A Bernie Democrat Will Again Try to Flip Texas’ 10th District

Texas’ 10th Congressional District wraps around the northern fringes of Austin, sweeps through the small-town headquarters of Blue Bell ice cream and farm country, and reaches across the western suburbs of Houston. Since 2004 the district has voted eight times to send Republican Michael McCaul to the House of Representatives.

But the district is changing as the Austin and Houston areas grow, and its deep red politics are showing a purple tinge. McCaul faces a tough fight this November from Democrat Mike Siegel, a progressive who supports “Medicare for All” and was endorsed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

The fight is actually a rematch: Siegel and McCaul faced off in 2018, with Siegel losing by only a few percentage points. Last month, Siegel emerged the victor from a primary runoff against Pritesh Gandhi, a physician who told voters he’d be more electable than Siegel in the general contest.

To fend off Siegel a second time, McCaul is running what Corry Bliss, a top Republican strategist who’s consulting for the campaign, calls the most “aggressive and sophisticated” House race in the country. Siegel, a civil rights attorney in Austin, says that’s proof that McCaul sees him as a real threat: “It shows how scared he is.”

McCaul has raised $2.5 million and spent $1.2 million so far, according to campaign finance data from the Center for Responsive Politics. He acknowledges that he’s running “probably the most aggressive campaign of my career” but says he views the close result in 2018 as a one-off, driven by straight-ticket voting that won’t be a major factor this time around. (Democrat Beto O’Rourke, challenging Republican Senator Ted Cruz, won the district in 2018 despite losing to Cruz.)

“I think this district is still very much a Republican district,” McCaul says. “I know the people of Texas 10 really well. I don’t think they’re going to go for a candidate with very extreme ideology.” The district went for Trump by a nine-point margin in 2016.

McCaul has attacked Siegel as “the most radical liberal running for Congress anywhere in America.” Siegel rejects McCaul’s claims that his support for universal health care represents socialism and that the Green New Deal would be a job killer in Texas, instead saying his policies would restore access to health care at a time when the global pandemic is exposing vulnerabilities and create new jobs amid historic unemployment. “That’s not socialism, that’s democracy,” he says. He’s raised $890,000, more than in 2018.

President Trump’s low poll numbers are a hurdle for many Republican candidates this year. “The president’s style is not mine,” McCaul says, though he adds that Trump had a “good track record” on the economy until the pandemic and that he supports the president’s desire to bolster the military.

Trump has alleged that his challenger, Joe Biden, will “destroy” suburban neighborhoods, and suburbs will be key in the race for the 10th—even though Republicans drew the district lines in 2011 to slice and dice liberal Austin and Houston. The demographics in areas such as Pflugerville and Katy are changing, with tech and energy workers moving in from out of state and former city dwellers drawn by affordability and good schools.

“There’s been a lot of talk about Republican voters changing their minds and Trump souring Republicans,” says Jim Henson, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and directs the Texas Politics Project. “But we’re seeing less evidence of that in these races and more the changes of the demographic makeup in these districts that’s driving what we’ve seen the last two cycles.”

Still, Republicans who are down on Trump are a focus of GOP campaigners in places such as Cypress, an unincorporated community of Harris County about a half-hour northwest of downtown Houston. “Our guidance is, ‘You don’t like Trump, fine. But hopefully you don’t vote for socialism,’  ” says Bill Ely, a director of the Cypress Texas Tea Party.

The largely rural stretch of the district between the fringes of the two big cities will almost certainly remain solidly behind McCaul. “What we would need in order to do better is a more ethnically diverse, a better educated, and younger population,” says George Dillingham, chairman of the Washington County Democratic Party. “And, well, we don’t have it.”

Winning Washington County isn’t the goal, Siegel says, but he hopes to pick up “hundreds and even thousands” of new votes there and in the surrounding counties between Houston and Austin.

The 10th District “is interesting in the fact that it really shows that urban-rural divide all in one spot,” says Renée Cross, senior director at the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. In 2018 “it definitely took people by surprise that Siegel came out of nowhere and came within five points,” she says. “You would think that this time around he should probably do just as well, or maybe better, because he does have some name recognition now.”
 
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