Texas has 36 congressional districts, second only to California, but only one seat appears to be competitive heading into early voting next week — District 23, a vast West Texas seat that has switched between Republican and Democratic hands in each of the last three elections.
Elsewhere, 23 Republicans and 10 Democrats are likely to win re-election, by dint of gerrymandering and the power of incumbency. Only two Texas districts are open seats — District 15, a predominantly Hispanic and Democratic-leaning district in South Texas, and District 19, a largely rural and heavily Republican district in parts of West Texas and the Panhandle where no Democrat is on the ballot.
In Central Texas, all six members of Congress who represent a slice of Austin are sitting on large war chests but running light campaigns. Each Austin incumbent had more than $200,000 on hand as of Sept. 30, with Democrat Lloyd Doggett topping the list with more than $3 million on hand. No challenger in those races has more than $30,000, and many have no money on hand.
“We know for a fact incumbency is powerful,” said Chad Long, an associate professor of political science at St. Edward’s University. “It’s the single most powerful predictor of congressional elections, even more than the money. If you have an incumbent in the election, you pretty much know who’s going to win.”
According to Long, a district is considered competitive when the winning candidate garners no more than 55 percent of the vote. Under this definition, only two of the six U.S. House members representing the Austin area have ever experienced a competitive race — Doggett and Republican Michael McCaul.
Doggett, who was first elected in 1994, received just 52.8 percent of the vote in the 2010 general election. He has won comfortably in every other election. In 2006 and 2008, McCaul won with 55.3 and 53.9 percent respectively. Since then, McCaul has won every general election with at least 60 percent of the vote.
Emily Sydnor, a Southwestern University visiting assistant political science professor, said incumbents can snag easy victories because we tend to “like our congressman, even if we don’t like Congress.”
“But it’s also because the districts are drawn in such a way that they privilege the people that are already in them,” she said.
The Legislature is required to redraw lines for congressional districts and state House and Senate districts every decade, using data from the U.S. Census. Congressional districts are required to have roughly equal population and must be drawn in a way that doesn’t disenfranchise minority groups. In 2010, Texas gained four seats in Congress to accommodate an uptick in the state’s population.
The state’s lawmakers tend to push for district boundaries that will ensure a victory for the most Republicans possible, said Brian Smith, a St. Edward’s University political science professor.
“As long as our state Legislature remains very partisan, they’re going to draw districts that way,” he said.
In Austin, where residents can easily drive through multiple districts during their daily commute, challengers must compete against entrenched incumbents, but also against a heightened national focus on the presidential campaign.
“It’s much easier to pay attention to the big ticket races — I cannot walk out the door without knowing who is running for president,” Sydnor said. “If I’m the average Texan or American who has a limited time to focus on politics outside of all my daily responsibilities, I’m going to look to what is most easily available to me. That’s less likely to be specific information about who is running for Congress.”
It’s even less likely for voters to know about third-party candidates, according to Smith, especially because they have limited name recognition and tend to fund campaigns themselves.
The members of Congress representing Austin won general elections by the widest margins when they were the only major-party candidate running. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from San Antonio, who represents parts of downtown Austin, West Campus, Old West Austin and South Austin, won in 1998 with 91.4 percent of the vote when his only challenger was a Libertarian candidate. In races with Democrats on the ballot, Smith, who was first elected in 1986, has received no less than 60 percent of the vote.
All six Austin-area congressional races include Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and Green Party candidates.
“People don’t vote when elections aren’t competitive,” Brian Smith said. “Good candidates don’t run if they know they’re going to lose. People don’t give money to people if they know they’re going to lose.
For voters frustrated with the state of noncompetitive congressional races, Smith said the answer is simple: Texans have to pay closer attention to down-ballot races for state-level lawmakers responsible for drawing district lines.
“It’s so important to vote,” Smith said. “We think our vote doesn’t matter, but it matters for little things like who is going to draw the district lines. It does start with voting.”
• Michael McCaul, 54, is a Republican first elected to Congress in 2004. He serves as chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security and has a bachelor’s degree in business and history from Trinity University and a law degree from St. Mary’s University.
