The party is targeting another half-dozen House seats in the Lone Star State.
by Ally Mutnick
Staggeringly high Democratic turnout in the Texas suburbs last week has the party bullish about capturing a half-dozen seats that slipped through its grasp in the 2018 midterms.
Democratic primaries in six GOP-held districts saw a roughly 100 percent increase in voters compared to 2016, according to a POLITICO analysis of turnout data. The spike indicates that a lethal recipe might be brewing for Republicans in the run-up to November: President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the suburbs, combined with rapid demographic change and an amped-up Democratic base.
After coming tantalizingly close to flipping several red-leaning seats in 2018, Democratic candidates are gearing up in and around the state’s five largest cities. Their game plan: win over moderates and independents repelled by the president, and bring in as many new Democratic voters as possible.
Democrats are targeting seven Republican-held districts, though it’s more likely that three or four are truly in play right now. The implications are huge for the congressional landscape: If Democrats seriously contest a half-dozen seats, Republicans will have to spend millions protecting once-safe districts in major media markets, minimizing their odds of taking back the House.
“One thing I’ve learned in my electoral experience is that a single election cycle is like a lifetime in terms of what a population shift can create,” Wendy Davis, the 2014 Democratic nominee for governor now running against a freshman GOP congressman, said in an interview before a recent campaign event in Austin.
“I want Texas to turn blue,” she said, “and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.”
GOP retirements in three of the targeted districts have emboldened Democrats, since winning an open seat is generally much easier than taking out an incumbent.
Democrats are best positioned to flip a sprawling West Texas seat from which Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a powerhouse fundraiser and nimble campaigner, is retiring. The next most promising targets are two open seats outside of Houston and Dallas, and Republican Rep. Michael McCaul’s district, which stretches east from Austin to Greater Houston.
Democrats hope strong recruiting will put three additional seats in play. In Houston, attorney Sima Ladjevardian is aiming to oust GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw; in central Texas, Davis has vastly outraised freshman GOPRep. Chip Roy; and north of Austin, two Democrats advanced to a runoff to take on veteran GOP Rep. John Carter.
Nearly all of the districts share demographic trends that make them ripe for Democratic pickups. In 2012, Mitt Romney in 2012 carried six of the seats by at least 20 points. But Trump’s margin four years later was 10 points or less in five of them.
In his 2018 campaign for Senate, Democrat Beto O’Rourke narrowly outperformed Ted Cruz in some of the districts and nearly beat the incumbent Republican senator in the rest.
Now, Democrats are hoping to replicate that success at the congressional level.
“The Republicans have plateaued,”Ladjevardian, a former adviser to O’Rourke, said in a late February interview in Houston. O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, she said, offered a path to flipping longtime Republican strongholds.
O’Rourke succeeded in winning over white voters, she said, particularly independents and moderate Republicans — but he missed an opportunity to tap the rapidly growing nonwhite demographic. “I mean, he was short 200,000 votes,” she said. “If we had pushed more, those votes are there, and they’re ready.”
Republicans project confidence, insisting 2018 was a high watermark for Democrats, with O’Rourke’s Senate bid bringing out new voters and supporters of President Donald Trump staying home. If the Beto effect wasn’t enough to flip those seats, Democrats have no chance with Trump on the ballot, they argue.
Another possible boost for the GOP: Texas has eliminated straight-ticket voting, which Republicans believe helped down-ballot Democrats take advantage of O’Rourke’s popularity.
The practice had “a big coattail impact” in 2018, said state GOP chairman James Dickey, who has instituted a voter registration effort that he said has added 50,000 new GOP voters to the rolls.
Plus, he said, O’Rourke’s army of volunteers and his $40 million spending advantage was a unique phenomenon. “When you put all that together, it makes it clearly an anomaly that will not be repeated,” Dickey said.
Democrats, though, note that the loss of straight-ticket voting could also bring adverse effects for Republicans, if loyal Trump fans don’t bother to cast votes for other offices.
The increase in Democratic primary turnout last week could stem from a few sources: a rise in new voters; voters who typically participate only in general elections going to the polls; or voters who had previously voted Republican.
In six of the Democratic-targeted districts, between 8 and 12 percent of early voters in the 2020 Democratic primary had voted in a Republican primary in either 2016, 2018 or both years, according to tabulations by the Lone Star Project, a group that provides research and campaign assistance to Democratic candidates. (Democratic operatives estimate early voters typically makes up half of the total electorate, if not more.)
For Texas Democrats, a key part of their 2020 success will also depend on bringing out new voters. And some recruits say they are particularly invested in that talk.
In his 2018 run for an immigrant-heavy, suburban Houston House seat, Sri Preston Kulkarni drew attention for his unorthodox effort to diversify his campaign staff. His volunteers and staff could reach voters in 15 languages; he hopes to double that to 30 languages this time. Primary turnout in the district grew from about 29,000 to over 65,000 , a 110 percent increase.
At a recent campaign event in Sugar Land, Texas, Kulkarni touted his campaign to an audience of people largely of south Asian descent.
Campaign experts had doubted his approach in 2018, he said, but his narrow loss suggested he was on to something. Kulkarni recalled getting frustrated when an operative complained that they paid for thousands of phone calls to Asian neighborhoods without any results. The campaign wasted its money by not embedding in the community, Kulkarni responded: It’s not as simple as arranging phone calls.
Ladjevardian, an Iranian American and longtime community organizer, helped get 17 black female judges elected in Houston-area Harris County last cycle. This year she plans to connect with disparate groups in her district. Door-knocking does little to engage Latinos or Asian Americans, she said; it’s more effective to court them at community events. She already attended a Vietnamese New Year celebration.
Still, Ladjevardian will have to face Crenshaw, a GOP rising star who has raised an impressive $5.5 million so far this cycle.
In an interview, Crenshaw said he was heartened by the GOP’s rout in a January special election for a nearby state House seat that O’Rourke nearly carried in the midterms. Plus, he said, Trump’s presence on the ballot will be a boon.
“There’s definitely Trump voters that didn’t come out in 2018,” he said. “They will come out this time. We can rest assured on that one, just given how divisive the presidential election is going to be.”
Republicans scoffed at the idea that Democrats have finally discovered how to unlock enough non-voters to flip these districts. But privately, some GOP operatives concede that new voters, combined with independents and moderates turned off by Trump, could offer a winning coalition.
That appears to be Davis’ game plan for her run against Roy, a freshman who won with 50 percent of the vote In 2018. Though Davis’ 2013 filibuster against abortion restrictions turned her into a national liberal icon, she started her legislative career by flipping a conservative state Senate district.
She is working to turn out new Democratic voters but also making a pitch to constituents in more Republican-leaning parts of the district.
Davis won her primary easily. But in other districts, the results of late-May runoffs could affect Democrats’ chances to be competitive.
In McCaul’s central Texas district, the two Democrats who advanced to a runoff differ on key policies.
Mike Siegel, a civil rights attorney who lost a closer-than-expected race to McCaul in 2018, is stressing his support for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
“The way a Democrat can beat McCaul is not by trying to take his Republican voters, but by turning out folks who haven’t been engaged in the process,” he said in an interview last month outside an early voting location. “I don’t need to convert Trump voters to win.”
That stance is at odds with his runoff opponent, physician Pritesh Gandhi, who is tacking more toward the center — an approach used by many of the Democrats who flipped red-hued seats in the midterms.
“To defeat McCaul we need to have a message that appeals to Republicans [and] Democrats,” Gandhi said. “You don’t win this race by just bringing out your base.”
Ally Mutnick is a campaign reporter for POLITICO, covering House races. @allymutnick