[Julie] Johnson is among several Democratic candidates in Dallas hoping national and statewide talk of a blue wave will trickle down to several local state House races. A mix of Democratic enthusiasm this cycle, along with a litany of well-funded candidates, has created a hotbed of competitive state House races around Texas’ third largest city. While some of these districts have drawn contentious matchups before, the fact that most handily went to Hillary Clinton in 2016 has only heightened the stakes.
State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, a hardline conservative from Irving, has had perhaps the biggest target on his back since last year, when protesters descended on the Texas Capitol over the state’s new “sanctuary cities” law.” Rinaldi said he called federal immigration authorities on the protesters, which angered some Hispanic House members. An argument on the House floor escalated to accusations of death threats and shoving, some of which was captured on a video that drew national attention.
While immigration is an unavoidable issue in Rinaldi’s race, there are other things on the minds of voters around North Texas. Candidates in several competitive state House races in the region said they are hearing the most about rising property taxes, health care coverage and education.
Along with Rinaldi, other state House Republicans in Dallas facing notable challenges from Democrats include Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie, Angie Chen Button of Richardson and Linda Koop and Morgan Meyer, both of Dallas.
But former Dallas County GOP Chair Wade Emmert said Democrats may be overestimating the impact bad headlines out of Washington will have on these races lower on the ballot.
“People understand that Trump is not running to be a House representative,” he said. “They want to trust the person that’s running. And I don’t know if voters are going to vote for a Democrat to carry the mantle in previously Republican districts.”
Aside from impressive fundraising hauls and a surge of Dallas-area candidates, Democrats argue that the blue wave they expect this election cycle gives them a competitive advantage they didn’t have two years ago. But in Gov. Greg Abbott, Republicans have a popular incumbent at the top of their ticket with a $40 million war chest that could be employed to boost Republican turnout statewide.
Dallas Republicans, though, say they’re not taking anything for granted. After all, the region has gotten tougher for the party politically since the once reliably Republican Dallas County flipped blue in 2006. “We understand that there is a challenge,” Karen Watson, the vice chair of the Dallas County Republican Party, said. “We were comfortable in Texas just being red. Now we’re like, ‘Okay — if you wanna fight, bring it, and we will match you.’”
Dallas Democrats, meanwhile, are hopeful that excitement around two races in particular — U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s bid against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Colin Allred’s campaign to unseat U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas — may help candidates in these local races. Frustration with the current occupant of the Oval Office, party leaders say, is also expected to boost Democratic turnout.
“Mr. Trump has done the Democrats a huge favor,” said Carol Donovan, chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party. She also mentioned a couple of candidates that she said have an advantage this cycle because they’ve run for the seat before — including Democrat Terry Meza, who’s again challenging Anderson, the Grand Prairie Republican, in House District 105.
In House District 114, Lisa Luby Ryan faces Democrat John Turner. Ryan, who has support from hardline conservative groups such as Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life, ousted Republican incumbent Jason Villalba of Dallas in the March primaries. Villalba, who has represented the district since 2013, aligns with the more centrist faction of the party and has been critical of Ryan since she defeated him in March. Villalba said he thinks the district’s changing demographics, along with Ryan’s more conservative politics, could cause HD-114 to flip in Democrats’ favor this year.
“The district is clearly a centrist, chamber-of-commerce district,” he said. “Ryan does not represent that wing of the Republican Party. And I think she is at a disadvantage going into the election against someone like Turner.”
Turner, the son of former U.S. Rep. Jim Turner, D-Crockett, has picked up support from the influential Texas Association of Realtors. And, in August, he released a letter of support from the Dallas business community — which included some Republicans. Villalba said earlier this month he doesn’t plan to endorse in the race.
In nearby House District 113, Democrat Rhetta Bowers and Republican Jonathan Boos are vying for the seat state Rep. Cindy Burkett represents. (Burkett, a Sunnyvale Republican, didn’t seek re-election and instead had an unsuccessful bid for the state Senate). Both Bowers and Boos ran previously for the seat in 2016; Bowers, who has support from groups such as Planned Parenthood and Moms Demand Action, which advocates for stricter gun control laws, says her campaign has drawn in some of the district’s disgruntled Republicans. Boos, meanwhile, has endorsements from the same conservative groups that endorsed Ryan in HD-114.
I did a thorough review of the precinct data from Dallas County after the election. I’ll sum this up by quoting myself from that last post: “Dallas is a solid blue county (57-42 for Obama over Romney in 2012) drawn to give the Republicans an 8-6 majority of their legislative caucus. There’s no margin for error here.” It won’t take much to tip the three most competitive districts, which are HDs 105, 113, and 115. (And sweet fancy Moses do I want to see Matt Rinaldi lose.) We talk a lot about the Beto effect, but Lupe Valdez should be an asset for Dems here, as she has consistently been a big vote-getter in the county. And if things head south for Republicans – if the recent spate of generic Congressional polls hold, and Trump’s approval rating moves consistently below 40 – you could see four, five, even six seats flip here. It’s the downside to a brutally efficient gerrymander – there’s an inflection point at which a whole bunch of seats become vulnerable. Dallas County Republicans may find that point this year.