Cook Political Report got it wrong: Reps. Sessions and Culberson’s districts are not 'toss-ups'

Cook Political Report got it wrong: Reps. Sessions and Culberson’s districts are not 'toss-ups'
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The Cook Political Report currently overstates the likelihood of a Democratic victory in two Texas congressional districts. It incorrectly rates as "Republican Toss Up" the 32nd Congressional District in Dallas where Republican incumbent Pete Sessions faces Democrat Collin Allred and the 7th Congressional District in Houston where Republican incumbent John Culberson faces Democrat Lizzie Fletcher.

The Cook Political Report overlooks some relatively unique aspects of Texas elections that provide Sessions and Culberson with an extra advantage compared to comparable Republican incumbents in most other states. This advantage centers around the presence of straight-ticket voting along with its popularity among Texans, the dynamics of the state's 2018 marquee race for governor, and the consequent reduced importance of individual candidate and campaign factors compared to many other congressional races across the country.

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In 2014 and 2016 the median Republican statewide judicial candidate won 24 and 13 percent more than the median Democratic candidate in CD-32, suggesting Sessions begins the contest with a built-in partisan advantage of around 18 percent in 2018.

 

In 2014 and 2016 the median Republican statewide judicial candidate won 31 and 15 percent more than the median Democratic candidate in CD-7, suggesting Culberson begins the contest with a built-in partisan advantage of around 23 percent in 2018. 

CD-32 is located in Dallas County, where in 2014 and 2016, 65 and 68 percent of voters employed the straight ticket option. CD-7 is located in Harris County, where in 2014 and 2016, 69 and 68 percent of voters employed the straight ticket option. After selecting the straight-ticket option some voters will go through the ballot and choose candidates from another party, such is in the high profile 2016 presidential election, but most do not make many, if any, changes. In November the average CD-32 and CD-7 voter will be presented with a ballot asking them to cast a vote in 89 and 92 partisan races (the U.S. House race will appear second on their ballot). 

The marquee race in Texas this cycle is the gubernatorial contest between Republican Governor Greg Abbott and Democrat Lupe Valdez, setting up perhaps the most futile Democratic gubernatorial bid since 1998 when the White House destined Republican incumbent George W. Bush defeated Democrat Gary Mauro by 27 points.

Abbott cannot hope to match Bush’s margin of victory, especially with an unpopular Republican president in the White House and a much more polarized partisan environment than 20 years ago. However, with a campaign war chest that will exceed $60 million vs. Valdez’s which will be lucky to reach $6 million, and a level of popularity superior to that of any other Texas politician, the question is not if Abbott is going to win, only if he is going to win by 12, 15, 20 or 22 points.

In 2014, Abbott defeated Democrat Wendy Davis, who was a much more talented candidate than Valdez and who came close to matching Abbott dollar for dollar in campaign expenditures, by margins of 16 and 22 percentage points in CD-32 and CD-7 respectively. 

Trump’s low approval ratings among college-educated Anglo women, who are a substantial voting bloc in both districts, may drag down Abbott’s numbers compared to 2014. 

But at the same time, unlike the case in many Texas congressional districts, neither Allred or Fletcher can expect Valdez to significantly boost their totals via her mobilization of Latinos to turn out and vote straight ticket Democratic, since Latinos account for only around 10 percent of likely voters in both districts. 

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE did lose to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPoll: Majority of Democratic voters happy with their choices among 2020 contenders No presidential candidate can unite the country GOP lawmakers speak out against 'send her back' chants MORE in CD-32 and CD-7 by 1.8 and 1.4 percent. However, since the districts were first used in 2012, Trump is the only statewide or congressional Republican to not win in them by a double-digit margin (with the exception of a 2016 Republican judicial candidate who won in CD-32 by 8.9 percent). 

Allred and Fletcher are outstanding candidates. In a pure one-on-one match up where voter behavior was not heavily influenced by partisanship, I could definitely see them besting Sessions and Culberson. But, that is not the reality in which they will find themselves in November.

These Democrats are on a ballot where a majority of voters will employ the straight-ticket option, in a district where Republican voters outnumber Democrats by a substantial margin. They are running in a state where the GOP's marquee candidate will boost the fortunes of his fellow Republican candidates via the targeting and mobilization of Republican voters and the burnishing of the party's image. The are on the ballot in a metro area where almost a dozen congressional races will be competing with hundreds of state and local races for voters' attention. 

The only realistic path to victory for Allred and Fletcher is for the 2018 election to become much more of a referendum on the Trump presidency than a battle between Texas Democrats and Republicans or between specific congressional candidates, and for Sessions and Culberson to also commit a major unforced error. Thus, a more accurate rating for CD-32 and CD-7 might be “Lean Republican” 

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.