Texas key in fight for House

Democrats could check Trump, GOP if they win con­trol

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Bill Lam­brecht

WASH­ING­TON — Un­der­ly­ing the bat­tle for the U.S. House, with un­usual com­pe­ti­tion in Texas this elec­tion, is the prospect of big change in what Con­gress does — and doesn’t do — on is­sues from im­mi­gra­tion to health in­sur­ance to taxes.

Demo­cratic con­trol of the House for the first time since 2010 would blunt Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s most con­tro­ver­sial ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing his drive to con­struct a border wall, and per­haps swiftly re­solve the sta­tus of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of im­mi­grants un­der tem­po­rary court pro­tec­tion since Trump or­dered can­cel­la­tion of the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals (DACA) pro­gram.

Polls point to the like­li­hood of Democrats adding seats on Tues­day. But whether they will post the net gain of 23 needed to re­take the House is fraught with un­cer­tainty, in large mea­sure be­cause nearly all of the “toss-up” con­tests are be­ing fought on Repub­li­can-held turf where Trump is a wild card.

Af­ter the 2006 midterms when Democrats wrested away House con­trol, the im­pact was felt as soon as Jan­uary when then-Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush sped up the Iraq War with a surge of troops, has­ten­ing to end the un­pop­u­lar con­flict.

The ef­fect of Democrats cap­tur­ing the House on Tues­day could be far wider,

re­set­ting the bar­gain­ing ta­ble on a host of is­sues and trig­ger­ing a new round of par­ti­san war­fare head­ing into the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion sea­son, ac­cord­ing to con­gres­sional ex­perts and Texas Democrats primed to re­turn to power.

With odds strongly fa­vor­ing the GOP nar­rowly hold the Sen­ate, a Demo­crati­crun House would work as a check on Re­pub­li­cans and the White House amid in­ves­ti­ga­tions of Trump poli­cies and ap­pointees by com­mit­tee chairs newly armed with sub­poe­nas.

“Even if Democrats can’t move leg­is­la­tion, they can re­ally stop the pres­i­dent from mak­ing progress he wants on many is­sues, from im­mi­gra­tion to health care,” said Ju­lian Zelizer, a Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist and au­thor.

“Democrats can use their power to start na­tional con­ver­sa­tions on other is­sues. But it won’t be easy; Pres­i­dent Trump still has the loud­est bull­horn around,” said Zelizer, whose book, “The Fierce Ur­gency of Now,” chron­i­cled Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son’s work with Con­gress craft­ing Great So­ci­ety leg­is­la­tion.

James Thurber, founder of the Cen­ter for Con­gres­sional and Pres­i­den­tial Stud­ies at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity, be­lieves a Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity would ef­fec­tively mod­er­ate the Sen­ate, thereby quash­ing fur­ther ef­forts to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act or re­move its pop­u­lar fea­tures.

“They’ll pro­tect en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams, take a look at chang­ing the tax bill and they’ll ab­so­lutely stop ex­pan­sion of the wall,” he said.

But Demo­cratic fac­tion­al­ism could limit suc­cess, he be­lieves. “It de­pends on the far left and whether the party is go­ing to be prag­matic and think about 2020,” he said.

Fo­cus on ac­count­abil­ity

Un­do­ing parts of the Re­pub­li­cans’ sweep­ing tax bill passed just be­fore Christ­mas last year would be a ma­jor pri­or­ity. The law slashed rates for cor­po­ra­tions, pro­vided new breaks for pri­vate busi­nesses and re­worked the in­di­vid­ual tax code. Trump re­cently clouded the fu­ture of tax­a­tion by re­mark­ing on the cam­paign trail that the GOP will “put in” an­other 10 per­cent tax cut for the mid­dle class — which came as news to Re­pub­li­cans on Capi­tol Hill.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Wood­lands, chair­man of the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee and prin­ci­pal au­thor of the tax over­haul, has said he wants to make per­ma­nent the in­di­vid­ual tax cuts in the law. They ex­pire af­ter 2025.

“Our econ­omy is boom­ing and we are on track to have the first to­tal year of 3 per­cent growth in over a decade,” Brady said in a state­ment. “Our agenda is to keep the econ­omy grow­ing, and it’s cru­cial that we have the chance to con­tinue our work with Pres­i­dent Trump.”

Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a se­nior mem­ber of the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, said the pri­or­ity of the tax-writ­ing panel “has to be a thor­ough re­view of the Repub­li­can tax law. It is bur­den­ing our econ­omy and will sad­dle us with tril­lions of dol­lars in pub­lic debt. Some of the pro­vi­sions are jus­ti­fied, some are not.”

