House race in Texas becomes ground zero in health-care fight

House race in Texas becomes ground zero in health-care fight
© Hill illustration

DALLAS — Rep. Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsHillicon Valley — Presented by CTIA and America's wireless industry — Lawmaker sees political payback in fight over 'deepfakes' measure | Tech giants to testify at hearing on 'censorship' claims | Google pulls the plug on AI council Lawmaker alleges political payback in failed 'deepfakes' measure As Russia collusion fades, Ukrainian plot to help Clinton emerges MORE’s (R) north Dallas district has become ground zero for the fight over health care and pre-existing conditions, the dominant issue in many contests across the country that could help determine the next House majority.

Sessions, 63, has been in Congress for 22 years, but has seen the 32nd District become increasingly diverse and more competitive. He won reelection in 2016 without a Democratic challenger even as Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2020 Democrats target federal ban on abortion funding Hillary Clinton slams Trump for spreading 'sexist trash' about Pelosi Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign MORE won the district over President TrumpDonald John TrumpPapadopoulos on AG's new powers: 'Trump is now on the offense' Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage Mike Pence delivers West Point commencement address MORE by nearly 2 points.

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His race against Democrat Colin Allred, a former NFL player who worked in the Obama administration, is seen as a toss-up, and top Republicans are battling hard to save the incumbent, a former member of House leadership.

Allred, 35, has sharpened his attacks on the Republican’s record on health care. Sessions has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, numerous times, a fact the Texas Democrat repeatedly reminds voters about in stump speeches and ads.

Sessions has sought to defend himself by highlighting a resolution he offered in September that would allow states to reform individual health-care marketplaces, while making sure people with pre-existing conditions can access health care with lower premiums and deductibles.

But the resolution is nonbinding, and the Republican is also opening himself up to attacks since Texas’s attorney general has led a lawsuit — backed by the Trump administration — that would undo ObamaCare and its popular provision protecting those with pre-existing conditions.

Democrats believe that relentlessly focusing on health care can be a winning message as they look to flip 23 House seats in the election — many in suburban battlegrounds similar to Sessions’s district and traditional GOP strongholds moving to the center thanks in part to demographic changes.

On a cold and rainy night last week, at least 100 people gathered at an athletic center in the Dallas suburbs to attend the Dallas County Democratic Party’s annual fish fry, an event that featured Allred.

Less than a minute into his speech, as the participants ate fried catfish, Allred had already started hammering Sessions over his “political stunt” in introducing a pre-existing conditions resolution, while attacking the congressman’s voting record on repealing ObamaCare.

“I think it’s the worst kind of Washington politics. I think people are so sick of that kind of cynical, political stunt,” Allred told The Hill at the fish fry.

“When you get in a close election a month out, you propose a nonbinding resolution saying you support pre-existing conditions, I think people see through that and they resent it.”

And like many Democrats around the country, Allred has seized on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions What if 2020 election is disputed? Immigration bills move forward amid political upheaval MORE’s (R-Ky.) comments about trying again on a bill to repeal ObamaCare.

The race is attracting national attention. Several national political reporters, along with a tracker from the Texas Democratic Party, followed Sessions along on a block walk — a Texas term for canvassing — around the leafy neighborhood of Far North Dallas to meet with constituents and potential voters.

More than 50 volunteers attended last weekend’s block walk to canvass the neighborhood, which included people from Rep. Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyHouse votes to boost retirement savings Democrats seize on IRS memo in Trump tax battle Oil companies join blitz for carbon tax MORE (R-Texas) and Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) teams.

Speaking with reporters on a brisk, sunny morning last weekend, Sessions lashed out at “shameless” Democrats for their portrayal of his health-care record. And he also sought to blunt those attacks by seizing on some Democrats’ push for “Medicare for all,” which would institute a single-payer health-care system.

“It’s an absolute, despicable lie nationally that the Democratic Party is attempting to put across,” Sessions said, mentioning that his 24-year-old son has Down syndrome and has always had access to good health care.

“And the bottom line is they’re desperate for people not to know how bad their plan is,” he said. “They will outlaw all private insurance in the country that competes against their blessed government program.”

During a heavily contested Democratic primary, Allred said he supports “Medicare for all,” but during a September debate, he said he wouldn’t back a single-payer system funded by taxes.

Millions of dollars spent from outside groups on both sides of the aisle have made this one of the most competitive battlegrounds this cycle.

Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash storm hits Capitol Hill Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no Ex-Trump adviser says GOP needs a better health-care message for 2020 MORE (R-Wis.), spent $1.5 million on ads that ran from Sept. 18 to Oct. 9, according to a source tracking the media market. Meanwhile, Democrats’ House Majority PAC will be on the airwaves through Election Day, spending $2.3 million.

And high-profile Republicans and White House officials have barnstormed Sessions’s district, including Vice President Pence, Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpTrump Jr. slams Republican committee chairman: 'Too weak to stand up to the Democrats' #TrumpTantrum spreads on Twitter after impromptu press conference Trump family members will join state visit to UK MORE and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Trump has not traveled to the district that narrowly rejected him in 2016. But he’s tweeted an endorsement of Sessions twice and name-checked him at a massive campaign rally in Houston on Monday where he claimed the GOP congressman is “still leading” Allred.

The north Dallas district has greatly shifted since Sessions started representing the seat when it was created after the 2000 census. The demographics have changed, with more African-Americans and Hispanics moving to the district. Dallas has seen economic growth, with more tech companies coming in and more businesses relocating headquarters.

Still, strategists say it’ll be challenging to unseat Sessions, who’s served the district since its creation in 2003. Texas Republicans said he took his challenger seriously from the start, which is why many believe he can withstand strong headwinds this cycle.

And Sessions is attempting to tailor his message to focus on the growing economy, which he argues has been bolstered by the GOP’s tax law, while going on the attack against Democrats on immigration — a red meat issue meant to drive out the base.

At a Sunday debate, both candidates sparred over immigration, exposing divisions over a caravan of 7,500 migrants fleeing violence from Central America as they make their way to the southern border.

Sessions said those migrants are “attempting to take advantage of a law that would allow them to come and literally walk across the border.” But Allred slammed the current immigration system, arguing that there needs to be due process for people who have “credible fear for their life” and allowances for them to apply for refugee status.

Republicans are hopeful that Sessions’s diligent focus on these types of issues and his campaigning will allow him to prevail, despite the relentless attacks over pre-existing conditions from Allred.

“Pete raised the alarm about his race almost a year ago when he got a substantive opponent,” said George Seay, former Texas chairman of Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump GOP senators work to get Trump on board with new disaster aid package MORE’s 2016 (R-Fla.) presidential campaign.

“He’s gone up on the air and has very effective spots that I think are comparable to Cruz spots. He’s trying to run the same kind of campaign: ‘My opponent is too left of center.’ I think he’ll pull it out because of that,” he said.