It’s not unusual for the election of a Republican president to bring a surge of Democrats seeking seats in the midterm elections.
But Texas Democratic Party leaders say the latest outpouring of enthusiasm and often anger-fueled passion spurred by President Donald Trump’s election is unmatched.
“I’ve been recruiting candidates in Texas for years, and I’ve never seen an environment quite like this,” said Cliff Walker, candidate recruitment director for the state Democratic Party.
Walker predicted that for the first time in his political career, every open congressional seat will be filled by a “strong Democratic nominee,” and many will have a Democratic primary.
One such race is the primary to challenge U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin. His 25th Congressional District includes much of East Austin and parts of Central Austin, including the University of Texas. It stretches from western Hays County to the suburbs south of Fort Worth.
So far three Democratic candidates have emerged for the March primary, though there’s still time for others to join the race before the Nov. 11. deadline. All three cited Trump as their main motivator in deciding to throw their hat in the ring.
Kathi Thomas, 64, a Dripping Springs small-business owner, also challenged Williams in 2016. Initially, it was hearing Williams speak at a town hall-type meeting in 2014 that motivated her to run. After she lost to him last year with about 38 percent of the vote, she said, she hadn’t planned to run again.
But now that someone with views similar to Williams is in the White House — FiveThirtyEight’s vote tracker showed Williams voted in line with Trump’s position 96 percent of the time — Thomas said she was determined to try again.
Trump’s comments about immigrants during his campaign, which Thomas called “outright racist,” greatly offended her and her daughter, Lettie, whom she adopted from Guatemala as a baby, she said. Thomas also opposed Texas’ bill banning sanctuary cities, which includes a provision allowing police officers to investigate a person’s immigration status during routine police interactions, such as traffic stops.
“I look at this world — and I see my 16-year-old daughter … and I see the ‘show me your papers’ bill, and we had the conversation about what you do if you’re stopped, what you say — and I want it to be different for her,” Thomas said.
Thomas said her experience as a candidate, a campaign volunteer for former President Barack Obama and someone who served as Hays County Democratic Party precinct chairwoman eight years, plus her knowledge of the issues, will set her apart from other candidates.
The issues most important to her include preserving the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, and supporting public schools, she said.
She said she’s begun campaigning much earlier than last time — in part because this time she has primary challengers.
Julie Oliver, 45, a St. David’s HealthCare executive and Central Health board member, never planned to enter the world of politics until Trump’s election, when she said she felt a call of duty.
“We need voices in Congress who will stand up to (Trump) and say that’s not OK. The way you speak is not OK. Where you’re leading us is not OK,” Oliver said, before naming Republicans in Texas and across the country who “won’t stand up to the bully” as she says she will.
Oliver was appointed this summer to the board of Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district. Nothing in the agency’s bylaws prevents a board member from seeking public office, Central Health spokesman Ted Burton said after consulting with the organization’s attorney.
Oliver, who has 14 years of experience working in health care accounting and finance, said health care accessibility will be the focus of her campaign. She supports keeping and revising the Affordable Care Act.
“Not only is it resting on the side of humanity that (health care) is a right, you can make an economic case for it,” Oliver said. “I am actually surprised that Republicans aren’t pro-‘health care for all’ because it does bring down the cost for everyone when everyone is insured.”
A self-described “recovering Republican,” Oliver voted Republican until more than a decade ago, when politicians disappointed her with what she described as ugly and divisive rhetoric and paranoid policy.
It was seeing Trump announce the immigration ban that stirred to action Chetan Panda, a first-generation American whose parents came to the U.S. from India. Panda grew up and lives in Austin.
“You could see on CNN, these people who are not being allowed to be again in this country,” Panda said. “Honestly, I saw myself and my family’s faces on those people’s faces. … It was really opportunity being denied.”
Panda, 26, was working as a retirement fund manager at a mutual fund, but after that moment and careful consideration, he decided to leave the job to turn his focus on the congressional race.
His background in economics will help him address one of his main goals of improving the nation’s economy and creating jobs, he said. Improving health care access and saving the Affordable Care Act are also high priorities, he said.
While competition presents a challenge, Thomas said, the heightened interest in the race this year, from the fuller slate of Democratic candidates to a more energized electorate, makes it worth it.
“It’s exciting to have people paying attention to the race,” Thomas said.