WASHINGTON — In the 2016 election cycle, Democrats pinned their hopes of flipping a red congressional seat in Texas on just one district.
In 2018, make that at least three.
With Trump’s low approval rating and a surge of energy among voters on the left, Democrats say they have their best shot in years of taking back a few critical seats in Texas.
They’re eyeing posts held by Republican Reps. Pete Sessions of Dallas, John Culberson of Houston and Will Hurd of San Antonio, who each saw their districts go for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. The incumbents aren’t expected to have trouble in the primary, but will face formidable and well-funded competition from Democrats this November.
Political observers say other crimson districts in Texas can’t be totally discounted in an unpredictable election cycle in which Trump looms large. Democrats say they have a chance of success in outgoing San Antonio Rep. Lamar Smith’s district. And on Thursday, they announced they’ve added the seat held by Rep. John Carter, of Round Rock, to their battleground list.
“One of the biggest question marks about this cycle is whether voters will punish Republican candidates because they don’t like the job President Trump is doing,” said Nathan Gonzales of Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of Congressional, presidential and gubernatorial races.“We’re all trying to figure out whether the 2016 presidential race is a new baseline or just an aberration.”
Democrats say there are other factors that could work in their favor: changing demographics, energy around El Paso Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s bid against Sen. Ted Cruz, and more robust get-out-the-vote efforts as, for the first time in 25 years, Democrats are running in every Texas congressional district.
“Texans uniquely dislike Donald Trump and the politics he’s brought into play,” said Manny Garcia, deputy executive editor of the Texas Democrats. “With the Democratic energy and quality of candidates we have on our side right now, we have a unique opportunity.”
Both parties have had organizers on the ground in key races since last year, and the House GOP’s fundraising arm has added Culberson to its joint committee.
But if Republicans are feeling the heat, they aren’t admitting it. Midterm elections typically favor the GOP, and few analysts expect dramatic Democratic wins in the key contests.
A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Jack Pandol, said the group is “confident voters who live the ‘Texas miracle’ every day won’t send Nancy Pelosi loyal liberal foot soldiers who will raise their taxes and nationalize their health care.”
Early voting begins Feb. 20, with the March 6 primary just weeks away. Here are the top three Texas races Democrats say could help the party regain the majority in November.
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, faces steep competition from a swath of well-funded Democrats. (David Woo/Staff Photographer)
Congressional District 32
Incumbent: Dallas Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican first elected to Congress in 1996.
Primary challenger: Paul Brown, a veteran and military intelligence analyst who ran against Sessions in 2016. Sessions is the heavy favorite.
Top candidates from the left: Ed Meier, a former Clinton advisor and State Department official from Dallas; Lillian Salerno, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture appointee with the backing of EMILY’s List; Colin Allred, a former NFL-player-turned-lawyer who worked in the U.S. Housing Department; George Rodriguez, a Dallas immigration attorney; and longtime television reporter Brett Shipp.
Why Sessions should worry:
Trump is likely even more unpopular in Sessions’ district than he was in 2016, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, and Democrats will no doubt tie Sessions’ voting record on health care, immigration and taxes to the president’s agenda.
If Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez is on the ballot this fall, the former Dallas County sheriff could ramp up turnout among Hispanics and boost Democratic straight ticket voting, Jones said.
Democratic energy around state and local races could work against Sessions, predicted Lisa Turner, state director of the Democratic consulting group Lone Star Project. “There is going to be a lot of voter communications, voter activity and base turnout programs that will all be happening … I don’t think that accrues to his benefit.”
On the other hand:
Sessions’ district went for Clinton in 2016, but his campaign points out that he outperformed the Democratic presidential nominee by more than 20,000 votes. Sessions did not have a Democratic opponent that year, however.
Sessions has been in office a long time, and his campaign will tout economic, transportation and water infrastructure projects he helped bring to the region.
National analysts are giving Sessions the edge. Inside Elections ranks it “likely Republican” and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report considers it to “lean Republican.”
Sessions is a chairman with a powerful fundraising network, making it easier to raise mega-bucks. And as a former chairman of the NRCC, the party’s House campaign arm, he “is not going to be caught off-guard in this campaign,” Gonzales said.
