Texas was always key to Democrats’ 2020 ambitions: Less than 3 months from Election Day, their confidence is growing
Over a year ago, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee opened an office in Austin, convinced that Texas would be central to building on the party's House majority in 2020.
Democrats think it turned out to be a pretty good bet.
With less than 100 days until the November election, they are increasingly optimistic about most of their pickup opportunities in Texas, where the DCCC is targeting seven seats. They have named five candidates across those races to their Red to Blue program for strong challengers, and they are even exploring additional pickup possibilities, recently polling in at least two districts that are not on their current target list.
"I feel very encouraged by Texas," DCCC Executive Director Lucinda Guinn said in a recent interview. "I think Texas is really a core piece of our offensive battlefield, and as we get closer and closer to Election Day, every day we become more offensive in our posture."
The DCCC, she added, is "very optimistic that we're going to make a lot of headway in Texas this year."
Republicans have been resistant to fuel the narrative they are mainly on defense in Texas, other than to acknowledge their most obvious challenge: defending the 23rd District, a perennial battleground in South and West Texas and along the border that is an open seat with the retirement of Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes. Instead, they have put more of an emphasis on their intent to flip back the two seats they lost in 2018, the 7th District in Houston and the 32nd in Dallas.
"Texas Democrats nominated an unelectable slate of socialist extremists who are far out of step with voters," Bob Salera, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement for this story. "Republicans are very much on offense in Texas, and are well-positioned to replace loyal [Nancy] Pelosi foot soldiers Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred with Wesley Hunt and Genevieve Collins while defending GOP-held seats."
TV ad bookings for the fall help tell the story of the state of the Texas battlefield. The major Democratic groups — the DCCC and House Majority PAC — have announced a combined $13.4 million in reservations in the state, spanning five markets, while their Republican counterparts — the NRCC and Congressional Leadership Fund — have announced less than half that, $5.5 million. The GOP's reservations include no defensive buys, with almost all of the $5.5 million being booked for Hunt's race in Houston.
As for the seven seats that national Democrats are working to flip, a general hierarchy has emerged around where they are most hopeful. The 23rd District is predictably at the top, followed by three of the four other seats where they have named Red to Blue candidates: the seat of retiring Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, as well as those of retiring Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, and Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin. The fifth race where they have a Red to Blue contender — the seat of Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston — is the toughest of the batch.
The DCCC’s offensive battlefield in Texas still could grow. Over the past several weeks, Democrats released internal polling in three non-target districts that found single digit-races involving Republican Reps. Van Taylor of Plano, Roger Williams of Austin and Ron Wright of Arlington. Two of the three surveys were done by the DCCC itself.
While Republicans are reviving Pelosi, the speaker of the House, as a foil, Democrats believe they have a more-than-adequate boogeyman in President Donald Trump, whose reelection campaign is struggling statewide, especially in the suburban districts that dominate the DCCC battlefield here. Furthermore, they have seen little effort by GOP nominees to distinguish themselves from Trump — and in most cases, they have openly embraced him, bargaining that his support in a primary or runoff outweighs the liability it could become in the general election.
In one notable illustration of the dynamic, all five of the non-incumbent GOP nominees in targeted seats headed to Midland last week to greet Trump for his visit there, even though the city was hundreds of miles from most of their districts. (One of them, Hunt, never made it to Midland because he learned he tested positive for coronavirus on the way there and turned around to return home.)
Here's the state of play in the nine Texas seats that are on the national radar:
2016 presidential margin: Hillary Clinton +3.5 percentage points
2018 U.S. Senate margin: Beto O’Rourke +5
2018 incumbent margin: Hurd +0.5
Hurd's seat is one of Democrats' best pickup opportunities nationwide this fall — let alone in Texas — and they are confident they have the candidate for the moment in Gina Ortiz Jones. The former Air Force intelligence officer ran against Hurd in 2018 and came up short by fewer than 1,000 votes.
"If we win no other races, I’m sure we’re gonna win that one," U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said during a recent state party event with Jones.
The GOP is starting the general election far behind. While Jones easily won her primary outright, Republicans had to labor through a nine-way primary and then the postponed July runoff, which saw high drama at the end when U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Trump split their endorsements in the race.
The runoff is still not settled. The Cruz-backed Raul Reyes is pursuing a recount after finishing 45 votes behind Trump's pick, Tony Gonzales, who has repeatedly claimed victory. Whether or not Gonzales is the nominee probably determines if national Republicans truly compete here this fall.
Jones has been able to stow away gobs of cash during the protracted GOP nominating process. She had $3 million saved up heading into July, while Gonzales had $391,000 and Reyes $24,000.
“We would obviously admit that we’re gonna need significant financial resources and outside help to narrow the gap with Gina,” Gonzales spokesperson Matt Mackowiak said. But, he added, “fundamentally we believe Tony’s a much better fit for the district” and Gonzales has some assets that Hurd did not.