Cash on hand: $205,020 as of Sept. 30
• Tawana Cadien, 43, is a Democrat who previously served two terms as the party’s precinct chairwoman in Jefferson County. She has a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Prairie View A&M University and a master’s degree in public administration from Texas Southern University.
Cash on hand: $685, as of June 30
• Bill Kelsey, 64, is a Libertarian who works as a pilot and is currently doing war relief aviation in South Sudan. He studied naval science and Chinese at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Cash on hand: $0
• Bill Flores, 62, is a Republican who was first elected to Congress in 2010. He serves as chairman of the Republican Study Committee. He has a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Texas A&M University and a master’s degree in business from Houston Baptist University.
Cash on hand: $425,335 as of Sept. 30
• Bill Matta, 65, is a Democrat who is the chairman of English, speech and foreign languages at McLennan Community College in Waco. He has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Bemidji State College, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of North Dakota and a doctorate in foreign language education and applied linguistics from the University of Texas.
Cash on hand: $646 as of Sept. 30
• Clark Patterson, 57, is a Libertarian who is a photographer in Austin. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas.
Cash on hand: $0
• Lamar Smith, 68, is a Republican first elected to Congress in 1986. He serves as chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He has a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Yale University and a law degree from Southern Methodist University.
Cash on hand: $562,501 as of Sept. 30
• Tom Wakely, 63, is a Democrat who assists hospice patients at Ann’s Place in San Antonio. He graduated from Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio and the Chicago Theological Seminary.
Cash on hand: $243 as of June 30
• Mark Loewe, 58, is a Libertarian and former physics professor at the University of Texas and Texas State University. He has bachelor’s degrees in physics and chemistry from the University of California at Irvine and a doctorate in physics from the University of Texas.
Cash on hand: $0
• Antonio “Tony” Diaz, 50, is a member of the Green Party who works as a taxi driver. He has associate’s degrees in business and economics from St. Philip’s College in San Antonio and previously worked as a licensed vocational nurse.
Cash on hand: $0
• Roger Williams, 67, is a Republican who was first elected to Congress in 2012. He serves as chairman of the U.S. House Conservative Fund and the bipartisan Congressional Baseball Caucus. He has a bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University.
Cash on hand: $972,770 as of Oct. 19.
• Kathi Thomas, 63, is a Democrat who spent seven years as the party’s precinct chairwoman in Hays County. Thomas also owns a special event design and planning company. She has a bachelor’s degree in music with a focus on music education from the University of Texas.
Cash on hand: $27,827 as of Sept. 30.
• Loren Marc Schneiderman, 58, is the chairman of the Travis County Libertarian Party. He works in financial services and was formerly employed at ITT Technical Institute, NPR and NBC. He has an associate’s degree in journalism from Rio Hondo College in California and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University.
Cash on hand: $0
• John Carter, 74, is a Republican first elected to Congress in 2002. He serves as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security and is co-chairman of the bipartisan House Army Caucus. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from Texas Tech University and a law degree from the University of Texas.
Cash on hand: $401,330 as of Sept. 30.
• Mike Clark, 51, is a Democrat who works at CoreLogic Flood Services in Austin. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas and a master’s degree from Stephen F. Austin University, both focused on geology, computer science and geospatial technology.
Cash on hand: $4,591 as of Sept. 30
• Scott Ballard, 70, is a Libertarian who is a retired businessman and former city council member from Chester. He has an associate’s degree from Kellogg Community College in Michigan.
Cash on hand: $0
• Lloyd Doggett, 69, is a Democrat who was first elected in 1994 and serves on the House Ways and Means Committee. He has a bachelor’s degree in business and a law degree, both from the University of Texas.
Cash on hand: $3,491,710 as of Sept. 30.
• Susan Narvaiz, 58, is a Republican and the former mayor of San Marcos. She is the president and CEO of Core Strategies Inc., a consulting firm in San Marcos. She has a certificate in public policy from the Leadership Training Institute.
Cash on hand: $20,382 as of Sept. 30.
• Scott Trimble, 50, is a member of the Green Party. He has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
Cash on hand: $0
• Rhett Rosenquest Smith, is a Libertarian who serves on the executive committee of the San Antonio NAACP and the board of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He has a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Texas.
Cash on hand: $0]]>