Doggett, a Demo­crat whose dis­trict runs from San An­to­nio to Austin, vowed to re­main a leader in the drive to force re­lease of Trump’s tax re­turns. If Democrats sub­poena those records, the case might well end up at the Supreme Court.

“It’s not just his per­sonal 1040,” Doggett said, “but the fact that he has over 500 en­ti­ties from Man­hat­tan to Azer­bai­jan and we need to see the na­ture of per­sonal gain, and the in­ter­na­tional en­tan­gle­ment and self-deal­ing, with re­gard to cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion poli­cies.”

Texas Demo­cratic Rep. Joaquin Cas­tro, in line to take over as head of the 31mem­ber Con­gres­sional His­panic Cau­cus whether or not Democrats win con­trol, said that im­mi­gra­tion mat­ters and re­solv­ing the sta­tus of so-called Dream­ers — roughly 120,000 of them in Texas — would be a first or­der of busi­ness un­der a Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity.

Cas­tro, who stands to move up on the key In­tel­li­gence and For­eign Af­fairs com­mit­tees, summed up the goals if Democrats suc­ceed Tues­day.

“Two things: cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for Amer­i­cans by fo­cus­ing on the breadand-but­ter things peo­ple care about, and sec­ond, ac­count­abil­ity in gov­ern­ment. We’ve wit­nessed an as­ton­ish­ing lack of over­sight in the last two years,” he said.

Low ap­proval rat­ing

Larry Sa­bato, di­rec­tor of the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia’s Cen­ter for Pol­i­tics, boiled down his pre­dic­tion if Democrats take charge: “An­other pe­riod of grid­lock. I don’t think we have too much new to ex­pe­ri­ence there.”

He added: “Any dif­fer­ence will be more ex­treme po­lar­iza­tion and a fo­cus on Don­ald Trump that col­ors ev­ery­thing. You could have a sim­ple res­o­lu­tion on Mother’s Day and there prob­a­bly would be a de­bate, and Trump prob­a­bly would tweet some­thing about it.”

Like most an­a­lysts, Sa­bato pre­dicts a Demo­cratic takeover, which his­tory and polls sug­gest is likely.

Since 1946, the party of pres­i­dents with an ap­proval rat­ing un­der 50 per­cent has lost an aver­age of 37 seats in midterm elec­tions. Trump’s job rat­ing, af­ter tick­ing up re­cently, dipped to 40 per­cent in Gallup track­ing this week and av­er­aged 43.9 per­cent in the Real Clear Pol­i­tics aver­age of polling this month.

By other mea­sures, Democrats had a 7.5 per­cent aver­age last week in the aver­age of sur­veys when vot­ers were asked which party they pre­fer in con­gres­sional elec­tions. In 69 House con­tests iden­ti­fied as com­pet­i­tive, Democrats held a 4 per­cent ad­van­tage, ac­cord­ing to Wash­ing­ton Post polling pub­lished Thurs­day.

What’s more, Democrats, more than Re­pub­li­cans, tell poll­sters that they are likely to vote, sim­i­lar to what GOP vot­ers were say­ing when they cap­tured the House eight years ago. The of­ten cited FiveThir­tyEight po­lit­i­cal blog gives Re­pub­li­cans only a 1-in-7 chance of keep­ing House con­trol. And among women, Democrats hold a 25 per­cent ad­van­tage in polls, a gen­der gap that in nor­mal times likely would be in­sur­mount­able.

But an­a­lysts cau­tion that these times are not nor­mal, with the volatile back­drop of the hate-in­spired mas­sacre in Pitts­burgh, do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism, the fiercest Supreme Court con­fir­ma­tion bat­tle in a gen­er­a­tion and thou­sands of troops on the border with Mex­ico.

Trump lends more un­pre­dictabil­ity. In the cam­paign’s fi­nal six days alone, he planned 11 ral­lies across eight states, likely stok­ing fears of mi­grants with more warn­ings of an “in­va­sion” from the Cen­tral Amer­i­can car­a­van work­ing its way north through Mex­ico.

“The Democrats should win, but that doesn’t mean they will,” Sa­bato said. “Hil­lary Clin­ton should have won in 2016, but she didn’t.”

Texas races to watch

Dis­trict 7: The dis­trict that stretches from some of Hous­ton’s wealth­i­est neigh­bor­hoods into Har­ris County sub­urbs is the kind of ter­ri­tory where Democrats need to mar­shal the an­tiTrump sen­ti­ments of in­de­pen­dents and GOP women. Judg­ing by poll re­sults, they could suc­ceed in Hous­ton.

In­cum­bent Repub­li­can John Cul­ber­son, elected to Con­gress 18 years ago, is try­ing to stave off a fu­ri­ous chal­lenge from Hous­ton cor­po­rate lawyer Lizzie Fletcher.