With the endorsement of Trump — whom Hurd occasionally split with — Gonzales is “better positioned to unify the Republican Party,” Mackowiak said. He also noted Gonzales’ Mexican heritage and his ability to speak Spanish in a predominantly Hispanic district.
Republicans' best source of optimism may be that the 23rd District is just structurally a battleground, drawn to be Texas' only true swing district. There is some evidence that remains true: Two years ago, the average Republican statewide candidate got 48.9% in the district, while Democratic statewide nominees averaged 49.3%.
2016 presidential margin: Trump +6.2
2018 U.S. Senate margin: O’Rourke +3.5
2018 incumbent margin: Marchant +3.1
It is not beyond the realm of possibility this fall that one of the most potently conservative pockets of the state, northeast Tarrant County, could have Democratic federal representation.
Thanks to the retirement of Marchant, this is an open-seat race pitting Republican Beth Van Duyne, the former Trump administration official and Irving mayor, against Democrat Candace Valenzuela, a former Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board member.
Marchant won reelection in 2016 by 17 points. That margin narrowed to three points two years later, when O’Rourke carried the district over Cruz. House Democrats are bullish on Valenzuela, a rising star who would also make history as the first Afro Latina elected to Congress.
Van Duyne boosted her odds when she nailed down her nomination in March, while Valenzuela was locked in a tough primary and runoff through mid-July. At the same time, Van Duyne reported $483,000 cash on hand heading into July — not a meager sum, but she also did not capitalize on having the head start compared with similarly situated candidates around the state.
Some Republicans still maintain this district is favorable territory. But one thing to watch for here: If more sitting U.S. House Republicans get into trouble around the country, the national outside groups may have to pull back toward a defensive posture focused on incumbent protection.
The 24th District is among the seats where Republicans believe the Democrat moved too far to the left during the nominating process, either through the positions they took or endorsements they welcomed. In Valenzuela's case, she rode a wave of support from a bevy of national Democratic figures, including from more liberal names like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
During a news conference the day after her runoff win, Valenzuela brushed off a question about how she may want to distinguish herself from backers like Warren.
"Republicans are going to attack me regardless of what I do or what I say, and that's absolutely fine because I'm not here for them," Valenzuela said. "I have no interest in trying to align or differentiate myself from any national Democrats because ultimately it's about the people of this district."
TX-21 (Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin)
2016 presidential margin: Trump +9.8
2018 U.S. Senate margin: Cruz +0.1
2018 incumbent margin: Roy +2.6
On paper, the 21st District is not the most competitive-looking seat among the DCCC's targets. But both sides agree that the race has been elevated by the two candidates and their unique qualities — Roy and his devil-may-care voting record, and Wendy Davis and the national profile she gained from her 2013 filibuster against abortion restrictions and subsequent gubernatorial campaign.
That dynamic has helped Davis outraise Roy every quarter she has been in the race, building a large cash-on-hand advantage by the end of June: $2.9 million to $1.7 million.
Asked about his growing fundraising deficit, Roy said in an interview that he is "not worried about that at all." He expressed confidence he has the money he will need to win and argued that he has been more focused on helping constituents during a particularly turbulent period due to the pandemic.
Roy has not made his own reelection path easier, single-handedly holding up a disaster aid package last year and opposing a coronavirus relief bill earlier this year, each time citing procedural frustrations. He said those kinds of votes — which often go against the wishes of both House GOP leadership and Trump — help illuminate the contrast in the race.
"I'm an unapologetic independent conservative who will call out the president when I think he needs to be called out and fully support the president when I think he needs to be fully supported," Roy said. By contrast, Roy added, Davis "would be a swamp-embracing, box-checking politician who would do whatever the leadership of Nancy Pelosi told her to do and be happy about it."
Davis' campaign says her long career of public service shows otherwise, namely the six years she spent in the state Senate representing a battleground district in the Fort Worth area.
“While Wendy Davis’ record — passing more than 60 bills with bi-partisan support in the Texas Senate — demonstrates that she always puts Texas over party, Congressman Chip Roy has shown he’s just too dangerous for Texas families to trust him when their safety and economic well-being is on the line," Davis campaign manager Rebecca Lipson said in a statement.
2016 presidential margin: Trump +7.8
2018 U.S. Senate margin: Cruz +0.7
2018 incumbent margin: Olson +4.9
If there is any illustration of changing times in Texas, it is this: The old Tom DeLay district is up for grabs.
Fort Bend County is at the center of a diversifying Texas, and the Democratic nominee, Sri Kulkarni, campaigned hard against Olson two years ago with an innovative campaign when it comes to linguistic outreach to the many groups who’ve settled in this suburban Houston region. Considered a long shot, Kulkarni finished 5 points behind Olson, who announced his retirement last summer — the first endangered Texas incumbent of the cycle to do so.