Rep. John Culberson (left), R-Houston
Congressional District 7
Incumbent: Houston Rep. John Culberson, a Republican first elected to Congress in 2000.
Primary opponent: Edward Ziegler, a Houstonian who runs an oil and gas litigation consulting business. Culberson is favored in the primary.
Top candidates from the left: Culberson has seven Democratic challengers, but politicos say four stand out: Alex Triantaphyllis, a nonprofit executive from Houston; Laura Moser, a former freelance writer from Houston who started a text message service to promote anti-Trump activism; Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Houston attorney; and Jason Westin, a cancer researcher in Houston.
Why Culberson should worry:
Culberson is not seen as a dynamic campaigner, making it tougher to rise above anti-Trump sentiment. “There is concern among some Republican strategists about whether he’s ready for a tough fight,” Gonzales said.
As with Sessions, Democrats are sure to highlight Culberson’s voting record on the GOP tax overhaul and health care, tying it to Trump’s agenda.
Hurricane Harvey could also loom large in Culberson’s race, where Democrats could try to lump him in with criticism that Washington hasn’t done enough to deliver federal aid to Texas.
In a fast-growing area, Culberson will be a “test case” for the political leanings of new constituents, Austin-based GOP consultant Bill Miller said. “There are a lot of people who believe Culberson has done a good job, and a heck of a lot of people who don’t know he’s done a good job because they’re new to the district.”
On the other hand:
The Cook Political Report changed Culberson’s district rating from “lean Republican” to “toss up” last fall, but Jones cautioned it’s not quite that dire. Though Democrats swept Harris County contests in 2016, other Republicans in Culberson’s district won. Inside Elections ranks the district “tilt Republican.” If Democrats blame Culberson for stunted disaster aid, he can point to his voting record in support of the recent aid bills and his role, as an Appropriations subcommittee chairman, in helping craft disaster relief measures. In one bill, he secured language to finish every ongoing federally authorized Harris County flood control project, according to his campaign.Culberson has financial support from the NRCC and ramped up fundraising after some of his Democratic opponents outraised him earlier in 2017. By year’s end, Culberson reclaimed the lead. “The Democrats are pouring a record amount of money into my district, and I’m doing all that I need to do to register, identify and turn out every Republican voter in District 7,” Culberson said.
Republican Rep. Will Hurd narrowly won a second term in what turned out to be the most expensive House race in Texas history. Photo: The Washington Post by Melina Mara
Congressional District 23
Incumbent: San Antonio Rep. Will Hurd, a second-term Republican.
Primary opponent: Dr. Alma Arredondo-Lynch, a dentist who is not considered a risk.
Top candidates from the left: Analysts say Hurd faces the steepest competition from Jay Hulings, a former federal prosecutor in San Antonio backed by Julián Castro, the former mayor and Obama housing secretary, and his brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro, along with the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; and Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer endorsed by EMILY’s List and other groups.
Why Hurd should be worried:
It’s a true swing district. Until Hurd’s re-election in 2016, Congressional District 23 flipped between the parties each cycle since 2010.
Inside Elections calls this race a toss-up, while The Cook Political Report considers it “lean Republican.”
With a majority Hispanic district, political observers say Hurd could suffer the consequences of Trump’s immigration and border security agenda. “He’s not vulnerable as a person or individual; he’s vulnerable because of issues and the national debate,” Miller said.
Despite representing a nearly 50/50 district, Democrats are sure to highlight that Hurd has voted in line with the GOP, and thus Trump’s agenda, more than 95 percent of the time.
On the other hand:
Hurd is considered a rising star in the Republican Party, and one of its most dynamic campaigners. With a swing district that stretches hundreds of miles, he’s accustomed to grueling races.
He narrowly defeated one-term Rep. Pete Gallego in 2014 and won the rematch in 2016. But midterms historically favor the party out of power. This time, that’s the Democrats, though they’ll have to spend considerable resources to boost their candidate’s name ID in the sprawling district.
Hurd has voted and spoken out against Trump at key intervals, refusing to endorse him in the 2016 race and calling on him to apologize after the president said people on “both sides” of the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va., were to blame for the violence.
He voted against the GOP’s effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act last year and has sponsored border security legislation that would grant deportation protection to young immigrants in the country illegally in a bid to reach a compromise between Democrats and Trump.