This is the fourth installment of “Blue wave survivors,” a series analyzing whether House Republicans who survived the 2018 blue wave that swept Democrats into control can win against the same opponents in 2020. Earlier installments looked at Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis , New York Rep. John Katko, and Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon.
Democrats have called Texas “ground zero” in the battle for the House. They’re targeting 10 House districts that saw surprisingly close margins in 2018, including Texas’ 10th, which stretches from Austin to Houston and includes suburbs of both cities.
After 2018, a number of Texas Republicans faced with suddenly competitive races opted not to run for reelection. But not Michael McCaul, who has represented the 10th District since 2005.
“I felt like my time wasn’t done yet,” McCaul, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview Wednesday.
This race will test just how far Democrats can make inroads in the once reliably Republican state, which has become more competitive amid a growing and diversifying population.
First elected in 2004, McCaul had won seven straight races by double digits until two years ago, when he defeated Democratic lawyer Mike Siegel by just 4 points. Siegel is back for a rematch this year, and he thinks he can pull off a win.
“It’s like when you climb Mount Everest, and you have to establish a base camp,” the Democrat said in a recent interview. “I think that’s what 2018 did. It laid the foundation for tremendous success this cycle.”
Top of the ticket
McCaul attributes Siegel’s close margin in 2018 to the energy surrounding former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for Senate that year. O’Rourke carried the district by 567 votes but lost statewide. Voters may have utilized straight-ticket voting, McCaul said, checking the box for O’Rourke and every other Democrat on the ballot, boosting Siegel.
Straight-ticket voting won’t be an option for Texans this year after a recent court decision. And two years ago, there were “40,000 Republicans that stayed home,” McCaul said. “They’re not going to stay home this election.”
The top of the ticket, however, could be an issue for the incumbent.
Recent internal polling from Siegel’s campaign showed both the presidential and House races in statistical ties. In 2016, Donald Trump won the 10th District by 9 points, while McCaul won reelection by 19 points.
“I can’t just rely on coattails,” McCaul said. “And I am running a very effective, independent campaign from the presidential race.”
McCaul has emphasized his bipartisan work on human trafficking and funding for children’s cancer research, while also drawing a contrast with Siegel, who embraces liberal policies such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal.
Unlike in 2018, McCaul has attacked his opponent on the airwaves, tying Siegel to the push to defund the police.
Siegel doesn’t think that will work and sees McCaul’s attacks as an acknowledgement he’s running a competitive race. Siegel also believes his policies could appeal to right-leaning voters.
“When I’m talking to voters, we get beyond the hashtags,” he said.
“And we talk about what these proposals mean, and really how they meet the scale of the crises we’re facing right now,” Siegel added, referring to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.
The pandemic has upended both campaigns. McCaul, who launched his field operation in the summer of 2019, paused door-knocking in the spring but has since restarted canvassing, with volunteers and campaign interns following public health guidelines. Siegel’s campaign is still a largely virtual operation, a marked shift from his field-focused 2018 race.
Since 2018, both candidates have been gearing up for a tough and expensive race this year.
“In 2020, to beat Michael McCaul when he’s actually paying attention … we have to raise significant money,” Siegel said.
Siegel told CQ Roll Call he raked in more than $1 million in the third quarter, which ended Sept. 30. McCaul’s campaign raised $870,000 and had $1.1 million on hand. McCaul, who is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, has not yet contributed to his own campaign.
Siegel has leveraged those resources to launch a television ad, which he wasn’t able to do in 2018. He’s also shaken up his campaign team, bringing on professional consultants and pollsters.
Siegel also sees his boost in fundraising as a sign that national Democrats believe the seat is winnable. Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Siegel to its Red to Blue program, which provides additional access to committee resources.
Democrats, including Siegel, believe the combination of hotly contested House races, a competitive Senate race, and a close race for president could finally turn Texas blue.
“The conversation is not just, ‘Can we win a seat or two in Texas?’” Siegel said. “It’s, ‘Can we flip the whole state?’”