Updates to Part 1: We at DDHQ yesterday moved TX-06 to Likely R, and FiveThirtyEight moved TX-24 to Toss-Up. The NRCC announced they would spend an additional 772K on ads in TX-24.
Robert “Beto” O’Rourke’s 2018 political coalition shattered the Texas Republican Gerrymander. Districts designed to safely reelect incumbent Republicans became marginal races. O’Rourke’s coalition enjoyed a geographic advantage due to its strength among college-educated suburbanites. Beto could have carried a majority of Congressional districts even while still losing the race (This actually did occur on Texas’s State House map). Both parties are targeting seats in the Lone Star State, and Democrats believe that Biden’s polling at the Presidential level will flow downwards to their Congressional candidates. The previous article in this series looked at the four competitive seats in or around the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Today this series is examining four seats in and around Austin that are on Congressional Democrats’ target list.
TX-10 (Austin to Houston Suburbs)
Incumbent: Michael McCaul, Republican
2016 Presidential Election: 52.3% Trump, 43.2% Clinton
2018 Senate Election: 49.6% O’Rourke, 49.5% Cruz
2018 Congressional Election: 51.1% McCaul (R), 46.8% Seigel (D)
Population Ethnicity: 49.8% White, 30.7% Hispanic, 12.2% African American, 5% Asian
Texas’s 10th Congressional district is one of five districts designed divide Travis County into pieces small enough to overwhelm the city with surrounding Republican counties. TX-10 heads southwest from Austin across 130 miles of rural and exurban counties, to the northwest suburban corner of Harris Country. Republicans paired the disparate communities because incumbent Republican Michael McCaul desired a presence in both the Austin and Houston media markets. Despite their small geographic sizes, the pieces of Harris County and Travis County each account for about 37% of TX-10’s vote. Clinton won more votes in both urban counties when compared against President Obama’s 2012 results, but she lost voters in the counties between the two urban areas. O’Rourke carried the seat by the slimmest of margins in 2018, and this strength flowed down the ballot. Voters reelected McCaul by only 4.3%, his closest result in 14 years as a Representative, over underfunded Austin city attorney and former public-school teacher Mike Seigel.
Seigel never stopped campaigning and is once again running against McCaul. McCaul didn’t retire or deny the possibility that O’Rourke’s margins could be repeated in 2020, the actions of other threatened Texas congressional Republicans, he instead prepared for a tough campaign. McCaul worked to get the Libertarian candidate off the TX-10 ballot, he moderated on certain Congressional votes, and began campaigning in 2019, like Seigel, to lay the groundwork for reelection.
McCaul attacks Seigel as an Austin radical who supports ‘Squad’ policies like the green New Deal, and Seigel attacks McCaul for being one of the wealthiest members of the House with personal wealth over $100 million. Their attacks appeal to different sections of the district. Seigel campaigns for the growing and diverse slice of Austin that O’Rourke carried by 74.4% to 24.5%, whereas McCaul appeals to the loyal rural and suburban voters who elected him eight times previously. Polls point towards a competitive race: a term limits lobbyist group found McCaul leading by 7 points in a late July poll, and Seigel released internal polls in September and October with him trailing the incumbent by only 2 points. Seigel’s campaign is getting attention thanks to his polls; he was added to the DCCC’s Red-to-Blue program on October 7th, but still trails in fundraising. McCaul raised $3.3 million before October compared to Seigel’s $1.95 million, and has $1.2 million on hand for the last weeks compared to Seigel’s $285K. The Congressional Leadership Fund recently announced that they were buying ads in the final days to protect McCaul. TX-10 had not attracted much outside spending until this point, both parties and their allies had only spent around $200K each. The main question is whether Austin will, again, be overshadowed by the Republican counties to its east.
