could pull off an upset in a wave.”
The Cook shout-out was another boost for Kopser, who raised well more than three times as much money as his three rivals combined last quarter and was in Washington and New York last week adding to that advantage, raising money with Democratic Party insiders and a political action committee promoting Democratic candidates who have served in the military.
For his rivals, it was further evidence that the fix is in for Kopser among national party leaders whom they view as out of touch with the real energy in the party among its activist base.
“What we’re seeing is the national Democratic Party trying to dictate who our nominee is,” said McFadden, a former executive director of the Travis County Democratic Party who is CEO of Austin B-cycle, a nonprofit bike-sharing program. “They shouldn’t be bringing in national donors to influence this race. It should be up to the Democratic voters in this district to decide.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, McFadden said, “needs to butt out of this election.”
‘Change the electorate’
McFadden, 43, believes Kopser is emblematic of a misbegotten strategy by many party leaders.
“In partisan races, particularly federal races, people are hyperpartisan today, so, you know when Joseph says, `I’m going to go up there and be reasonable,’ well, the Republicans aren’t going to let him stand up there and do that all by himself,” McFadden said. “They are going to call him a crazy liberal that’s going to take away your guns and all these other things, so you’re not going to be able to get away with standing there and being a moderate.”
Even on its own terms, McFadden said Kopser’s strategy can’t succeed.
“There’s not enough of those voters in this district to win this district,” McFadden said. “When we look at the best the Democrats have done so far in this district (Hillary Clinton vs. Trump in 2016), that’s about a 20,000-vote margin that you still have to overcome.”
“If you can’t win with what the electorate is, you have to change the electorate,” McFadden said. “We need to close that 20,000-vote margin by drawing some of the 60,000 Hillary Clinton voters in the district that would typically not vote in a midterm election.”
“You do not win crossover voters,” said Dean Rindy, a political consultant who is volunteering for McFadden’s campaign. “There are very few truly independent voters anymore.”
But Joe Trippi, a national political consultant who was Democrat Doug Jones’ chief media strategist in his successful campaign in Alabama’s special U.S. Senate election, defeating Republican Roy Moore, said that is an utter misread of the current political moment under Trump that is unlike anything that’s come before.
“A lot of Republicans, for the first time in their lives, are seriously considering voting for a Democrat,” Trippi said. “We saw that in Alabama with Republican women, younger Republicans, college-educated Republicans, what they are looking for is somebody who is serious about not creating more chaos in Washington but getting things done.
“Regardless of where the hostility and division is coming from, they don’t want any more of it than what is already there in Washington,” Trippi said. That, he said, is why he took on Kopser’s campaign — “somebody with Joseph’s profile of service in the military, successful entrepreneur starting businesses, who has a record of anything he starts he finishes, he gets it done.”
“To win a district like this you are going to have to have an energized base and be someone who can reach across the aisle and attract a lot of the Republicans who are seriously considering for the first time in their lives voting for a Democrat, and that’s the reality of the district,” Trippi said.
All four candidates tell similar stories of why they decided to get in the race before Smith announced his retirement.
They were stunned by Trump’s election victory and outraged at Smith’s role as one of his most ardent cheerleaders in Congress.
Crowe, 37, a former congressional staffer, game store owner and advocate with liberal policy shops in Washington, D.C., and Austin, grew up in Sunray in the Panhandle. His first job on Capitol Hill was working for his congressman, Charlie Stenholm, among the last of the conservative Southern Democrats in Congress, who was ultimately gerrymandered out of his seat.
After Trump’s election, Crowe said he told his wife, Laurie, whom he met at Texas Tech University and who now teaches government at Lehman High School in Kyle, “if we ever were going to flip this district the time was now.”
Crowe, who has been endorsed by Our Revolution, the political organization launched by Bernie Sanders, and who backs free public college and university tuition and a national jobs guarantee, recalled a gathering of potential Democratic candidates last March at a restaurant in San Marcos.
“That was the first time I met Joseph Kopser and the first thing he said to me is, `If we get tagged as Nancy Pelosi liberals in this district, we’re dead,’” Crowe said.
“That was a huge red flag to me that is someone who didn’t share my progressive commitments,” said Crowe, who worked for California’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Pelosi on Capitol Hill.
“This is an incorrect way to approach a race like this,” Crowe said. And, try as Kopser might, Crowe said, “There’s nobody in Texas running at this time as a Democrat who is not going to get tagged as a Nancy Pelosi liberal.”
Rindy, McFadden’s consultant, said that if Kopser prevails, it will prove a Pyrrhic victory for Democrats.
“You could elect people like Kopser in 20 districts around the country, but, in the long run, you’d be hurting the party,” he said, burdening Democrats with more “nibble around the edges” members in Congress, offering “more of the same pablum,” when, he said, what the country needs and what voters, including Texas voters, desperately want is “fundamental structural reform.”
McFadden acknowledges that on the primary campaign trail, Kopser is sounding progressive themes, but said that Kopser remains a onetime Republican and admirer of President Ronald Reagan who sits on the board of the Texas Association of Business, “which bills itself as the most conservative business advocacy group in the state. They’ve endorsed Greg Abbott, Ted Cruz, Dan Patrick. They’ve opposed increasing the minimum wage, paid sick leave and in the last session opposed women getting 3-D mammograms through their insurance companies.”
If elected, McFadden said, “which Joseph are we going to get?”
