Politics

Cruz, O’Rourke Steal Spotlight, but House Races in Texas Are Heating Up Too

Democrats eye multiple pickup opportunities in Lone Star State

Democrats say energy around Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign could help their House candidates in Texas. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Texas Senate race has been grabbing headlines lately, but Democrats hoping for good news in November from the Lone Star State might want to focus further down the ballot, where several contests could be critical to House control.

Both parties have ramped up their activities in a handful of competitive Texas districts, with the Republican and Democratic campaign committees launching television ads in key races last week.

The Senate and House races are intertwined to some extent, with Democrats hoping that the enthusiasm and eye-popping fundraising from Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz will benefit their nominees in other races.  

“It’s something that a Texas Democrat has not been able to do statewide in a long time,” Texas Democratic consultant Sonia Van Meter said of O’Rourke’s campaign. “So the question is whether or not he’s stealing all the attention away from the down-ballot races or if he’s helping to draw attention to them.”

Watch: 12 House Ratings Changes — Democrats Are More Likely Than Not to Win Majority

Multiple targets

Last cycle, the 23rd District, which stretches from El Paso to San Antonio along the Mexican border, was the most closely fought House race in Texas. Republican Rep. Will Hurd won a second term even though Hillary Clinton carried the district by 3 points. 

This year Democrats are eyeing multiple GOP seats as they look to net the 23 needed to win back the House.

“I think that it’s clear that the road to hold Donald Trump accountable and take back Congress comes through Texas,” Texas Democratic Party spokesman Tariq Thowfeek said.

While other states may have better opportunities for Democrats, Clinton did win two other Republican-held seats besides the 23rd — the Dallas-area 32nd District and the 7th in suburban Houston.

And other candidates have been strong fundraisers who’ve gained national attention: MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran taking GOP Rep. John Carter in the 31st District, raked in campaign cash after a web video about her candidacy went viral.

This year, Texas Democrats have fielded challengers against every sitting GOP lawmaker, which Thowfeek said hasn’t happened in at least two decades. Last year, Democrats didn’t have a candidate in the Clinton-supporting 32nd District held by GOP Rep. Pete Sessions

Some operatives on both sides described the 7th District, held by Republican Rep. John Culberson, as most likely to flip, pointing to its suburban nature, increasing diversity and an incumbent not accustomed to tough contests. 

“The race is ‘officially on’ in that voters now are starting to [see] more paid communications,” said a Democratic operative familiar with Culberson’s race against Democratic lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the contest Tilts Republican.

The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched ads in the 7th last week. Outside groups have also signaled a willingness to spend in the pricey Houston media market.

House Majority PAC, a super PAC tied to House Democratic leadership, has reserved $2 million in the Houston market. It’s GOP counterpart, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has reserved $2.45 million.

National Democrats got their preferred candidate in the more moderate Fletcher, a strong fundraiser who pushed bipartisanship in her first general election ad. She released her second TV ad Wednesday, knocking Culberson on health care.

Culberson also launched his first ad last week, highlighting his work after Hurricane Harvey hit the region last year. Both campaigns have booked airtime through Election Day. 

Some national Republicans were concerned Culberson wasn’t taking his race as seriously at the beginning of the cycle, but believe he has since made positive additions to his campaign team and stepped up his fundraising.  

Meanwhile, the House Majority PAC has reserved $2.2 million in the Dallas media market for Sessions’ seat, which Clinton carried by 2 points. Inside Elections rates the race a Toss-Up

Sessions, a former NRCC chairman, is facing Democrat Colin Allred, a former professional football player and Obama administration alumnus. Allred has proved to be a significant fundraiser and won a contested Democratic primary by focusing on his grass-roots operation.

Trump tweeted his support for Sessions over the weekend, and other GOP leaders, including Speaker Paul D. Ryan, have made visits to the Dallas area for the incumbent. Former President George W. Bush is expected to headline an event for him this week.

Democrats have high hopes for their nominee in the 23rd District, former Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones. But they acknowledge the incumbent Hurd, a former CIA officer, is a tough opponent who has faced close elections before.

The NRCC and CLF have reserved a combined nearly $4 million in the San Antonio market, aimed at the Hurd’s district. House Majority PAC has reserved $850,000 in San Antonio. Inside Elections rates the race Tilts Republican

Senate impact? 

Both sides have noted the down-ballot consequences of the Cruz-O’Rourke race.

“It definitely doesn’t help,” one national GOP strategist said when asked how a close Senate race could affect the House contests. “I don’t think it’s necessarily determinative, but we’ll wait and see.”

Cruz has acknowledged he has a real race on his hands in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. Trump said he plans to visit the state to give Cruz, a former adversary in the 2016 presidential primary, a lift.

The Cruz campaign and the state GOP did not return requests for comment on how campaigns up and down the ballot were coordinating.

Some Democrats said the energy behind O’Rourke’s campaign — which has drawn large crowds and brought in millions of dollars — could help with Democratic turnout, or even cause Republicans who reject Cruz to look at other Democrats down the ballot.

Thowfeek said O’Rourke’s fundraising has helped finance an expansive grass-roots organization that could endure past this election. He said the state party was working in tandem with other candidates especially to collect voter data.

O’Rourke could similarly also benefit from the heightened competition on the House side, especially in areas where he needs the increased Democratic turnout to help him win a state Trump carried by 9 points.

“Here, we’re seeing Beto commandeer a lot of star power. But it’s not just Beto,” Thowfeek said, before delving into a basketball reference.

“Rather than having a Lebron James at the top of the ticket, we’re kind of playing the San Antonio Spurs style where everyone on the team is important,” he said.

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