Kulkarni will face Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, who is coming off a bloody primary runoff against Kathaleen Wall, during which Wall self-funded her campaign and blew millions on ads blasting him over issues — like his record on human trafficking record — that could resonate through November. Even so, he won 70% to 30% and enters the general election with a durable GOP base and countywide name recognition.
What Nehls does not have is money. His latest campaign finance filing reported only $30,000 in cash on hand, and as a result he will likely have to spend the next month in a scramble to raise funds ahead of the post-Labor Day advertising blitz. In comparison, Kulkarni reported $1.2 million in cash on hand.
Nehls’ campaign said in a statement that he is working to ensure his general election campaign is “well-funded and is a best-in-class operation.” But the campaign pointed out that he also faced an overwhelming financial disparity in the GOP nominating process — especially against Wall — and won resoundingly.
“His proven record of putting service before self and long history in the district puts him in the driver’s seat for this November,” Nehls spokesman Nick Maddux said.
Democrats argue the general election will present new challenges and Nehls will not be able to lean on his name ID and community goodwill as much as he confronts a much broader electorate. Plus, he’ll have to deal with a new set of issues — namely health care, which Democrats are pushing hard across the map. Kulkarni’s campaign said that as Nehls works to bring his campaign up to speed for the general election, Kulkarni is “going to keep focusing on protecting Texans' health care from politicians like Nehls who would take it away.”
TX-10 (Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin)
2016 presidential margin: Trump +9.1
2018 U.S. Senate margin: O’Rourke +0.1
2018 incumbent margin: McCaul +4.3
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, began the cycle determined not to be caught sleeping, and a couple of key factors have since broken his way. Without any primary opposition, he was able to stockpile money for the general election and build out campaign infrastructure while Democrats labored through the March primary and then the delayed July runoff, each round mildly contentious.
On paper, though, the 10th District still holds promise for Democrats. It was one of the three Republican-held congressional districts that O'Rourke carried in 2018, albeit by the smallest margin in the trio — a tenth of a percentage point.
McCaul's campaign clearly believes it lucked out in drawing the unabashedly progressive Mike Siegel, a civil rights lawyer who first ran against McCaul in 2018 — when the district was not on the national radar — and came within 5 points. Of the four GOP incumbents that the DCCC is targeting in Texas, McCaul has been the most aggressive in confronting his Democratic challenger, starting with a statement on the night of the runoff calling Siegel "one of the most radical liberals running for Congress anywhere in America."
Regardless of such rhetoric, Siegel is the most ideologically to the left among the Democratic nominees in Texas’ battleground races. His campaign is encouraged by McCaul’s attacks.
"Mike Siegel is the Democrat who put TX-10 on the map and Congressman McCaul is clearly running scared after years of sitting on his hide, voting to repeal health care and doing the bidding of his special interest donors," Siegel campaign manager Nick Merlino said in a statement.
While Siegel is missing from the DCCC's list of Red to Blue candidates in Texas, the committee has been coordinating closely with his campaign in recent weeks and still considers the seat a real offensive opportunity. Some of the state's top Democrats clearly do as well and rallied behind Siegel during the runoff and afterward, with Julián Castro and O'Rourke backing Siegel once he became the nominee.
TX-2 (Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston)
2016 presidential margin: Trump +9.2
2018 U.S. Senate margin: Cruz +1.2
2018 incumbent margin: Crenshaw +7.2
The 2nd District, held by Crenshaw, is the only seat that the DCCC has added to its Texas target list since embarking on the cycle with the initial six. That happened after Sima Ladjevardian — a prominent Houston attorney, Democratic fundraiser and former Beto O'Rourke adviser — jumped into the race at the last minute and nearly won outright in the March primary, convincing the second-place finisher to forgo the runoff and cede the nomination early to Ladjevardian.
While Democrats say demographics are rapidly shifting in their favor in the 2nd District, they are up against a formidable incumbent in Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL who has become a national conservative star since his underdog election two years ago. Ladjevardian has proven to be an exceptional fundraiser for a Democratic challenger below the first tier in Texas, but Crenshaw operates at a different level, regularly pulling in seven figures per quarter. He ended June with $4 million cash on hand to $545,000 for Ladjevardian.
Still, Democrats see Crenshaw as uniquely vulnerable on a number of front-and-center issues, including his response to the coronavirus pandemic. They took note last month when he sent out a mailer seeking to rebut some of the claims that Ladjevardian has made about his positions related to the pandemic, an unusually early defensive move by an incumbent.
Even if unseating Crenshaw is an uphill battle, Democrats agree the 2nd District is exactly the type of district they need to play hard in if they are going to make further inroads in future election cycles in Texas.
