Will Democrats Win the House? Ask Texas

Gina Ortiz Jones

SAN ANTONIO — The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s wish list of House seats to flip from red to blue includes slightly over 100 districts — remember, it’s a wish list — and is chockablock with the usual swing states.

Ohio makes six appearances; Pennsylvania, seven. Wisconsin is present and more promising than ever, with Paul Ryan’s soon-to-be-open spot squarely in Democrats’ sights.

But wait, what’s this? Texas once, Texas twice, Texas five times in all. It reads like a typo. It looks like a delusion. Predominantly Republican and perversely gerrymandered, the Lone Star State is where Democrats send their dreams to die. Only 11 of its 36 House seats are in the party’s hands.

But 2018 is shaping up as a year in which old rules are out the window and everything is up for grabs. Ryan’s planned retirement and the increasing disarray of the Republican Party illustrate that. So does Texas’ emergence as a credible wellspring of Democratic hope.

Leave aside the Senate contest and Beto O’Rourke’s surprisingly muscular (if nonetheless improbable) bid to topple Ted Cruz. Several of the most truly competitive House races in the country are in Texas, which could wind up providing Democrats three or more of the 24 flipped seats that they need for control of the chamber. The state tells the tale of the November midterms as well as anywhere else.

The appeal of youth, of first-timers, of women, of veterans and of candidates of color will be tested here. And a bevy of compelling characters have emerged from the primaries on March 6 and are poised to prevail in runoffs on May 22.

Credit...Josh Huskin for The New York Times

There’s Gina Ortiz Jones, for example. Jones, 37, is almost certain to be the Democrat challenging Representative Will Hurd in the 23rd District, which sprawls from San Antonio to the outskirts of El Paso. Despite its large numbers of rural voters, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the 23rd by more than three points. (Clinton lost the state by nine.)

Jones was an Air Force intelligence officer in Iraq. Like Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, she drew the support of the Serve America PAC, which promotes veterans as candidates on the theory that they can help Democrats forge a cultural connection with working-class voters in swing districts.

She’s Filipina-American. She’s also openly lesbian, and while Texas political analysts told me that they weren’t sure whether that would affect her bid, Jones has figured out precisely how to handle it: with brief acknowledgment and no special focus.

At a recent house party in San Antonio where she introduced herself to a few dozen of the district’s voters, she mentioned that she “served under ‘don’t ask don’t tell’” but didn’t spell out the significance of that.

She talked more about it during an interview with me the next day, comparing her time in the military with the anxiety and vulnerability of many minorities, particularly immigrants waiting to see what happens with the DACA program.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be a Dreamer,” she told me. “But I do know what it’s like to have worked hard for something and to live in fear that it can be ripped away from you. When I was in R.O.T.C. at Boston University, I lived in fear every single day that if they found out I was gay, I would lose my scholarship. My opportunity to get an education — my opportunity to serve my country — would be taken away.”

Credit...Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

Democrats also have an excellent shot at victory in the 32nd District, a collection of Dallas neighborhoods and suburbs. Its Republican incumbent, Pete Sessions, has been in Congress for two decades, but the district has become more diverse and less white over those years, and his likely opponent, a black civil rights lawyer named Colin Allred, should benefit from that.

Allred is 34. Like Jones, he’s making his first run for office. Also like her, he has an unconventional professional biography. Before getting his law degree at the University of California, Berkeley, he played professional football for the Tennessee Titans, and before that he was a football star at Baylor University in Waco and at a high school in his Dallas district. Many of its voters remember watching him play.

And more of them voted for Clinton than for Trump in the presidential election, a sign of the district’s evolution and an outcome for which Democrats were so unprepared that not a single Democrat challenged Sessions in 2016. This time around, seven Democrats entered the race. Allred got 38.5 percent of the votes in the primary, more than twice that of the second-place finisher.

“We’ve seen a level of activism here that is off the charts,” he told me after a town hall in Dallas where he spoke with voters about the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and the need for gun-safety legislation. Sessions is a major recipient of donations from the National Rifle Association, and Allred, echoing the campaigns of Democrats across the country, is making an issue of that.

The mere existence of the runoffs that he, Jones and other Texas Democrats will compete in next month reflects Democrats’ hopes in Texas in 2018, because it means that there were three or more Democratic candidates in districts that had two, one or none in election cycles past.