In cam­paign where­withal, Cul­ber­son has been heav­ily out­raised by Fletcher — $5.3 mil­lion to $2.9 mil­lion through mid-Oc­to­ber. Just eight House races in the coun­try have seen more out­side spend­ing in the gen­eral elec­tion, with ef­forts on Fletcher’s be­half lead­ing those for Cul­ber­son by more than $1 mil­lion.

Fletcher has worked her way into a vir­tual tie with Cul­ber­son in a dis­trict that Clin­ton won in 2016, ac­cord­ing to New York Times polling this month.

Democrats are tak­ing aim at Cul­ber­son’s votes to gut the Af­ford­able Care Act, key­ing as they’ve done across the coun­try on the health in­sur­ance law’s pop­u­lar pro­tec­tions for pre-ex­ist­ing con­di­tions.

Cul­ber­son, like many Re­pub­li­cans fend­ing off the charge, as­serts in a late ad that Fletcher sup­ports a Bernie San­ders-styled “gov­ern­ment takeover of health­care” — an as­ser­tion based Fletcher’s stated sup­ported ear­lier this year for “uni­ver­sal health care.”

Dis­trict 23: No Texas con­gres­sional turf has been more fiercely con­tested in re­cent years than the ter­ri­tory that runs from San An­to­nio to the edge of El Paso. The race this year in the ma­jor­ity His­panic dis­trict be­tween in­cum­bent Repub­li­can Will Hurd and chal­lenger Gina Or­tiz Jones is no dif­fer­ent.

One mea­sure is the 3,986 ads that aired in the dis­trict from Oct. 16 to Oct. 25 — the sixth most of any dis­trict in the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to ad-track­ing an­a­lyzed by the Wes­leyan Me­dia Project.

Hurd, a for­mer CIA un­der­cover of­fi­cer and a mod­er­ate in his party, is be­ing tar­geted in many of those ads for GOP votes aimed at the Af­ford­able Care Act — although he aban­doned the GOP when the re­peal passed the House in April 2017.

A New York Times poll last month found Hurd with a lead out­side the mar­gin of er­ror over Jones, a for­mer Air force in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer and Iraq war vet­eran who worked in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Re­pub­li­cans ei­ther are wor­ried or are build­ing an ex­pen­sive fire­wall. A GOPaligned su­per PAC be­gan ham­mer­ing her last week with at­tack ads com­mon against Democrats this year, as­so­ci­at­ing her with Cal­i­for­nia Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who could re­turn as House Speaker, and so­called gov­ern­ment-run health in­sur­ance.

In ad­di­tion, the Na­tional Repub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee, which had halted its ads in the dis­trict, is back on the air through the elec­tion with a spot in­vok­ing Pelosi’s name and Jones’ do­na­tions from “ex­treme en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists.”

Dis­trict 32: In the Dal­las area, shift­ing po­lit­i­cal sen­ti­ments give Democrats a prime pick-up op­por­tu­nity. In­cum­bent Pete Ses­sions is an 11-term Repub­li­can vet­eran and House power­bro­ker who chairs the Rules Com­mit­tee, which con­trols the flow of leg­is­la­tion. In 2016, he drew no Demo­cratic op­po­nent.

But Ses­sions is fight­ing for his po­lit­i­cal life against for­mer Na­tional Foot­ball League line­backer Colin Allred in a con­test rated “toss-up” by lead­ing hand­i­cap­pers. A New York Times sur­vey in Septem­ber found the race within the mar­gin of polling er­ror.

In 2016, Hil­lary Clin­ton won the heav­ily ur­ban dis­trict by 2 points, a stun­ning turn­around in Demo­cratic for­tunes in the four years since Repub­li­can Mitt Rom­ney won it by 16 points in the pre­vi­ous pres­i­den­tial con­test.

Con­tests on GOP turf

Dis­trict 22: In a largely sub­ur­ban south-cen­tral por­tion of the Hous­ton metropoli­tan area, the re-elec­tion drive by five-term Repub­li­can Pete Ol­son, of Sugar Land, has drawn at­ten­tion for spir­ited com­pe­ti­tion and for Ol­son’s words. He has re­ferred to his op­po­nent as “an In­doAmer­i­can car­pet­bag­ger” and ut­tered the phrase “CNN sucks.”

Ol­son’s chal­lenger, Demo­crat Sri Pre­ston Kulka­rni, an In­dian-Amer­i­can who worked at the State Depart­ment and on Capi­tol Hill for New York Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand, has built a cam­paign that re­flects the chang­ing face of ger­ry­man­dered turf once rep­re­sented by in­flu­en­tial GOP House mem­ber Tom De­Lay.

