Three Dem Congressional candidates from 2018 may try again in 2020.
Among the typically deep-red districts that came down to single digits were three races around Harris County. Incumbent Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, and Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, won by margins of 4.3 and 4.9 percentage points in Texas’ heavily gerrymandered 10th and 22nd Congressional Districts. Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw, R-Spring, won by more than 7 points an open race for the 2nd Congressional District, one also drawn to elect Republicans.
In recent elections, the districts had gone to Republicans by no fewer than 19 percentage points, with margins as high as 38 points.
Now, as they parse the results and consider what comes next, Democrats in these races must grapple with important questions. Did they come close because of a boost from Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s Senate bid and anger among voters prodded to the polls by President Donald Trump, or did they offer a preview of what is to come? Is a 40-something percent result the ceiling, and if not, where might they find more votes?
All three losing Democrats — Todd Litton, Mike Siegel and Sri Preston Kulkarni — said they may take another swing at the districts in 2020, when Trump could appear atop the ballot and galvanize even more voters than in 2018.
Litton acknowledged he was unlucky to draw an opponent as tough as Crenshaw, saying the former Navy SEAL “was not your standard first-time candidate.” For now, the defeated Democrat plans to see how Crenshaw’s first term goes, and decide later if he wants to run.
“I’d consider it. I don’t know that I’m going to do it,” said Litton, who directed an education nonprofit before seeking office. “We’ll see how Dan does and what he says.”
Texas’ 10th Congressional District covers much of the rural area between Travis and Harris counties, stretching across nine counties from Katy and Cypress all the way through downtown Austin to Lake Travis. It is one of four GOP-held districts dividing up deep-blue Travis County, the only county Siegel won.
Compared to McCaul’s 2016 race, turnout this year grew by more than 3,400 votes in Travis County, where McCaul’s support fell by about eight percentage points. In the remaining eight counties, turnout fell by 8,200 votes from two years ago, and McCaul’s support dropped from 70 percent to 65 percent.
All told, McCaul lost ground in every county from 2016, though his support dipped by fewer than two percentage points in Austin, Colorado, Fayette, Lee and Washington counties — all areas where Siegel failed to break even 23 percent.
One reason for Democratic optimism, Siegel said, is the changing nature of Bastrop and Waller counties, located next to Travis and Harris, respectively. Two years ago, McCaul won Bastrop and Waller by 22 and 32 percentage points, respectively, while this year the margin was 11 and 25 points. Siegel also drew 36 percent of the vote in Harris County, about 7 points ahead of Cadien in 2016.
Olson never had won a general election by fewer than 19 points — his margin in 2016 — but several trends gave Kulkarni reason to contest the district. Notably, it shifted 17.5 points in favor of Democrats from the 2012 to 2016 presidential election, the fourth most dramatic change in the country.
Kulkarni’s preliminary data also found that both parties had ignored major swaths of the district. In particular, Asian residents make up about 20 percent of the district’s population, far more than any other Texas congressional district, but Kulkarni found that three-quarters of Asian voters had not been contacted by any political party.
Kulkarni’s efforts hinged on turning out the scores of college-educated immigrants who moved to the district during the last several years. He ultimately lost by 4.9 percentage points, a result he attributes partly to not reaching enough Hispanic voters. He did not rule out giving it another shot in 2020.
“If I’m the best candidate, I’ll run again,” Kulkarni said. “I don’t want to throw away all the hard work that we did in organizing here, because going from 19 points two years ago or 34 points four years ago, to 4.9 — there’s obviously a change going on in terms of who’s participating.”
A few general thoughts…
1. Obviously, it’s very early to say who may or may not be running in 2020. Even if all three of these guys say they’re in, they could face primary opponents, and who knows what might happen in a Presidential-year primary, where I think we might see 2008-level turnout. That said, there are always advantages to getting in early – among other things, you can start fundraising right away – and whether we like it or not, the 2020 campaign is already underway. Take all the time you need to decide, but don’t take any longer than that.
2. Of the three, Litton or anyone else in CD02 will likely have the toughest race. Dan Crenshaw has star potential, and he doesn’t yet have any Trump stink on him. He also had the biggest margin of victory in 2018. On the other hand, he will have to start making tough choices about Trump and the Trump agenda, and with CD07 in Democratic hands, CD02 is (along with County Commissioner Precinct 3) the top target for Team Blue in 2020. In addition, no one has to be convinced now that CD02 is worth targeting. It will be on the national radar from the beginning, which will help.
3. That “key for Democratic optimism” paragraph about CD10 is the key for 2020. The Harris County part of the district is fast-growing, and offers a lot of opportunity to find, register, and turn out new Dem voters that year. Looking at the 2016 and 2018 election returns, there were 21K more voters this year in the Harris part of CD10 than there were two years ago. Turnout was 69% in there in 2016, and 59% in 2018, though that meant 6K more voters thanks to the larger voter pool. I feel like if you can get the Dem number in Harris County above 40%, you can win this district. You’ll still need a strong showing in Travis, and there’s room for growth as noted in Bastrop and Waller, but if you get to 40% in Harris I feel like this one is in reach.
4. As noted before, Pete Olson may or may not make it to the ballot in 2020. Generally speaking, having an open seat makes it more winnable for the opposing party. That may be less true in the Trump era, but an open seat will definitely push this up a notch on the national radar. If Kulkarni runs again, my advice is “keep doing what you’re doing”. If it’s someone else, my advice is “do what Sri Kulkarni did, and do more of it”.
Normally, this is the time when I say things like “I want to get through 2019 before I start thinking about 2020”. This is the world we live in now. 2019 is important, but given that everyone who wants to run in 2020 will have to file for office before 2019 is over, we really do have to be thinking about it now.