Five races to watch in the Texas runoffs

Five races to watch in the Texas runoffs
© The Hill illustration

Texans will head to the polls on Tuesday, ironing out the state’s congressional ballot in runoff elections as Democrats look to take back the House.

Democrats are keeping an eye on Republican-held districts, where they plan to pick up some of the 23 seats nationwide they need to regain the House. The most noteworthy primary fight centers on a Houston-area district that’s been torn by the battle between establishment Democrats in Washington and the party’s progressive wing.

Meanwhile, in safely Republican seats that Democrats are unlikely to win in the general election, the GOP primary runoff winners will likely be headed to Congress.

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While the state held its primaries in March, the top two candidates in races where no one could win a majority of the initial vote moved on to a runoff election.


With more than a dozen runoffs set for Tuesday, here are five to watch.

Democratic primary in Texas’s 7th Congressional District

The race between progressive activist Laura Moser and lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher for this Houston-area seat has become a microcosm of the push-and-pull within the Democratic Party.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE won this district, now held by Rep. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonFive biggest surprises in midterm fight Trump's woman problem may cost the GOP the House The Hill's Morning Report — Battle lines drawn as Trump and Cohen dig in MORE (R), by less than 2 points in 2016. That’s made it a top pickup target for Democrats. But the party has become deeply divided over which candidate has the best chance at taking down Culberson.

Days before the March primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) made the controversial decision to attack a fellow Democrat, publishing opposition research on Moser in an attempt to torpedo her candidacy. Framing Moser as a carpetbagger and uncovering some mildly controversial language from past writings, the DCCC argued that Moser’s supposed baggage made her unelectable in the fall.

That attack wasn’t enough to keep Moser out of the runoff. Instead, she framed herself ahead of the March primary as a foe to establishment party interests.

The wounds haven’t healed, but the runoff has moved on with relatively little acrimony. There’s been no onslaught of outside spending in the district, and the candidates ran largely positive campaigns. 

The biggest difference lies in what a victory for each candidate would mean about the path forward for the Democratic Party — particularly in moderate districts like this one, which are essential to Democrats’ quest to retake the House.

Progressives in the Moser camp believe that the party needs to pick more unapologetic liberals willing to stand by their values. Those candidates, they say, will motivate the party’s base and resonate more with an electorate looking for authenticity.

But many other Democrats are adamant that the path to victory in these red-leaning districts calls for a more moderate candidate who can attract disaffected Republicans and moderates who would balk at a candidate seen as too liberal. Pannill Fletcher is no conservative, but her supporters believe her background and issue platform can resonate with those crossover voters. 

Republican primary in Texas’s 5th Congressional District

The race to replace retiring Rep. Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingMidterms to shake up top posts on House finance panel Kavanaugh hires attorney amid sexual assault allegations: report Did Congress just settle for less than best plan to reform housing finance? MORE (R) has heated up since the March primary, with Hensarling and his allies working to boost his would-be successor.

Bunni Pounds, Hensarling’s former chief of staff and a prominent Republican fundraiser, has won endorsements from both Hensarling and Vice President Pence. 

But she’s up against state Rep. Lance Gooden, who received the most votes in March and has earned the endorsement of the local newspaper, The Dallas Morning News.

The anti-tax Club for Growth has been blanketing the airwaves with television ads in an effort to boost Pounds, spending more than $300,000 to batter Gooden on raising taxes. That spending has been matched by a rival outside group backing Gooden, which The Texas Tribune linked to a longtime Gooden donor.

This Dallas-area district went overwhelmingly for President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE in 2016, and Hensarling ran unopposed in the past two elections. That means Tuesday’s winner will likely be the district’s next member of Congress.

