House Democrats bet on the old deep-red Amer­ica

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY DAVID WEIGEL david.weigel@wash­post.com

hous­ton — James Car­gas plopped a folder on his usual ta­ble at a down­town Greek restau­rant here and ex­plained how it would help him get to Congress. He had tried three times be­fore, ev­ery two years since 2012, and the last time, he spent barely $70,000. This time, he said, would be dif­fer­ent. In­side the folder, he had stuffed pages of in­for­ma­tion about the surg­ing Demo­cratic vote in a tra­di­tion­ally Re­pub­li­can sub­urb.

“You’re here be­cause Hil­lary won the dis­trict,” Car­gas said.

In 2016, the unas­sum­ing en­ergy lawyer with no money watched Hous­ton’s Har­ris County go blue for Hil­lary Clin­ton. At the same time, Texas’s 7th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict — a wealthy band of neigh­bor­hoods en­riched by his in­dus­try — broke for the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee by the thinnest of mar­gins. Four years ear­lier, it had gone for Mitt Rom­ney over Barack Obama by 21 points.

As Democrats re­cover from their post-elec­tion daze, and as Pres­i­dent Trump en­acts the poli­cies they ran against, they’ve be­gun to scour the map to see where and how to take back power. That’s led them to what had been deepred Amer­ica, places where Clin­ton’s long bet on the “emerg­ing ma­jor­ity” of white sub­ur­ban­ites and melt­ing-pot non­whites led to gains.

Clin­ton’s map in­cluded Ari­zona’s 2nd Dis­trict, briefly rep­re­sented by Rep. Gabrielle Gif­fords (D-Ariz.); Illi­nois’s 6th Dis­trict, whose Rep. Peter J. Roskam (R-Ill.) has served in House lead­er­ship; and Florida’s 27th Dis­trict, a Latino-heavy stretch of Mi­ami that voted for Clin­ton by 20 points while re­elect­ing Rep. Ileana RosLe­hti­nen. Texas’s 7th Dis­trict is one of at least 22 across the coun­try that voted for both Clin­ton and a Re­pub­li­can mem­ber of Congress; win­ning 24 would give Democrats the ma­jor­ity.

“All of these districts are re­ally tough, but we’re ex­pand­ing the bat­tle­field,” said Rep. Ben Ray Lu­ján (D-N.M.), who just be­gan his sec­ond term atop the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. “Pres­i­dent Trump is start­ing his term with the low­est ap­proval rat­ings of any pres­i­dent we’ve seen, and that’s af­ter he lost these districts.”

Out-of-power par­ties rarely pitch a per­fect game, and in 2018, a group of Mid­west­ern Democrats will be de­fend­ing them­selves in districts that broke for Trump. On av­er­age, pres­i­dents polling un­der 50 per­cent ap­proval at their midterms have seen their par­ties lose 35 House seats. Gen­uinely sur­prised by the en­ergy of anti-Trump protests, Democrats are al­ready won­der­ing where it could trans­late into votes.

“You saw it in the Women’s March,” said Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), a con­gress­man from El Paso who has been trav­el­ing across Texas as he con­sid­ers a 2018 Se­nate bid. “I saw it when I was in Har­ris County. Peo­ple who’ve never run for of­fice are try­ing to find out how. One of my col­leagues on the floor ac­tu­ally said to me, ‘Hey, for­get Ohio. What hap­pens if we win Texas?’ ”

While Trump de­fied the usual po­lit­i­cal grav­ity in much of the coun­try, in places like James Car­gas’s Hous­ton, he sunk. Texas, re­dis­tricted by Repub­li­cans (af­ter some ju­di­cial in­ter­ven­tion) in 2011, was drawn so that just one of its 36 districts would be com­pet­i­tive. Based on the re­sults of for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s two elec­tions, only the 23rd Dis­trict, sprawl­ing along the Mex­i­can border, was even be­tween the par­ties. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), who won the seat in 2014 and 2016, has crit­i­cized Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive order to fin­ish a wall there.

But the Clin­ton-Trump race shook up the map with­out shak­ing up how Repub­li­cans cam­paigned. Clin­ton won Hurd’s seat, as well as the Dal­las-based 32nd Dis­trict of Rep. Pete Ses­sions (R-Tex.) and 7 th Dis­trict rep­re­sented by Rep. John Ab­ney Cul­ber­son (R-Tex.). Ses­sions didn’t even draw an op­po­nent; Car­gas, en­dorsed by the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle, got no na­tional Demo­cratic sup­port.

