Texas Democrats smell blood in the water for 2018

Texas Democrats smell blood in the water for 2018
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In non-presidential years, the Texas Democratic Primary tends to be a low-key affair, with statewide turnout involving only around 3 percent of the voting age population.

Contested Democratic congressional primaries tend to be scarcer than grass around a trough, with a plethora of safe Democratic incumbents and a paucity of seats in play.

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In 2018 that is changing, as a talented group of high-quality Democratic candidates are coming out of the woodwork to run for Congress across the Lone Star State. And, if Democrats are to have any hope of taking back control of the U.S. House next year, they will have to flip at least a couple of Texas seats presently held by Republicans.

 

In the first three elections following the adoption of the current congressional districts in 2012, only one of the Texas’s 36 districts, the 23rd Congressional District (which runs from San Antonio to El Paso and has been represented by a Republican since 2015), was considered competitive. Democrats running in Texas’s other 24 Republican-held districts raised a paltry combined total of $434,000 during the entire 2016 election cycle.

Looking to 2018 Democrats have firmly set their eyes on two additional Republican districts where Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE received more votes than Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE in 2016: the 7th Congressional District (Houston) and the 32nd Congressional District (Dallas). 

The 2016 presidential result, favorable demographics and a related decision by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to target these two districts (in addition to the 23rd) has resulted in an avalanche of Democrats jockeying to capture the Democratic nomination to earn the right to take on Republican incumbents Reps. John Culberson in Houston’s 7th and Pete Sessions in Dallas’s 32nd in 2018.

In addition to a battle in the 23rd to take on Will Hurd, a similar blossoming of Democratic challengers has occurred in a second tier of what are still considered to be very safe Republican seats (in the 2nd and 21st Congressional Districts), but which could at least in theory flip in the unlikely event a blue tsunami sweeps across Texas.

Through Sept. 30, Democratic candidates running in the 24 GOP held districts, excluding the 23rd, had already raised $4.5 million dollars: more than 10 times what Democrats raised in the same 24 districts during the entire 2016 electoral cycle. Candidates in the 7th ($1.9 million) and 32nd districts ($1.0 million) raised almost two-thirds of this $4.5 million.

Culberson will face his most competitive general election ever to defend his seat in the 7th. Lining up to do battle in the March Democratic Primary is a quartet of very credible candidates (along with two others). Two will advance to a May 22 runoff (unless one wins a majority of the vote on March 6, which is extremely unlikely). 

Every one of the four top-tier candidates has a realistic chance to make the runoff: Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, Laura Moser, Alex Triantaphyllis and James Westin. All are first-time candidates, but successful professionals in their respective fields. Combined, the four have raised $1.9 million, ranging from a low of $251,000 (Westin) to a high of $667,000 (Triantaphyllis).

Sessions in the 32nd did not face a Democratic rival in the 2016 general election. In 2018 he will be confronted with his most competitive general election race in more than 20 years. While the number of Democrats running for his seat numbers in the double digits, the actual competition is expected to boil down to a face-off between two top-tier candidates.

In one corner is former NFL linebacker, Obama administration official and current civil rights attorney, Collin Allred. The other is former Obama administration official and Hillary Clinton campaign operative Ed Meier. With a large number of other candidates, including a set of higher profile second-tier candidates, Lillian Salerno and George Rodriguez, Allred and Meier will almost certainly do battle twice: in the March 6 primary and in the May 22 runoff.

In the 23rd, for the first time since 2010, Pete GallegoPete Pena GallegoTexas Democrats smell blood in the water for 2018 ObamaCare repeal vote: 15 GOP lawmakers to watch Vulnerable Texas GOP lawmaker survives rematch MORE will not be the Democratic nominee. After two narrow losses, Democratic powerbrokers in Washington and San Antonio (e.g., Joaquín and Julián Castro) have tapped former prosecutor, and Harvard Law School classmate of the Castros, Jay Hulings, to be their nominee in 2018.

Hulings faces a quartet of relatively unknown rivals led by Gina Ortiz Jones (who has raised over $100,000), along with Rick Treviño, Judy Canales and Devin Fitzpatrick. However, in a district where three out of four Democratic primary voters are Hispanic, Hulings will be pressed to win an absolute majority of the vote against a group of rivals where three have Hispanic surnames (though Ortiz Jones is a Filipino-American). It is quite possible that Hulings could be forced into a May runoff — one he’d be heavily favored to win.

Outside of these three races, Democrats also have an intense primary in the 16th Congressional District (El Paso), an open safe Democratic seat being vacated by Beto O’Rourke as part of his long-shot Senate bid to oust Ted Cruz

As in the 32nd, the race in the 16th is a de facto two-candidate affair, even through the ballot will include several other Democrats. Former El Paso County Judge (i.e., County Executive) Veronica Escobar is the front-runner, and if elected would become the first Latina member of congress in the Lone Star State’s 172 year history. Escobar’s principal challenger is Dori Fenenbock, a former El Paso school district school board president. 

The 2018 election will test Rep. Hurd’s ability to outperform his party in a district Trump has put squarely into play. Democrats face a much more uphill, but still realistic, prospect of victory in the 7th and 32nd. Victory will however require a perfect storm of a high caliber and well-funded challenger, a decline in Trump’s approval ratings and a lackluster campaign by Culberson and Sessions.

Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University as well as a co-author of “Texas Politics Today: 2017-2018 Edition.” Follow him @MarkPJonesTX.