TX-21 (Austin, San Antonio, and Hill Country)
Incumbent: Charles “Chip” Roy, Republican
2016 Presidential Election: 52.5% Trump, 42.5% Clinton
2018 Senate Election: 49.6% Cruz, 49.5% O’Rourke
2018 Congressional Election: 50.3% Roy (R), 47.5% Kosper (D)
Population Ethnicity: 59% White, 30.5% Hispanic, 3.9% African American, 3.9% Asian
The 2020 race for Texas’s 21st Congressional district is a polarized contest when it comes to both candidates and geography. TX-21 pairs it’s slice of Austin with a chunk of San Antonio and a handful of rural counties to the west of both cities. Republicans rallied behind freshman Representative and Freedom Caucus member Chip Roy, whose resume includes work for former Governor Rick Perry and for Senator Ted Cruz. Democrats nominated former Fort Worth State Senator (now Austin resident) Wendy Davis, best known for her nationally viewed 13-hour filibuster of Republican abortion restrictions in 2013.
Each candidate appeals to different types of voters. No part of San Antonio lacks minorities, but in 2010 Republicans chose precincts with as many White voters and as few Hispanic voters as possible. The intention was to have Bexar County voters work with the rural areas to its north and west to cancel out Austin and Travis. Growth patterns and Democratic gains among college-educated voters led to Beto O’Rourke narrowly losing TX-21 in 2018. Democrats are competitive in TX-21 because Travis County, its suburb of Hays County, and San Antonio voters are now moving in their favor, even as the rural Hill Country remains staunchly Republican. O’Rourke won Hays and Travis’s vote, accounting for 35% of the district’s total vote cast, by 74.6% to 24.3%. He won the Bexar portion, which accounted for 31% of the total votes, by 0.6% or 49.8% to 49.2%. The remaining seven counties, which combined to 34% of the total vote, kept the seat Republican. Ted Cruz won those counties by a landslide margin of 53%, or 76.1% to 23.1%.
Democrats in 2018 nominated military veteran and tech entrepreneur Joseph Kosper, who explicitly ran a centrist campaign for the then open Congressional seat. Democrats reversed course in 2020, and now play into the fact that TX-21 is a tug-of-war between partisans. The decision has raised TX-21’s profile; Wendy Davis raised $3.4 million during between July and September, bringing her total fundraising to $7.8 million. She has $1.9 million on hand heading into October. Roy has only raised $4.2 million over the entire campaign period, and has $2.4 million on hand heading into the final weeks. Republican PACs are working overtime to counter Davis’s fundraising advantage: the Club for Growth has invested $6 million alone to assist Roy. Republican groups spent $8.1 million in TX-21 before October, whereas Democratic campaign funds have invested $2.8 million.The House Majority PAC announced an additional 656K ad buy against Roy during the last weeks of the campaign, bringing Democratic total spending to $3.6 million. Internal polls for Wendy Davis’s campaign and Democratic outside groups found Roy leading by 1% in July, a tied race in mid-August, and a 1-point Davis lead at the end of August. TX-21 will be decided by which sides base, be it liberal Austin or conservative Hill Country, motivates its voters to turnout.
TX-25 (Austin to Metroplex South Suburbs)
Incumbent: Roger Williams, Republican
2016 Presidential Election: 55.1% Trump, 40.2% Clinton
2018 Senate Election: 52.1% Cruz, 47% O’Rourke
2018 Congressional Election: 53.5% Williams (R), 44.8% Oliver (D)
Population Ethnicity: 67.7% White, 18.7% Hispanic, 6.7% African American, 3.7% Asian
Republicans took no chances with the piece of Travis County containing the University of Texas at Austin. The 2010 mappers paired this slice of Austin with Metroplex suburbs and exurbs approximately 200 miles away to nullify the Democratic votes. Texas’s 25th Congressional district links the two urban areas with several counties of rural Republican farmland and the multiethnic military families settled around Fort Hood. TX-25 was drawn to benefit the Republican party rather than any individual Republican, which is why current incumbent Roger Williams doesn’t live in the district. Williams lives and owns a car dealership in Weatherford, to the west of Fort Worth. Despite this potential disadvantage, Williams maintains a loyal following in the Dallas-Fort Worth media market, and only needs to turn out these Republican voters to counter any opposition in Austin or Hays County.
