Has the Blue Wave Finally Arrived in Texas? This District Might Offer a Clue

Former Texas state Senator Wendy Davis during the “Politicon” convention in Pasadena, Calif., June 25, 2016. (Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters)

Wendy Davis hopes she and her famous pink shoes can turn Texas blue and she’s starting with Texas’ 21st Congressional District.

Though Davis, who rose to national fame as a state senator for her 11-hour-plus filibuster of an abortion bill, suffered an embarrassing 20-point loss when she ran for governor in 2014, she is back to take on freshman Representative Chip Roy, with the backing of House speaker Nancy Pelosi. 

It’s abortion-rights advocate, feminist icon meets Trump loyalist in the Lone Star state and so far, it’s a toss-up, according to the Cook Political Report.

Democrats have set up shop in TX-21, and five other districts in Texas, hoping they can ride the heels of the 2018 midterm’s blue wave and changing demographics to gain a foothold in the state that has been reliably red for decades.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ political arm, opened a regional headquarters in Austin with eight “senior staffers” from around the country last year to send organizers to Texas suburbs, an early sign that the Left had set its eyes on the state in what would have once been an unlikely plan to bolster its hold on the House.

Though flipping TX-21 was once nearly unthinkable — the seat has belonged to Republicans for 40 years and in 2016, GOP Representative Lamar Smith won reelection with 57 percent of the vote — Democrats put up a strong fight in 2018 when Roy was elected with just 50.7 percent of the vote.

Democrats have coalesced behind Davis’ campaign, with the DCCC naming Davis one of a dozen candidates to the first round of its “Red to Blue” program for top House challengers. The program rewards candidates that meet predetermined standards on fundraising, grassroots organizing and campaign infrastructure.

If the Dems take TX-21, a district that includes much of the left-leaning state capital of Austin, the more suburban San Antonio and rural Hill Country, it could mean the blue wave has reached Texas and will be there to stay. The district could serve as an early-on microcosm of what is to come in the state, where the Hispanic population is predicted to outnumber white residents as soon as 2022.

“One thing I’ve learned in my electoral experience is that a single election cycle is like a lifetime in terms of what a population shift can create,” Davis said earlier this year. “I want Texas to turn blue and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.”

President Trump won Texas by nine points in 2016. Recent polls show President Trump leading Democratic nominee Joe Biden by a single-digit margin in the state, which is the second largest in geography and population and holds 38 electoral votes.

The last Democratic presidential candidate to win in Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976. When Davis ran for governor in 2014, she had hoped to become to first Democrat to hold statewide office in the state since the 1990s.

The TX-21 race is at the heart of the state’s changing demographics. If it shifts blue on Election Day, it could be a harbinger of what may come.

“First and foremost, it’s not lost on a lot of people that demographics are changing in Texas, especially the suburban areas around key cities, San Antonio, Austin, Houston and Dallas,” DCCC executive director Allison Jaslow told San Antonio Express-News.

TX-21 has seen an increase of 38,000 residents who are Latino, African American or Asian American since 2010, according to the Express-News

A recent Quinnipiac poll showed Biden leading Trump among Hispanic voters in Texas just 51 to 43, a much smaller margin than Democrats have hoped for. However, a Dallas Morning News/UT Tyler Texas survey showed Biden ahead in the same group 67-20.

The district has seen a growth in young, educated and suburban residents, demographics that tend to lean left.

Across 12 predominantly suburban congressional districts that the Cook Political Report has rated as competitive, Biden leads Trump 48 percent to 43 percent. The same districts voted for Trump by eight points in 2016.

Fundraising numbers tell a story of Democratic growth in the state. In 2016 U.S. House Republican candidates in the state had $32.3 million on hand in July, while Democrats had $11.4 million, according to Politico. This year, that number flipped to $19.2 million and $26.7 million, respectively.

Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign shows how much the political landscape in Texas has changed since Davis’ 2014 blowout. After six years in Congress, O’Rourke was considered a “long shot” in the race against incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Like Davis’s failed run four years earlier, O’Rourke’s campaign drew national attention and vast out-of-state fundraising, ultimately raising $80 million, the largest haul ever for a U.S. Senate candidate. Cruz won by a small margin, just 50.9 percent to 48.3 percent, the tightest U.S. Senate race in the state since 1978.

In TX-21, Davis has outraised Roy $4.4 million to $4.1 million, funding more commonly seen in Senate races than Congressional ones.

Club for Growth, a conservative group that has served as one of the greatest fundraising forces on the right, said it is spending the most there of any House election this year: $4.5 million by November on Roy’s behalf.

Alternatively, Davis has drawn the greatest amount of her funding from EMILY’s List and employees of the University of Texas, as well as a number of donations from abortion rights activists, liberal PACs and trial lawyers.

While Roy, a former staffer to both Cruz and state Attorney General Ken Paxton, is known for being a staunch fiscal conservative, Davis describes herself as a “mainstream Democrat” — more Senator Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) than Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D., N.Y.).

Davis was able to raise $40 million in the gubernatorial race six years ago, but ultimately finished with a net favorability rating of negative 4 after a series of missteps, including an attack ad calling her opponent Greg Abbott, who uses a wheelchair, a hypocrite for blocking disability-discrimination lawsuits as state attorney general. Critics also accused her of exaggerating her origin story: while she had painted herself as a working mom who lived in a trailer growing up, detractors found that portrait misleading given the fact that she had only lived in a trailer for a few months and that, as a student at Harvard Law, her then-husband had paid her tuition and took care of their children while she studied.

She lost by the widest margin for a governor’s race in the state in nearly two decades.

It remains to be seen whether Davis, who herself voted in several GOP primaries in the 1990s and donated to George W. Bush just before he announced his first presidential campaign, can turn – even just a bit of  – Texas blue this time.

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