TX-31 (Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock)
2016 presidential margin: Trump +12.5
2018 U.S. Senate margin: Cruz +2.1
2018 incumbent margin: Carter +2.9
The 31st District, held by Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, has shaped up to be the most challenging target for the DCCC in Texas. Party officials had hoped MJ Hegar would run again after her blockbuster 2018 bid, but she instead ran for U.S. Senate, paving the way for a cluttered primary that most notably included Christine Mann, who finished behind Hegar in the 2018 primary runoff for the seat. Mann made it to this year's runoff and, in something of a surprise, was handily beaten by political newcomer Donna Imam.
Imam, a computer engineer, ran on a progressive platform that embraced “Medicare for All,” and her biggest endorsement was from Andrew Yang, the former 2020 presidential candidate. She rubbed some fellow Democrats the wrong way by blocking them on social media, which Mann has repeatedly called her out for in the aftermath of the runoff.
A more pressing problem for November, though, may be the cash-on-hand gap. Imam ended June with $42,000 in the bank to Carter's $922,000.
Kim Gilby, the chair of the Williamson County Democratic Party, said Imam "definitely ran her campaign her own way" and called the fundraising disparity "alarming." But she said Imam clearly has a strategy with some merit given her 13-point runoff win, as well as an "incredible work ethic" that means she should not be totally underestimated.
In any case, Gilby was heartened to see turnout for the runoff — nearly 36,900 — more than double what it was for the Hegar-Mann runoff in 2018.
"Things are really changing here, and that difference in votes in two years, it does give me a lot of hope," Gilby said.
Like Siegel, Imam has not been elevated by the DCCC yet with Red to Blue status, and she has also received post-runoff support from Castro and O'Rourke. Asked to speak for this story, Imam's campaign sent a statement noting that the DCCC "states they are playing for keeps when it comes to the TX31 race," citing a recent tweet from the committee's communications director.
TX-7 (Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, D-Houston)
2016 presidential margin: Clinton +1.4
2018 U.S. Senate margin: O’Rourke +7.3
2018 incumbent margin: Fletcher +5
This is George H.W. Bush’s old seat, and after Trump narrowly lost it in 2016, Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher wrested it away from GOP Rep. John Culberson two years later. Now national Republicans believe they have their best chance to win back a Texas seat here — and one of their most celebrated recruits nationwide in Wesley Hunt, a graduate of West Point who served eight years in the Army.
Democrats are confident that Fletcher has what it takes to withstand the robust GOP offensive, both with her nuanced record on a major issue in the district — the energy industry — and her battle-ready campaign. While Hunt has been a formidable fundraiser for a first-time candidate, raising $3.2 million through June, Fletcher has managed to stay ahead of him, collecting $3.8 million in the same period.
"We feel very good about Lizzie Fletcher, and she is in a strong position," Guinn said, adding that Hunt "kind of baffled me" by giving "Trump an enormous bear hug in the primary" in a district the president narrowly lost in 2016. Hunt's primary ads branded him a "Trump conservative," and he eventually got the president's endorsement, which his campaign didn't hesitate to promote as it sought — successfully — to win a six-way primary outright. Guinn called that a "pretty fatal mistake."
Hunt's campaign counters that Fletcher is beholden to Pelosi, whom Fletcher promised she would not "take orders from" in her 2018 campaign and ultimately supported for speaker after keeping her options open. While Fletcher has cut a different profile than most House Democrats on oil-and-gas issues — she has been openly critical of the Green New Deal and opposed an offshore drilling ban — Hunt's campaign maintains it still has a strong case to make that she has not stood up enough for the industry.
"With COVID-19 and Democrats in Washington threatening the energy industry, the very lifeblood of Houston, 7th District voters are looking for a candidate who will actually work across the aisle and defend Houston, not one who just makes those claims during election season," Hunt campaign manager Jim Hilk said in a statement.
TX-32 (Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas)
2016 presidential margin: Clinton +1.8
2018 U.S. Senate margin: O’Rourke +10.6
2018 incumbent margin: Allred +6.5
Once the district of the blue-blood Republican set of Dallas, the central question of this race is whether it will even be competitive this fall.
No Democrat bothered to challenge then-U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions in 2016. Two years later, former NFL player Colin Allred took down Sessions by a larger-than-expected 7-point margin.
Eighteen months into his first term, Allred reported just under $3 million in cash on hand. His challenger — Genevieve Collins, a former executive at the education technology company Istation — is an able fundraiser with $1.1 million in cash on hand. Unlike Allred, she had to deal with a competitive March primary.
Republicans acknowledge the national environment needs to improve for this seat to look more winnable. But they think they have a strong candidate under the circumstances with Collins, a fresh face after Sessions’ long tenure who brings a background in business and education, two issues that play well to the voters they need the most.
Plus, Collins also has demonstrated significant self-funding capability, loaning herself close to $500,000 so far.