Democrats renominated their 2018 Congressional candidate, Austin healthcare advocate Julie Oliver, and she has several favorable data points despite her status as the underdog. Travis County, Hays County, and the tiny piece of Bell County (the three counties that do not give Republicans landslide victories) cast approximately 57% of the districts vote in 2018. Oliver’s campaign is targeted towards these voters, and she has the potential to increase her 61% – 37.1% margin in these three counties to match or exceed O’Rourke’s 63.7% – 35.4%. Williams will get a 50-point margin out of the other nine counties in TX-25, but improvements in Austin can cancel out the expected landslide. Oliver and the DCCC released internal polls in July and September. Both Democratic polls had Williams leading by a 2% margin, however the incumbent has also released an internal poll with him leading by 12 points. Oliver also benefits from several minor scandals. Williams’ car dealership took PPP loans despite his large personal wealth, and then the incumbent subsequently voted against the TRUTH act which would have required companies to disclose PPP assistance. Williams additionally used his position on the Financial Services Committee to pressure a bank into helping out campaign donors. The incumbent though leads in fundraising with $2.1 million compared to Oliver’s $1.6 million, and he has a $120K cash on hand advantage when compared to the challenger. The GOP’s Defend Texas Fund is additionally on the air with 251K in ads against Oliver. Data and the district overall lean in favor of the incumbent, but there is potential for Oliver to pull off an upset.
TX-31 (North Austin Suburbs)
Incumbent: John Carter, Republican
2016 Presidential Election: 53.5% Trump, 40.8% Clinton
2018 Senate Election: 50.5% Cruz, 48.4% O’Rourke
2018 Congressional Election: 50.6% Carter (R), 47.7% Hegar (D)
Population Ethnicity: 54% White, 25.3% Hispanic, 11.5% African American, 5.9% Asian
The data suggests that Texas’s 31st Congressional district only flips if voter loyalties remain as strong as they did in 2018. 2020 Democratic nominee Donna Imam Trails incumbent Republican John Carter in fundraising, $2 million to $800K. Imam only has $380K on hand heading into the final weeks, compared to the incumbent’s $1.1 million. The only TX-31 Congressional poll is from the Democratic PPP polling firm, and it found Carter leading by 6%. Beto O’Rourke lost TX-31 by a 2.1% margin, a narrower result than his statewide margin of defeat, but a more Republican result than other competitive Texas Congressional districts. Even the DCCC lacks confidence in Imam’s position, as they presently have yet to add her to the Red-to-Blue fundraising program.
The one positive Imam can point to is 2018 voter behavior. In 2018 the Democrats nominated Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, who is now the Democratic nominee for Texas’s Senate seat. Comparing the margins of all six candidates on either the 2018 Senate or 2018 Congressional ballot in TX-31, two Democrats, two Republicans, and two Libertarians, only 3,691 voters out of the 287,918 that voted for the 2018 Senate race changed preferences in the Congressional contest. Among voters who changed preferences, more than half (52%) were from voters who left the Congressional race blank. While there are more complex stories at the precinct level, the net result is that only 1,780 voters, or 0.62% of 2018 Senate votes, changed party preference. Hegar retained more of O’Rourke’s votes than any competitive Texas Congressional race in 2018. If this retention was because of Hegar, then Imam benefits from the Round Rock resident being higher up on the 2020 ballot. If this retention was because of Democratic strength in Austin and its suburbs, then Imam benefits if Biden can match or exceed O’Rourke’s 2018 margin atop of the ticket. Republicans removed the straight-ticket voting checkbox from the 2020 ballot, so Imam is out of luck if that was the reason voters remained loyal to both 2018 Democratic candidates. All scenarios require events outside of Imam’s control to work in her favor, which is why the race favors Carter.
Part Three will be available on Friday
Ben Lefkowitz (@OryxMaps) is a Contributor to Decision Desk HQ.