Republican primary in Texas’s 21st Congressional District

Republican Chip Roy, the former chief of staff to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzPoll: Cruz leads O'Rourke by 3 in Texas Senate race Julián and Joaquin Castro to campaign with O'Rourke in Texas The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump rips 'ridiculous' spending bill | FBI dragged into new fight | Latest on Maryland shooting MORE (R-Texas), has been able to marshal a number of high-profile surrogates to boost his bid to replace retiring Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithOvernight Energy: Watchdog to investigate EPA over Hurricane Harvey | Panel asks GAO to expand probe into sexual harassment in science | States sue over methane rules rollback Report on new threats targeting our elections should serve as a wake-up call to public, policymakers Overnight Energy: Watchdog faults EPA over Pruitt security costs | Court walks back order on enforcing chemical plant rule | IG office to probe truck pollution study MORE (R).

Cruz has hit the campaign trail with his former aide. Roy also has the backing of Smith and former Texas Gov. Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryOvernight Energy: House panel approves park funding, offshore drilling bills | Green group putting M into races | Perry applauds Russia boosting oil production Perry welcomes efforts by Russia, OPEC to boost oil production The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Hurricane Florence a new test for Trump team MORE, now the secretary of Energy.

Roy’s allies have also attacked his opponent, businessman Matt McCall, for saying during a campaign event that, while he supports Trump’s policies, “I don’t necessarily want him to watch my daughters.”

The Club for Growth has also made the race a priority, dropping more than $1 million to help Roy with ads warning that picking McCall could cost the GOP the seat in November.

McCall, who has run two failed bids to oust Smith in a primary, has jabbed at Roy for not living in the district. 

Trump won the district by 10 points in 2016. While the eventual Republican candidate is considered the favorite, Democrats could make the race competitive.

Republican primary for Texas’s 2nd Congressional District

In this Houston-area battle to replace retiring Rep. Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeCook shifts two House GOP seats closer to Dem column Five races to watch in the Texas runoffs Five Republican run-offs to watch in Texas MORE (R), GOP voters will be deciding between two candidates with similar stances on the issues — but very different backgrounds.

Dan Crenshaw is a former Navy SEAL who was seriously injured by an explosive during a combat tour in Afghanistan. Partially blind in his right eye, which is covered by an eye-patch that’s become a signature image in his campaign, Crenshaw graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government after leaving the military.

State Rep. Kevin Roberts has a story of his own, which centers on paying his way through college and building a successful business career. That background helped Roberts win a state House seat in 2016.

The race has turned testy at times. Roberts argued during one debate that sending people to Congress who have “never worked in the real world” would lead to bad policy. Crenshaw fired back by arguing his military service taught him more than enough about the “real world.”

This race has already seen surprises, with Crenshaw edging out a candidate in the primary who had spent millions of her own money on her bid. So while Roberts finished first in the March vote, it’s possible another upset could be brewing.

The winner will be favored to hold the seat in a district Trump won by 9 points.

Republican primary for Texas’s 27th Congressional District

Former Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdFormer aides alleging sexual harassment on Capitol Hill urge congressional action AP Analysis: 25 state lawmakers running in 2018 have been accused of sexual misconduct Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups MORE’s (R) abrupt retirement from Congress amid allegations of sexual harassment has set off an internal GOP struggle for his seat.

The runoff pits former Texas Water Development Board Chairman Bech Bruun against former Victoria County GOP Chairman Michael Cloud.

Bruun has the backing from Perry, who appointed him to the water board during his time in the governor’s mansion. Cloud has the endorsement of former Rep. Ron Paul, the former Texas GOP congressman who is revered in libertarian circles.

The race has divided on typical insider-outsider lines. Bruun’s government experience is the centerpiece of his campaign, even as Cloud blasts him as an insider. On the flip side, Cloud is framing himself as a longtime grass-roots conservative while Bruun criticizes him for not having enough experience in government to best serve the district.

The Club for Growth is involved in this race, too. It’s backing Cloud, running multiple ads touting his support from Paul. One ad, which frames Bruun as a “career bureaucrat,” includes a memorable line: “Politicians are a lot like diapers, they should be changed regularly.”

Trump won the district by more than 20 points in 2016, and Farenthold won by a similar margin in 2016, making this seat a safe one for the winner of the GOP primary.