With the dust settled in primary runoff elections and the latest congressional campaign finance reports filed, Texans now have a better idea of where the bloodiest battles will take place this November.
In 2018, Democrats picked up two congressional seats in Houston and Dallas — the same number flipped in traditional swing states like Iowa and Michigan.
They were not easy pickups, but hard-fought victories in historically Republican suburbs where incumbents lost re-elections. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher’s district (TX-07), for example, had been Republican-controlled since 1967, a year after the district was redrawn and George H. W. Bush won his first term Congress.
There is little doubt Democrats have even more momentum going into 2020.
That’s owed to Trump’s unpopularity in a high-energy presidential election year and the fact that multiple Republican congressional seats have been vacated leading into the cycle (governing as a minority in the House, it turns out, is not as fun as making money in the private sector), offering a tantalizing opportunity for Democrats to swoop in and challenge GOP candidates with little to no name recognition who are trying to pick up the mantle of their retiring incumbents.
In addition, it seems the message of Texas Democrats, that the Lone Star State is a battleground state, has finally sunk into the minds of national Democrats and media.
Despite the general election being three months away, fundraising for Democratic candidates in Texas has already reached $80 million, surpassing the $75 million raised for them throughout the entire 2015-2016 presidential election cycle.
Likewise, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of the Democratic House, has deepened its commitment to Texas. In 2016, the committee supported only one Texan (Texas’ 23rd Pete Gallego) in its Red to Blue program. This time around, the committee has opened an office in Austin dedicated to flipping the state and the number of Red to Blue targets has ballooned to five.
With all the pieces assembled, it’s clear Texas is now the biggest swing state in the nation — a statement that only a few years ago, was looked at as little more than a campaign slogan to Democratic donors, big and small, across the country.
The general election is still months away, but from this distance, the following four Democratic candidates appear as the safest bets for continuing the party’s offensive in the state and flipping congressional seats.
Gina Ortiz Jones vs. ???, TX-23
At the time of writing, votes are still being tallied in Texas’ largest congressional district.
The two Republican candidates, Raul Reyes and Tony Gonzales are statistically tied; Trump-endorsed Gonzales is leading by only seven votes and a recount is being conducted.
The eventual Republican candidate matters little, though. Gina Ortiz Jones, a former public servant and the Democratic candidate who comfortably won on Super Tuesday in March, came extremely close to unseating Rep. Will Hurd when she ran in 2018.
On top of that, Texas’ 23rd congressional district, which stretches from El Paso to the San Antonio area, has long been a sensitive swing district. It’s changed hands between Democrats and Republicans four times since 2007 and was one of the few districts national Democrats kept an eye on before the state began rapidly trending blue in the past two cycles. And things have only gotten worse for Republicans notwithstanding the district’s competitive history.
The Hispanic-majority congressional district was carried by Hillary Clinton by three percentage points in 2016 and Beto O’Rourke won the district by five percentage points. Of course, and most telling, Jones herself was only 926 votes from unseating Hurd in her first attempt in 2018.
With no primary runoff opponent to worry about this time around, Jones has been dominating in fundraising and has amassed $3 million war chest. Her latest campaign fundraising report shows Jones is raising about three and a half times what the campaign has spent on since April.
That’s a large gap to cover for whichever Republican comes out on top after the recount, whether that be Gonzales, who has $390,927 cash on hand, or Reyes, who has a measly $24,365 left in his campaign account, per their second-quarter fundraising reports.
All of this makes Texas 23rd congressional district arguably the most likely and safest Democratic pickup in November.
Hundreds of miles away from the desert valleys and stony hills that make up the district, in the ever-growing surrounding suburban counties of Houston, another endangered Republican seat has opened up and presented an opportunity for Democrats thanks to Rep. Pete Olson’s retirement in Texas 22nd congressional district.
Sri Preston Kulkarni v. Troy Nehls, TX-22
Fort Bend County makes up the majority of Texas’ 22nd congressional district. The urban-suburban county has been seen as a mini-Texas of shorts; an emerging battleground county that has exploded in population growth rate since 2010.
These newcomers, from other parts of the state, country, and outside the U.S., have made the county an increasingly vulnerable Republican stronghold.
The same dynamics that put Texas 23rd congressional district in play are present in the 22nd district.
Sri Preston Kulkarni, a former diplomat and the Democratic candidate for the district, has $1.1 million cash on hand according to his campaign. Like Jones, Kulkarni won his primary in March.
This cycle so far, Kulkarni has raised $2.4 million — already surpassing his total fundraising ($1.6 million) for his first run in 2018 where he lost to an incumbent Olson by only five percentage points. That same year, the congressional district voted equal parts for Sen. Ted Cruz and O’Rourke.
With Olson’s retirement, Kulkarni’s prospects look even brighter.
Especially considering Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls just wrapped a gory primary with Kathaleen Wall for the GOP candidacy. While Nehls swept the contest with 70 percent of the vote, he did not emerge unscathed.
