Primary losses by U.S. House incumbents are relatively rare events, especially when district boundaries have not been changed since the incumbent's last election. The Houston metro area encompasses 10 congressional districts: seven safe Republican and three safe Democratic seats. All 10 incumbents are running for reelection in the March 1 Republican and Democratic primaries, and while the most likely scenario is that all 10 will raise a toast to victory the evening of March 1, for three incumbents, victory on March 1 is not a sure thing due to the presence this cycle of viable primary challengers. In Texas primaries, if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff (this year, on May 24) is held between the top two candidates from the first round. Voter turnout in these runoffs tends to drop significantly, with an electorate in the GOP primary that on average is even more ideologically conservative than that in the first round.
The 8th Congressional District is centered in suburban Montgomery County directly to the north of Houston, where approximately two-thirds of its GOP primary voters reside, extending north to include seven largely rural and semi-rural counties and south to capture a sliver of northern Harris County. It has been represented by Rep. Kevin Brady (R) for 10 terms. Since first winning office in an open-seat primary in 1996, Brady has always won at least two-thirds of the vote in the four primaries where someone filed to run against him. In 2016, only months following his ascent to the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee, Brady faces the most serious primary threat in his congressional career. Brady's leading primary opponent is former Texas State Rep. Steve Toth, who has the backing of several of the district's most active and influential Tea Party organizations. Also running are retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Andre Dean and Brady's 2014 primary opponent, Craig McMichael. There is no real doubt that Brady will be the plurality winner on March 1, but there does exist at least some doubt that he will be able to cross the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Brady could find the rarefied context of a low-turnout Republican runoff to be suboptimal.
The 29th Congressional District is located immediately to the east and north of downtown Houston. More than 80 percent of its residents are Latino (the sixth-highest proportion among the nation's 435 congressional districts), and are expected to account for around 55 percent of the voters in this year's Democratic primary. Approximately 2.5 million of metro Houston's 6.6 million inhabitants are Latino (38 percent), but not one of the 10 House members who represent all or portions of the region is Latino. The 29th District was created in 1991 as Houston's first (and still only) Latino opportunity district, but in its first two elections, Rep. Gene Green (D) twice bested the legendary but controversial former State Rep. and City Councilman Ben Reyes (D), and, after easily defeating another challenger in 1996, did not have a contested primary again — until now. Green is being challenged this year by former Harris County Sheriff (2009-15) and 2015 Houston mayoral candidate Adrian Garcia. Garcia is attempting to unseat Green by simultaneously arguing that an overwhelmingly Latino district should have a Latino representative and by criticizing Green for holding policy positions on issues such as environmental protection and gun control that are insufficiently progressive. A third candidate, Dominque Garcia, also is running. Green enjoys the visible and vocal support of most of Houston's Democratic elite, including a large majority of its Latino state legislators, many of whom have longstanding personal, professional and political ties with Green.
The most likely scenario on March 1 is that Reps. Culberson, Brady and Green will be reelected with an absolute majority of the vote. They are each well-respected, enjoy the backing of numerous influential local actors and — in the cases of Brady and Green — have campaign war chests that dwarf those of their opponents. However, there does exist enough uncertainty surrounding their prospects on March 1 that they will need to break a sweat on the campaign trail during the month of February. And we should not be shocked if at least one of them finds himself spending far more time in Houston in the spring then he had anticipated, having been forced into a May 24 runoff, facing campaign dynamics and an electorate potentially quite distinct from those on March 1.
This piece has been revised to include the correct number of counties in the 8th Congressional District.
Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy's fellow in political science, the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American studies and the chair of the Department of Political Science at Rice University. Follow him @MarkPJonesTX.