Both of the in­cum­bents are re­li­able con­ser­va­tives who’ve found plenty to like about Trump. Cul­ber­son, who was not available to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle, has taken what could have been a low­pro­file chair­man­ship of an ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee and turned it into a ve­hi­cle for de­fund­ing sanc­tu­ary cities that do not pri­or­i­tize de­port­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants.

On Fri­day, on one of his semireg­u­lar call-ins to the Bos­ton ra­dio host Howie Carr, Cul­ber­son re­called how he passed leg­is­la­tion that would not just de­prive sanc­tu­ary cities of fed­eral money but also spur them to re­fund it.

“So the mayor of Bos­ton wants to pro­tect crim­i­nal il­le­gal aliens in­stead of law-abid­ing Amer­i­cans?” he said. “Bos­ton’s go­ing to lose that law en­force­ment money in 24 hours. It’s gonna be quick.”

That’s not an un­pop­u­lar stance in Texas — in­deed, Gov. Greg Ab­bott (R-Tex.) has threat­ened to re­move pub­lic of­fice­hold­ers who defy the sanc­tu­ary cities order. But Ab­bott won in 2014, by a land­slide, soft-ped­dling Trump-like is­sues and re­mind­ing Latino vot­ers that his wife’s fam­ily was Mex­i­can. Paul Simp­son, the chair­man of Har­ris County’s GOP, said that 2014 pro­vided more keys to the Texas map than 2016.

“It was in many ways, here and na­tion­ally, an ano­maly of an elec­tion,” Simp­son said. “A lot of tra­di­tional Repub­li­cans would not vote for Trump. I’m hope­ful that we can bring home a lot of the Repub­li­cans who didn’t vote and win over the tra­di­tional Democrats who went for Trump.”

Democrats didn’t see the same trend­line. In Har­ris County, the party won lo­cal of­fices that had eas­ily gone Re­pub­li­can in the past. (Simp­son pointed out that the Democrats’ suc­cess­ful can­di­date for dis­trict at­tor­ney had been backed by Ge­orge Soros.) The 7th Dis­trict, which had not gone Demo­cratic since Ge­orge H.W. Bush was elected in 1966, was part of the story. Fifty-five per­cent of its vot­ers were black, Latino or Asian Amer­i­can.

“I don’t buy the ‘fluke’ ex­pla­na­tion,” said Lane Lewis, chair­man of the county Democrats, who is re­tir­ing af­ter five years on the job. “Trump was as crazy in the rest of the coun­try as he was in Har­ris County, and we bucked the trend.”

As chair­man, Lewis had set out to ex­pand the Demo­crat’s mail-in bal­lot pro­gram, start­ing with the num­ber of Repub­li­cans who mailed in bal­lots and aim­ing to beat it. In 2016, it worked. At one point, he re­called, the pat­tern of turned-in bal­lots sug­gested that Car­gas was at 48 per­cent sup­port, higher than the party had ever polled there.

What was un­clear, 21 months be­fore the next elec­tion, was what new Demo­cratic in­ter­est in the seat meant for Car­gas. In an in­ter­view, he said that his 44 per­cent bested the 42 per­cent won by Michael Skelly, a wind-en­ergy busi­ness­man who raised the most money of any House can­di­date in Amer­ica dur­ing his 2008 chal­lenge to Cul­ber­son.

But na­tional and state Democrats, as they looked for tar­gets, didn’t rule out re­cruit­ing some­one new. On Saturday, Car­gas cor­nered out­go­ing DNC chair Donna Brazile at a party meet­ing in Hous­ton and got an in­con­clu­sive an­swer about why the party had not put more into his cam­paign.

Repub­li­cans, who’ve heard sim­i­lar promises from Democrats be­fore, weren’t buy­ing it.

“Trump’s com­ments hurt him and made it a one-off deal,” said Rep. Pete Ol­son (R-Tex.), whose dis­trict in the ex­urbs of Hous­ton gave a 25-point mar­gin for Mitt Rom­ney and an eight-point mar­gin to Trump. “It won’t hap­pen again. That talk about Texas go­ing blue? That ain’t hap­pen­ing.”

“All of these districts are re­ally tough, but we’re ex­pand­ing the bat­tle­field.” Rep. Ben Ray Lu­ján (D-N.M.), Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee

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