‘Compromise and civility’
But Kopser, 47, said he helped steer the Texas Association of Business to its signal opposition to last year’s legislation to restrict transgender bathroom use.
He is confident he can draw some Republican support because, “my goodness, it’s my family.”
“My family were Ronald Reagan Republicans when I was younger, and my dad now considers himself an independent,” said Kopser, who grew up in Lexington, Ky.
“These are people who have moved away from the Republican Party, but many haven’t landed comfortably in the Democratic Party,” he said. But, he said, they could support someone like himself who is “rational, full of compromise and civility, but will always be moving the ball forward and never think about going backward on the progress we made.”
Kopser wonders “why my peers in his race, why their followers, cannot offer the same open hand that they extend to an immigrant who comes from a different country to an immigrant who comes from a different ideology?”
“I love pointing out to them how I might be a Democrat today who came from the land of Republicans, but if you cannot accept me in your party, then how can you consistently say, without hypocrisy, that you are accepting immigrants from other countries?” Kopser said. “It’s the same thing. Those people left their country for a better opportunity. I left the Republican Party for a better opportunity.”
“I understand my opponents are clinging to this idea that independents and moderate Republicans will never vote for a Democrat, and I just couldn’t disagree more,” Kopser said.
About half the vote in the Democratic primary come from Austin, home to all four Democratic candidates.
Does Kopser think he can win the primary outright, with more than half the vote, on March 6?
“Yes,” he said. “Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes.”
If not, he would face a May 22 runoff in which turnout would be far lighter and more weighted to the liberal base to the advantage of McFadden or Crowe or the potential sleeper candidate in the race, Mary Street Wilson.
‘The candidate touch’
Wilson, 58, who for many years taught math at Austin Community College, is the pastor of the Church of the Savior in Cedar Park. She said she originally got into the race as a “sacrificial lamb.”
But, as she began campaigning she realized that “as the female candidate with a nonpolitical background, I actually have a different voice to bring to it.”
Wilson doesn’t criticize her opponents. At a recent forum in Boerne, she asked her opponents to each say something they liked about each other. At the next event in New Braunfels, she talked about the value of “attentive listening.”
“I decided I’ll stick it out, ride it through and see how it goes,” Wilson said, even though it meant pausing work on her divinity school doctoral project on the meaning of the Resurrection to women who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
So far, she’s barely raised any money, but her novice political consultant, David Logan, said no candidate works harder and no campaign is more handcrafted.
On Thursday, Logan said, “When I got home from handing out 22 of the massive 4-foot by 8-foot field signs and handing out 300 yard signs, I came to her house and there were 350 postcards she had handwritten with addresses on them. That is the type of campaigning I see out of Mary Wilson.”
“The candidate touch is something that’s very important,” he said. “We’ve done analysis and we’ve run some algorithms, and it is entirely possible for a candidate to work hard enough to win a congressional seat. It is entirely mathematically possible for a candidate to talk to enough people to win.”
In his analysis, the Cook Political Report’s Wasserman wrote that for Kopser to convert his “shred of hope,” into an upset win, “He’ll likely need a flawed GOP nominee to do that.”
Wasserman identified eight of the 18 Republicans with a credible path to an all-but-certain runoff. Three might be too conservative for some moderate suburban Republicans, he wrote: Chip Roy, former aide to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz; state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs; and former Bexar County GOP Chairman Robert Stovall.
“It’s still a long shot for Democrats, but worth watching to see whom Republicans nominate,” Wasserman wrote.
Meanwhile, Kyle Kondik, Wasserman’s counterpart at University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which in November changed its 21st Congressional District rating from “safe Republican” to “likely Republican,” said Friday, “Lamar Smith won by 20.6 points in 2016, which is a healthy margin but one that could get wiped out in an open seat race. That’s certainly not to say it will or even that it’s likely – we still favor the Republicans in this seat – but it’s not crazy to suggest such a swing to the Democrats is possible.”
Derrick Crowe, 37, of Austin, worked on Capitol Hill for senior Democrats, including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Texas’ former U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm and U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington. He led the Rethink Afghanistan project at Brave New Foundation in Washington. In Austin, he has served as communications director for SAFE, dedicated to ending child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. At the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Crowe advocated for low- and moderate-income Texans. Crowe graduated from Texas Tech University.
Joseph Kopser, 47, of Austin, is a 20-year Army veteran turned tech entrepreneur. He is a graduate of West Point with a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering, and in 2002 he received a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School. Kopser co-founded and served as CEO of RideScout, a Texas-based technology company that connected people with the most convenient transportation options. Kopser is president of Grayline, a consultancy that helps government and business leaders manage the transformation into a globalized tech economy.
Elliott McFadden, 43, of Austin, is the CEO of Austin B-cycle, a nonprofit bike-sharing program. He previously served as executive director of the Travis County Democratic Party. While working for Foundation Communities, the largest affordable housing nonprofit in Austin, he created and led a successful campaign to invest $65 million in affordable housing. He chairs the Church Council at University United Methodist Church. He received his Bachelor of Arts in government from the University of Texas and served in the Peace Corps in Suriname.
Mary Street Wilson, 58, of Austin, is a mathematician and minister. She taught mathematics for many years at Austin Community College and has been the pastor of the Church of the Savior in Cedar Park for 15 years. She received a Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Oklahoma Baptist University in 1980, and a Master of Arts in mathematics from the State University of New York, New Paltz, in 1987. She received a master’s in theological studies from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in May 2001 and a master’s of divinity from that seminary in 2006.