Kathaleen largely self-funded her campaign and outraised Nehls by roughly 15 to 1. In the final few weeks of the race, she used some of that money on a series of TV ad buys that slammed Nehls’ time as county sheriff and criticized his record on tackling human trafficking.
His tenure as sheriff is now more scrutinized than ever, including his opposition to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order, or his past as an officer Richmond Police Department where he was fired for allegedly destroying evidence and other issues of police misconduct.
Moving forward, Nehls only has $33,492 remaining in his campaign account.
Because retiring Olson’s previous victory over Kulkarni, as well as the fact that the congressional district was won by Trump in 2016 by eight percentage points, only the competitiveness of the race can really be guaranteed.
Still, local victories by Democrats in down-ballot races in 2018 should worry Republicans. The midterm elections saw Democrat Fort Bend County Judge KP George unseat a 15-year Republican incumbent. Democrats also nabbed a commissioners court seat that had been held by a Republican incumbent since 1999.
A victory in Fort Bend County will largely depend on the ability for Democrats to bring together a winning coalition in one of the most diverse and immigrant-rich counties in the nation.
Kulkarni — who speaks six languages (English, Spanish, Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and Hebrew) — and his campaign, which has managed to register more than 40,000 new Texans and reached out to residents in the district in 21 different languages, appears more than well-equipped for the task at hand.
Candace Valenzuela vs. Beth Van Duyne, Texas-24
Democrats also have potential ground to gain in Texas’s 24th congressional district in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs, where former local school board member Candace Valenzuela emerged as the commanding Democratic victor on Tuesday’s primary runoff elections.
Like Olson and Hurd, the district’s Republican incumbent Rep. Kenny Marchant is retiring. In 2018, Democratic congressional candidate Jan McDowell lost to Marchant by only three points and O’Rourke won the district by almost four points that same year.
The Republican candidate, former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, won her primary back March. That spells more of an uphill battle for Valenzuela who burned through much of her cash during the primary.
But with Valenzuela’s candidacy being added the DCCC Red to Blue program on Thursday (along with Rep. Dan Crenshaw opponent Sima Ladjevardian) and the newly gained support of celebrity powerhouse fundraiser Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, it’s likely dollars will soon be replenished in her war chest.
Equally telling is DCCC polling in 2019 showing Trump’s disapproval rating in TX-24 is actually higher than his approval rating, suggesting Trump’s name at the top of the ticket — especially following his slow-moving pandemic response — will continue to be a problem for suburban Texas Republicans in November.
Polling and the district’s past election results aside, the two candidates themselves will play a bigger role than unusual. While Valenzuela is a fresh face with an inspirational story, Duyne will have to work to rehash her tenure as Irving’s mayor, notable only in its anti-Muslim fervor and relatively uselessness.
While none of the races mentioned above are guaranteed victories for Democrats, their candidates face easier battles than the Democratic candidates of 2018 who flipped similar congressional seats with less attention and fundraising in a non-presidential election year.
Wendy Davis vs. Chip Roy, TX-21
It’s up to Texas Senate filibustering legend Wendy Davis to flip Texas 21st congressional district.
Controlled by Republicans for 40 years, the gerrymandered-to-hell district cuts deep into Austin and the San Antonio region. Incumbent Republican Rep. Pete Olson saw victory in 2018 after Lamar Smith’s retirement, but the race for the freshman congressman was closer than expected and he won with a margin of only three percentage points.
Any benefits from his incumbency are washed away by Wendy’s popularity and high-profile in the state, as evident by her sweeping victory on Super Tuesday and grassroots fundraising: Roy raised $544,000 in the second quarter and has $1.7 million on hand while Davis raised $1.4 million in the second quarter and has $2.8 million on hand.
Like the urban-suburban district where Candace Valenzuela is running, TX-21 also faces an internal revolt among its general election voters according to 2019 DCCC polling showing 48 percent disapprove and 45 percent approve of the president in a district he won by almost 10 percentage points in 2016.
With Texas Democrats mobilizing harder than ever in counties where disaffected Republicans are staying home or switching sides, and with galvanized Democrats coming out in droves and being registered, there’s a strong chance the gerrymandered Republican district is its own Achilles’ heel — especially with someone like Roy leading the GOP ticket.
Roy, a former staffer of Sen. Ted Cruz and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, is acting just like his mentors in Congress. His first year in office is best known for single-handily delaying a $19 billion disaster aid package and having an embarrassing viral meltdown on the House floor last May when he was upset about the fact that Democrats were raising concerns about rising drug prices.
“Chip Roy has evidently gone to Congress to fight for an ideology, versus the day to day reality of what so many people across his district face,” Davis told the Signal in March after her primary victory.
Photo: Robert Daemmrich, Getty Images; Sri Preston Kulkarni campaign, Candace Valenzuela campaign, Gina Ortiz Jones campaign
Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org