In partisan slugfest, can Chip Roy overcome Trump troubles?

AUSTIN — Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) is staring down the fight of his political life as he looks to overcome President Trump’s struggles in the suburbs of Texas’s capital city and aggressive opposition from Democratic outside groups to win reelection next week.

The first-term congressman is up against Wendy Davis, a former state senator, in what has become one of the most hotly contested House races on the map. But it’s Trump who is the dominant figure in the campaign — as has been the case for much of the past four years — in the ethnically diverse and politically evolving 21st Congressional District.

Roy believes it is both a blessing and curse for his prospects.

“He is mobilizing the hell out of a core group of supporters throughout the district, and he’s mobilizing the hell out of a core group of opponents, and what that means is you’ve got a lot of intensity on both sides of that debate,” Roy told The Hill in an interview. “We’re trying to figure out how to grow and build that coalition around that intensity, and then figure out how these last two weeks go with respect to those who haven’t decided.” 

“This district is very reflective of the national situation. Why? We’re highly suburban in two parts of it. We’re urban, suburban and rural,” Roy added. “We’re all of it in a significant way.”

Texas’s 21st Congressional District stretches from downtown Austin, through the city’s suburbs, to the rural Hill Country, all the way down to north San Antonio, with the fight over undecided voters centered on the latter portion of the district. 

While Roy won the seat, which former Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) held for more than three decades, by 2.5 percentage points in 2018, the growing suburbs, coupled with the presence of Davis and big dollars in the race has complicated his path to victory this cycle. According to an internal poll, conducted on Oct. 11 and 12 by the Club for Growth, Roy leads by 5 points over Davis, 47-42, with 8 percent undecided.

But most expect whoever wins to do so narrowly.

“She’s got so much money. Her ads are on my TV more than the car wreck trial lawyers. Back-to-back,” said one Austin GOP political operative. “He has a narrow path. He’s just gotta put the right coalition together, but I don’t know.” 

Notably, Roy is outpacing the president, who, despite winning the district by 10 points in 2016, is running even there against former Vice President Joe Biden, according to the poll. Despite the contest being viewed on both sides as being about base turnout, the Texas conservative has been forced to seek out elusive Biden-Roy voters, who he says are those who have “grown a little tired of all the noise in D.C. and just can’t” vote for the president.

“What it’s coming down to is a choice on what metric to use in making your decision,” said David McIntosh, head of the Club for Growth, laying out the question in the mind of voters. “Do I do it on personality? Or do I do it on the agenda?” 

While Roy is known as one of the most conservative members in the House GOP conference, he does not fall in line with his party all the time. The former chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) received scorn from both sides of the aisle and within Texas for single-handedly temporarily blocking a $19.1 billion disaster aid package for damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in May 2019, though he is unapologetic to this day for doing so (“I’ll do that every day, twice again on Sunday,” he says). 

Unlike many House Republicans, Roy also isn’t a knee-jerk defender of Trump, and is more than willing to point out where he disagrees with the president, including on the message currently being sold. Namely, he wishes Trump’s campaign would focus on the actions of the administration rather than continue to rattle on about Hunter Biden, the Democratic nominee’s son.

“If I were advising the campaign …  I would say your closing argument needs to be a closing argument about what this administration’s done for the country, and nothing more. Focus on that like a laser,” Roy said, noting that he’s had “strong conversations” with Trump world about this recently. “Own it. Get out there and fight. Gollee.”

While Roy and Davis are both viewed as being on the political extremes in their respective parties, the two candidates have pitched themselves to voters as bipartisan bridge-builders who can get stuff done for the district, all the while casting their opponent as extremists.

Both sides are spending big to get the message across. Davis is the best-funded House challenger this cycle, having posted a haul $3.4 million in the third quarter and raised $8 million this cycle, and is backed up by the House Majority PAC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which have spent $1.7 million and $1.1 million, respectively. As for Roy, he raised a respectable $1.6 million in the third quarter, with the Club for Growth providing backup in both the Austin and San Antonio media markets to the tune of $6 million.

For months, Democrats have pummeled Roy over health care and for not taking the pandemic seriously enough as he held in-person events dating back to May. While Roy disputes the attacks, his campaign played into them last week as he hosted a veterans event at an outdoor pavilion in Bulverde on Wednesday where more than 100 attendees rarely adhered to social distancing and very few wore masks. At the conclusion of the event, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who was the final speaker at the event, called for all of the veterans present, including some who had served in World War II, to pack in near the stage.

“There’s a lot of you in here. Come on up,”  Perry said as they moved toward the stage. “I like it when there’s not enough room.”

Davis, who spoke to The Hill over Zoom last week, only recently resumed in-person campaigning. 

“I also take very seriously that we in roles like the one I’m in and Chip Roy is in, we have an opportunity to model good behavior, and I’m proud of how my campaign has conducted itself in that regard,” Davis said.

Democrats have grown bullish over their chances to flip the district, especially as early voting has shown a massive turnout since it kicked off on Oct. 13. As of Tuesday, 7.8 million Texans statewide — 46 percent of the state’s registered voters — have voted, with the numbers in the district equally as eye-popping. Over the weekend, Hays County, roughly half of which resides in the 21st congressional district, became one of the first counties across the U.S. to eclipse its total turnout in 2016. And in Travis County, home to Austin, total turnout stands at 52 percent. 

“When turnout is high, it’s generally not because people are happy about something,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas.

Tags Chip Roy Donald Trump Joe Biden Lamar Smith Rick Perry Ted Cruz

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