This Democrat Can Win the Seat Once Held By Tom DeLay and Ron Paul

Texas’s 22nd congressional district is changing. So is the Lone Star state. No wonder Republicans are worried.

One year ago, Rep. Cheri Bustos, Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, declared that “Texas is ground zero in 2020.” The Illinois congresswoman was referring to the five House Republicans who had announced their retirement following narrow wins in 2018, a phenomenon that became known as “Texodus.” As a result, Democrats targeted their districts to flip in 2020.

The forecast model at FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats a 95 in 100 chance of maintaining control of the House, which is why, when it comes to Congressional elections, most of the attention has been on whether Republicans can hold onto their Senate majority. However, the comments from Bustos indicate that Democrats are actually working on adding members to their ranks in the House—and the one state where that is likely to happen, interestingly enough, is Texas.

One of the districts targeted by Democrats is Texas’s 22nd, which covers the south and southwestern suburbs of Houston. From the late 70s to the mid-80s, the district chose Libertarian Ron Paul to represent them. When he decided to run for the Senate in 1985, Tom DeLay was elected and eventually became the Majority Leader. In 2008, when DeLay resigned due to his involvement in the Jack Abramoff campaign finance scandal, Republican Pete Olson was elected to represent the district and has held the seat since then. That explains why the Cook Political Report rates this district as R+10. 

Olson announced his retirement in July 2019 with the usual bromide about wanting to spend more time with his family. But that came after reelection in 2018, where he won by only five points, after cruising to victory by 20-30 points in previous elections. What is happening in Texas’s 22nd congressional district encapsulates what is going wrong for Republicans in the Lonestar State. 

Fort Bend County is at the heart of the 22nd district and ranks 10th on the list of fastest-growing counties in the country, doubling its population since 2000. With that growth has come diversity. Non-Hispanic whites make up 32 percent of residents of Fort Bend County, while Hispanics make up about 25 percent, and African Americans 22 percent. Asian Americans are actually the fastest-growing demographic group in Texas and make up about 20 percent of Fort Bend County residents. 

According to an analysis from Wall St. 24/7, a financial news and commentary site, Fort Bend is the wealthiest county in Texas, with a median household income of $93,645. Approximately 46 percent of its residents have at least a bachelor’s degree. 

What we have then, in the 22nd district, is a suburban community in a major metropolitan area with a soaring population that is increasingly diverse, wealthy, and college-educated. As Robert Draper wrote in Texas Monthly, that is why “the GOP is facing a historical reckoning.” 

What has kept Republicans in power is a dominant hold on a proportionately shrinking demographic: non-Hispanic white voters. Yet even that grip has become tenuous, for two reasons. First, the state GOP has maximized its rural turnout—there are few if any voters left to get. Second, and more important, the party is now struggling in the suburbs.

As David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report told Draper, “Even more than the robust growth in eligible Hispanic, Black, and Asian American voters, the bigger driver of change in Texas is the migration [in the political views] of professional whites in the suburbs, particularly women.”

The Republican candidate in Texas’s 22nd district is Fort Bend Sheriff Troy Nehls. During a primary against 14 other Republicans, he declared that he would “stand with President Trump to defeat the socialist Democrats, build the wall, drain the swamp, and deliver on pro-economy and pro-America policies.” But two days after he became the nominee, the “Standing with President Trump” page on his web site was removed. Now Nehls runs as a moderate committed to protecting energy jobs and criminal justice reform. 

Sri Preston Kulkarni, the Democrat, left his career in the U.S. Foreign Service to run for Congress. His father is an Indian American who taught creative writing at Rice University. His mother, who worked at Exxon as a systems analyst, is a direct descendant of Sam Houston’s grandfather. 

Kulkarni is running on a platform to expand the Affordable Care Act, invest in renewable energy sources, and pass common-sense gun safety measures. But what makes his candidacy unique is that he is reaching out to voters in 27 different languages. Kulkarni himself speaks six fluently, including Hindi, Chinese, and Spanish. The candidate says that “72 percent of the [Asian-American voters] we reached out to had never been called by either a Republican or a Democrat—and they’re the fastest-growing group in Texas.”

The race in Texas’s 22nd congressional district is listed as a toss-up by the Cook Political Report. But with the election just days away, Kulkarni has a massive advantage over Nehls in fundraising. According to Open Secrets, the Democrat has raised $4.5 million to the Republican’s $1.3 million.

Something is going on in Texas. The state has typically had abysmal voter turnout rates. As of Sunday, over 4 million Texans have already voted. According to Dan Solomon at Texas Monthly, “the counties that have seen the biggest spike in turnout are suburban ones with populations of less than a million.” Fort Bend County in the 22nd district fits that description perfectly. 

This is a race to watch. It is possible that a Democrat could win the seat once occupied by Ron Paul and Tom DeLay. There is no better example of the dramatic change underway in Texas.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.