The pop­u­la­tion of the dis­trict, which in­cludes Fort Bend, Bra­zo­ria and part of south­ern Har­ris County, is 25 per­cent His­panic, 19 per­cent Asian and 13 per­cent African-Amer­i­can. Hand­i­cap­pers still give Ol­son a de­cided ad­van­tage.

But the Cook Po­lit­i­cal re­port re­cently moved the con­test from its “likely Repub­li­can” cat­e­gory to “lean Repub­li­can,” a re­flec­tion of Kulka­rni’s ag­gres­sive mul­ti­cul­tural cam­paign, which in­cludes phone banks of vol­un­teers ap­peal­ing to vot­ers in an ar­ray of lan­guages.

Kulka­rni raised $1.2 mil­lion as of mid-Oc­to­ber en­abling him to keep pace with Ol­son and bank more cash for the cam­paign’s stretch run. Kulka­rni’s ex­pen­di­tures in­clude a re­cent tele­vi­sion ad as­sert­ing that Ol­son has passed three bills in 10 years.

Ol­son, a for­mer Navy pi­lot, high­lights eco­nomic growth in the Trump era and re­cently pub­li­cized the shout-out he got from the pres­i­dent in Hous­ton, at­tached to the words “great job.”

Dis­trict 21: For nearly three decades, Lamar Smith, a San An­to­nio Repub­li­can and one of the GOP’s stal­wart skep­tics of cli­mate change, has held the ter­ri­tory stretch­ing from Austin to San An­to­nio. His re­tire­ment opened the seat, trig­ger­ing com­pe­ti­tion be­tween Repub­li­can Chip Roy and Demo­crat Joseph Kopser.

In a nor­mal year, a Demo­crat might be given lit­tle chance. The dis­trict has a 10 per­cent struc­tural tilt to­ward Re­pub­li­cans. And Roy has a GOP in­sider sta­tus af­ter work­ing in Wash­ing­ton as the top aide to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and stints in the em­ploy of other top Texas Re­pub­li­cans.

But Kopser, one of an ar­ray of com­bat vet­er­ans re­cruited around the coun­try, of­fers him­self as a dif­fer­ent kind of Demo­crat — a mod­er­ate, for­mer Ron­ald Reagan sup­porter vow­ing to co­op­er­ate with Re­pub­li­cans. Also, the dis­trict has re­cently trended younger and more di­verse, af­ter ac­quir­ing some new precincts af­ter re­dis­trict­ing.

Roy is get­ting strong sup­port from the House Free­dom Al­liance, an group of staunch con­ser­va­tives that he likely would join. “Meet the Next Ted Cruz,” reads the head­line in an Oc­to­ber is­sue of Politico Mag­a­zine.

Kopser, in his clos­ing ar­gu­ment to vot­ers, stays the course of pre­sent­ing him­self as “in­de­pen­dent like Texas,” pro­claim­ing in his lat­est tele­vi­sion ad that “I’m sick of ca­reer politi­cians who are in it for them­selves.”

Dis­trict 2: The Hous­tonarea dis­trict where Repub­li­can Dan Cren­shaw and Demo­crat Todd Lit­ton are vy­ing to re­place re­tir­ing Repub­li­can Rep. Ted Poe of­fers more ter­ri­tory where Democrats see po­ten­tial this year — real or not.

In most years, Lit­ton, a lawyer who has worked in the ed­u­ca­tion and non­profit fields, would be given lit­tle to no chance against Cren­shaw, a for­mer Navy SEAL with an ap­peal­ing ré­sumé. In 2016, Trump won the dis­trict by 9 per­cent­age points.

Hand­i­cap­pers give Cren­shaw a de­cided ad­van­tage. But the Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port in July shifted the race from “solid Repub­li­can” to “likely Repub­li­can.”

Lit­ton held a cash ad­van­tage head­ing into the home­stretch, en­abling a tele­vi­sion ad in which he as­sails both the work of Con­gress and “my far right op­po­nent, Dan Cren­shaw.”

Cren­shaw, among Texas com­bat vet­er­ans run­ning for Con­gress, lost his right eye in an IED ex­plo­sion. Tshirts sold on Cren­shaw’s web­site show his like­ness with an eye patch and the phrase Texas Con­ser­va­tive Pa­triot.

Melissa Phillip / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Repub­li­can Dan Cren­shaw, left, and Demo­crat Todd Lit­ton are com­pet­ing for the Con­gres­sional Dis­trict 2 seat held by re­tir­ing Rep. Ted Poe. Don­ald Trump won the dis­trict by 9 per­cent­age points in 2016.

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