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Crenshaw looms large as Democrats look to flip Texas House seat

Democrats hoping to turn Texas blue see a tempting — if formidable — target in freshman Rep. Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawChanging suburbs threaten GOP hold on Texas Biden, Democrats see late opportunity in Texas Dan Crenshaw releases Hollywood-type action movie trailer MORE (R).

Crenshaw’s seat is one of several in Texas Democrats are contesting this cycle, and the party is bullish that the 2nd District — and the state at large — are in play. But while several other Democratic House contenders are either competing for open seats or in districts with lesser-known incumbents, the party could face headwinds trying to unseat a rising GOP star in Crenshaw, who has been cast as a future Republican thought leader. 

On paper, the 2nd District is similar to other areas where Democrats saw massive gains in the 2018 midterms. It has a high number of college graduates, it includes parts of a major city — Houston — and the surrounding suburbs and about 44 percent of adults there are either Black or Hispanic, two demographics that lean Democratic.

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But in 2018, as Democrats captured the House, they lost an open race to Crenshaw by more than 7 points. And the former Navy SEAL and combat veteran is running for reelection with a campaign account of over $4 million and a mushrooming national profile.

Democrats have thrown their support behind Sima Ladjevardian, a prominent Houston attorney and health care activist who fled Iran as a child, survived cancer and advised former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign, setting her up to run as a candidate with a compelling life story who reflects the growing diversity of the Houston area and Texas at large. 

“I want somebody who cares and can give back and can represent the people of the community, and I’m the person to take him out,” Ladjevardian said in an interview. “It’s my duty for a country that’s taken care of me to give back and make sure I do that.”

Democrats see promising signs that the district could be moving in their direction.

While Crenshaw won in 2018 by a healthy margin, O’Rourke lost there by just 1 point the same year. The party has also been able to narrow the margins in presidential races — the district went for the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSenate is leaning to the Democrats, big time, with a wave Budowsky: Trump's COVID-19 death toll dominates election Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (R-Ariz.) by 20 points in 2008 and now-Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyMitt Romney did not vote for Trump in 2020 election Biden: Johnson should be 'ashamed' for suggesting family profited from their name The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by the Walton Family Foundation — Pope Francis expresses support for same-sex unions MORE (R-Utah) by 27 points in 2012, but President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE won there by just 9 points.

And Texas has seen an influx in new residents from more liberal states, with the 2nd District adding thousands of new voters to its rolls since 2018.

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In a sign of Democratic support, Ladjevardian was placed on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue list, a program that provides candidates in top flip opportunities beefed up organizational and fundraising support.

“Structurally, it’s a district that would lean heavily towards Democrats, and we have an amazing candidate in Sima Ladjevardian who is going to be somebody who’s formidable,” said Abhi Rahman, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Wary of the historic tilt of her district, Ladjevardian said she has worked to keep in line with what voters in the area want. She has campaigned on investing in renewable energies and tackling climate change while noting “we’re also an oil and gas town” and has vowed to expand health coverage and strengthen the Affordable Care Act while keeping a role for private insurance. 

Ladjevardian has specifically been ramping up her messaging on health care, hoping that her story as a cancer survivor and her advocacy to expand coverage will mesh well with burgeoning concerns over the coronavirus, which hit Texas particularly hard.

Her campaign released an ad this month discussing her plan to lower drug costs and another video promoting helping neighbors during the pandemic, both part of a seven-figure buy.

“It’s a very dismal situation,” Ladjevardian said. “Health care is definitely the No. 1 on people’s minds, and I feel very close to it and it’s very personal to me, and I understand people.”

Polling in the district is scant, making it difficult to quantify Ladjevardian’s overall appeal, but Democrats are also hopeful that she will benefit from the enthusiasm of a party base eager to defeat President Trump — and his congressional allies.

“Dan Crenshaw … ran as a moderate in 2018, and he has not been a moderate in 2019 or 2020,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas. “He spoke at the Republican convention, he’s been in lockstep with Donald Trump. If that’s what the voters of the district want, then that’s what they’re getting with Dan Crenshaw. The question is, is it really what they want, and I think that Sima is giving voters a viable alternative to him.”

Still, Democrats are looking at a particularly heavy lift to unseat Crenshaw.

Crenshaw, who served in Iraq and lost an eye in Afghanistan, was broadly touted as a top Republican recruit two years ago when he ran for the open seat. And he quickly shot to stardom after his appearance was mocked on "Saturday Night Live" and he subsequently went on the program to bury the hatchet. 

“He’s made this name for himself, he’s created this brand,” said Elizabeth Simas, a political science professor at the University of Houston who lives in the district. “He’s a rather recognizable figure, the eye patch makes him somewhat recognizable. It’s gotten him some attention, and it turned into positive attention when 'Saturday Night Live' mocked him for that. He has created a real name recognition and a brand, and any challenger … faces an uphill battle on that.” 

Crenshaw’s since burnished his role as a national figure in the party, speaking last month at the Republican National Convention and bringing in enough money to hold a 7-to-1 fundraising advantage over Ladjevardian.

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He said he’s taking nothing for granted with this year’s race but is optimistic that he’s still a good fit for his district.

“We take any race seriously. It’s a suburban district with big urban areas. I live in those urban areas. Over the last decade or so, obviously, Republicans and Democrats have sort of self-selected into urban and rural areas,” Crenshaw told The Hill. “That being said, the suburban areas of this district tend to be very conservative.”

He also downplayed concerns over the political environment, noting O’Rourke was unable to win his district in 2018 despite the wave of enthusiasm behind his Senate bid.

“At the time, let’s remember, he was a very compelling candidate running a really great campaign with a ton of grassroots activism and a ton of money — and still couldn’t beat Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzQuinnipiac poll finds Biden, Trump tied in Texas China could cut our access to critical minerals at any time — here's why we need to act The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Two weeks out, Trump attempts to rally the base MORE, who Democrats are always chomping at the bit to beat,” he said. “So I don’t think it tells the story that Democrats think it tells. I think what it says is, ‘this was the best chance you had, and you still couldn’t pull it off.’ ” 

The Cook Political Report rates the 2nd District as “Likely Republican,” and rates six other House races in GOP-held Texas districts in the state as more competitive.

Ladjevardian said that the party is treating victory for her as a real possibility, telling The Hill, “I absolutely feel they’re treating it as a top-tier race. I haven’t heard otherwise, and I haven’t seen other indications at all.”

But Republicans are equally adamant that Democrats are wasting their time in the 2nd District, arguing that no candidate can knock off one of the GOP’s most prominent lawmakers.

“Even if she ran an absolutely perfect campaign it wouldn’t matter,” said Texas GOP strategist Corbin Casteel. “Crenshaw has become one of those guys where it doesn’t matter who his opponent is, he is that good of a candidate, that good of a lawmaker, that good of a statesman, that good of an elected official with that respectable of a resume, it doesn’t matter.”