With less than two months to go until Election Day, an increasing number of eyes are looking toward Texas, where Republicans are fighting to keep their grip on the once-reliably conservative state.
There is perhaps no better sign of Texas’ shift toward Democrats than what’s happening in the state’s 31st Congressional District. The previously deep red district north of Austin has shifted dramatically in recent years, and a new poll obtained exclusively by COURIER shows incumbent Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) is vulnerable.
The poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP), found Carter leading challenger Donna Imam by only six points, 43-37 among 831 voters in the district. Libertarian Clark Patterson and Independent Jeremy Bravo tallied 10% of the vote combined, while 11% of voters remained undecided.
Imam performs particularly well with independent voters, leading Carter 44-28. She also appears to have significant room to grow, as 53% of voters said they were unsure whether or not they had a favorable opinion about her.
The poll also surveyed voters on the presidential race and found that President Donald Trump holds a narrow one-point lead (48-47) over Democratic nominee Joe Biden, a substantial shift from 2016 when Trump won the district 54-41.
While Democrats have set their eyes on several prizes across the state, the recent blue shift in the 31st has been particularly notable. Between 2002 and 2016, Carter won each of his elections by at least 20 points. But in 2018, Carter faced the fight of his career and narrowly edged out his Democratic challenger, MJ Hegar, by only three points. Hegar is now challenging Cornyn and finds herself down only 2 points in the district (48-46), according to the PPP poll.
You can see the poll data here. It’s a solid result in a district where Beto got 48.4% of the vote. Hegar ran just a shade behind Beto – he lost to Ted Cruz 50.5 to 48.4, while Hegar lost 47.6 to 50.6 – and this district has been on the radar for the DCCC (and for the Republicans, and for the national race-raters) from the beginning of the cycle. The problem has been finding a standout candidate, as there was a rotating cast of players in the primary, with nobody raising any money or making much noise until the runoff, when Imam finally started to edge forward. She still has to establish herself as a fundraiser – the DCCC is in town, but they’ve got plenty of fish to fry. I’ll be very interested in Imam’s Q3 finance report.
This poll is reminiscent of the polling in CD21, another near-miss district from 2018 with a similar demographic profile. In 2018, Joe Kopser lost to Chip Roy 50.2 to 47.6, Beto lost the district by a tenth of a point, and in 2016 Hillary Clinton lost it to Donald Trump 52-42. These latest polls have Biden up by one in CD21 and down by one in CD31, consistent with statewide polling that has Texas as a real tossup.
They key here has been the shift in voter preferences in Williamson County, which comprises a bit more than two-thirds of the district. Here’s how the Williamson County vote has gone in recent elections:
2012 Votes Pct ======================= Romney 97,006 59.4% Obama 61,875 37.9% Cruz 92,034 57.3% Sadler 60,279 37.5% Carter 96,842 60.9% Wyman 55,111 34.6% 2016 Votes Pct ======================= Trump 104,175 51.3% Clinton 84,468 41.6% Carter 112,841 56.8% Clark 74,914 37.7% 2018 Votes Pct ======================= Cruz 99,857 48.0% Beto 105,850 50.8% Abbott 112,214 54.1% Valdez 90,002 43.4% Patrick 101,545 49.2% Collier 98,375 47.6% Paxton 98,175 47.7% Nelson 100,345 48.7% Carter 99,648 48.2% Hegar 103,155 49.9%
The story of 2018 was of the huge gains Democrats made in suburban areas like Williamson, but the thing here is that Dems gained about as many votes from 2012 to 2016 as they did from 2016 to 2018, with Republicans barely growing their vote at all outside of a couple of races. It wasn’t so much a shift as an acceleration, and it took WilCo from being on the fringes of competitiveness, where you could see it off in the distance from the vantage point of 2016 but figured it was still a few cycles away, to being a true swing district just two years later. If Dems can even come close to replicating that kind of growth in 2020, then CD31 is likely being undersold as a pickup opportunity. Obviously, the pandemic and the ambient chaos and pretty much everything else is a variable we can’t easily quantify. But the numbers are right there, so if CD31 does go Dem, we can’t say we didn’t see it coming.
One more thing: That 10% total for the Libertarian and independent candidates combined is almost certainly way too high. Libertarian candidates actually do pretty well overall in this district. The Lib Congressional candidate in 2012 got 3.7%, while a couple of statewide judicial candidates in races that also had a Democrat topped five percent. In 2016, the Libertarian in CD31 got 5.2%, with Mark Miller getting 7.1% in the Railroad Commissioner’s race. They didn’t do quite as well in 2018, however, with the Congressional candidate getting 1.9%, and the high water mark of 4.1% being hit in the Land Commissioner’s race. I’d contend that’s a combination of better Democratic candidates, with more nominal Republicans moving from casting a “none of the above” protest vote to actually going Dem. My guess is 2020 will be more like 2018 than 2016 or 2012, but we’ll see. In any event, I’d put the over/under for the two “other” candidates at five, not at ten. The Texas Signal has more.