“Democrats smell blood in the water,” Harold Cook, a former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, told me, “and for the first time in maybe forever, there is a Democrat running in every single congressional district in Texas, including ones where it’s a ludicrous thought that a Democrat could conceivably win.” They’re that angry about Trump and that convinced that his turbulent presidency and failure to nudge his approval rating much above 40 percent could mean an enormous blue wave.

Democrats are even eyeing a few districts that Trump won, like the 21st and 31st. The 21st attracted the party’s attention largely because its Republican incumbent, Lamar Smith, isn’t seeking re-election. He decided to retire after more than three decades in the House.

And the 31st? Well, it’s hard not to indulge in some optimism when your party’s leading candidate is a female war hero whose story is possibly becoming a movie, “Shoot Like a Girl,” starring Angelina Jolie. That candidate, M. J. Hegar, 42, did several tours of duty in Afghanistan as a search-and-rescue pilot and won a Purple Heart after she was wounded while saving fellow passengers when the Taliban shot down her helicopter.

Richard Murray, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, told me to keep an eye as well on the 22nd District, a largely suburban swath of the Houston area that he described as a microcosm of demographic changes that are making the state ever more hospitable Democratic turf.

“The suburban counties that led Republicans to dominance here 25 years ago are getting significantly less Republican fast,” he said, adding that Fort Bend County, in the 22nd, is roughly 20 percent Asian-American now. The first-place finisher in the district’s Democratic primary, Sri Preston Kulkarni, is Indian-American. Murray said that if Kulkarni wins his runoff, that could be a significant boost to Democrats’ chances to nab this House seat.

Trump took the 22nd by almost 8 points. But Mitt Romney won it four years earlier by more than 25. And bear in mind that Lamb notched his Pennsylvania victory last month in a district that had gone for Trump by a margin of 19 points.

“When you look at what happened in Pennsylvania,” Allred told me, “you can’t take anything off the board.” Lamb’s triumph, and the Virginia returns last November, suggest a suburban revolt against Trump.

But who best understands how the winds are blowing — the national Democratic Party or local primary voters? And are those voters making smart general-election choices or romantic ones? I suspect they made the right calls with Allred and Jones, neither of whom was anointed by the party and both of whom faced primary opponents with more money and with powerful connections.

In Jones’s case that was Jay Hulings, a former federal prosecutor who went to law school at Harvard with the Texas political stars Joaquin and Julián Castro. He finished fourth in the five-candidate primary, with 15 percent of the vote. Jones’s 41 percent tally was more than twice that of her nearest competitor.

Allred’s better-financed and more conventionally pedigreed rival was Ed Meier, who has a master’s degree in Middle East studies from Oxford University and worked as a management consultant with McKinsey. He finished fourth among the seven primary candidates.

Following their hugely impressive primary performances, Jones and Allred landed on another, more refined list — “Red to Blue” — that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee puts together. It directs donors to House candidates in especially strong positions. It’s now 33 names long.

Meredith Kelly, the communications director for the D.C.C.C., told me that Jones’s and Allred’s newness to politics could prove hugely appealing. When the party did focus groups in Pennsylvania’s 18th District after Lamb’s victory, she said, “One of the biggest takeaways was that he was seen as a young, fresh face in contrast to Rick Saccone.” Saccone was 60 and had long served in the State Legislature. Lamb was 33 and had never held elected office.

Allred put it to me this way: “My youth is not a bug. It’s a feature.”

He and Jones are potentially formidable for additional reasons. There’s not a whiff of entitlement or the establishment about either of them. Both had single mothers of humble means. Both talk expansively and eloquently about government or community help that was crucial in their lives.

Both have deep roots in their districts, where they spent their childhoods. Both are great-looking, as it happens. (That rarely hurts.) And both acknowledge the shock of Nov. 8, 2016 — and the peril of what they’ve witnessed since — as factors that motivated them to run and could be central to whether they win or lose. Trump is large in their minds and in their races.

Before and immediately after the presidential election, Jones worked in the federal government as an economic and national security adviser. She hadn’t thought about a career as a lawmaker, she told me.

But Election Day changed everything. “I remember a sinking feeling in my stomach,” she said, “in no small part because a lot of us thought, ‘That will never happen.’ That was not an option, because then what does that mean?”

“About America?” I asked.

“That’s right,” she said.

She quit her bureaucratic job and became one of a record number of 309 women to file to run for House seats. There’s an unusual bounty of Democratic candidates of all kinds, and as Jones and Allred demonstrate, that’s not merely a numerical phenomenon. It has brought engaging new figures and impassioned new voices into the arena. On Nov. 6, in Texas and elsewhere, we’ll see how much that matters.

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