By Jim Ellis
Sept. 27, 2019 — Though the 2020 election is more than a year away, we can already see that the state of Texas is going to be the key to determining whether the Republicans will have a chance to re-claim the House majority next year, or if Democrats will actually expand their conference size. The GOP needs to convert 18 seats to again become the majority party and holding their margins in Texas is a prerequisite if they are to make a comeback in 2020.
Counting primary challenges, we are looking at political action in 13 of the state’s 36 congressional districts. Five are open seats, all Republican held, and three are highly competitive. Two of those retiring, Reps. Mike Conaway (R-Midland) and Bill Flores (R-Bryan/Waco), leave seats that will easily remain in GOP hands.
The most vulnerable open Republicans district is the 23rd CD, which begins in the northwestern part of San Antonio and stretches all the way to El Paso. The district goes back and forth between the two parties, and at no time during this decade has the winning candidate broken 50.5 percent. Democratic nominee in 2018, Gina Ortiz Jones, came within 926 votes of unseating Rep. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio), and she now has a strong chance of becoming a consensus candidate for the open seat now that Hurd is retiring.
Republicans have no clear heir apparent to replace the retiring congressman, but it is likely that both eventual party nominees will start out with 48 percent of the vote. Expect another close contest here, but this is clearly the Democrats’ best Texas opportunity to convert another GOP seat.
Rep. Pete Olson’s (R-Sugar Land) retirement leaves the 22nd District open, and this, too will be a highly competitive seat in the coming election. The district, long held by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay before Rep. Olson won it in 2010, sits south of the city of Houston, covering Ft. Bend and parts of Brazoria and Harris Counties.
The 22nd is a changing district with a heavy minority component moving there. Mega-conservative donor Kathaleen Wall could become the favorite for the nomination. She is likely to face Ft. Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, though he has some weaknesses that will be exploited. Ex-Brazoria County Court Judge Greg Hill and former Pearland City Councilwoman Felicia Harris Hoss are also in the race.
Democrats will again nominate former Foreign Service officer Sri Preston Kulkarni who held Rep. Olson to a 51-46 percent victory last November. This will be a competitive race and though the seat is changing and now has almost one million people, it still at least leans Republican.
After a close call in 2018, eight-term Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Coppell) is retiring and leaves another changing district in his wake. CD-24, surrounding DFW Airport, proved to be a competitive district in the last election as Rep. Marchant survived with a 51-48 percent win over an opponent who didn’t even spend $100,000. With Marchant leaving the House, Republicans appear to be lining up behind former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne who has the opportunity of becoming a consensus GOP candidate.
Democrats see a crowded field of six candidates, but most believe the favorite is retired Air Force Colonel and 2018 state Agriculture Commissioner nominee Kim Olson who held incumbent Commissioner Sid Miller (R) to a 51-46 percent victory. Though the district is more competitive, it continues to at least tilt Republican.
Freshman Rep. Chip Roy (R-Austin) is another GOP incumbent who will have to fight to keep his seat. This race drew some major attention early but has been quiet since. Former gubernatorial nominee and ex-Ft. Worth area state Sen. Wendy Davis has moved to this district and a general election battle between she and Rep. Roy appears already set. Roy, a freshman succeeding veteran Rep. Lamar Smith (R), won the 2018 election but with a lesser percentage than expected. This will be a competitive contest, and we are guaranteed of a pure conservative vs. liberal ideological campaign.
But Republicans have opportunities, too. Freshman Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (D-Houston) defeated Rep. John Culberson with 52.5 percent of the vote last November. Republicans are fielding five candidates so far, including mortgage company executive and Iraq War veteran Wesley Hunt, who seems to be the favored candidate. Belair mayor, Cindy Siegel, and venture capitalist Jim Noteware are other notables, but Hunt looks to be the man to beat in the primary. An early poll out 10 days ago actually showed Hunt running ahead of Rep. Fletcher by two points. This is a district Republicans could win back.
Moving to the Dallas area, former NFL football player Colin Allred defeated veteran GOP Congressman Pete Sessions, 52-46 percent, in 2018 and appears relatively secure for re-election. This will be the most difficult seat for the Republicans to re-convert. At one point it appeared that ex-Rep. Sessions would run again, but there is less of a chance now.
Another two who had surprisingly close calls last year, Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Austin) and John Carter (R-Round Rock), appear stronger for 2020. In both of these cases, the Democratic candidate who did very well is not returning for a re-match and the building field against each man appears to be much weaker than in 2018.
Primaries are popping up as well. Those that appear serious are challenges to Reps. Kay Granger (R-Ft. Worth), Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), and Brian Babin (R-Woodville). It remains to be seen if any incumbent loses, but with the primary scheduled for March 3, we can expect these efforts to be getting under way in earnest very shortly.