The Long Shot: District 21's John Courage comes hunting for Travis County votes
While we were napping, Central Texas became two-thirds Republican.
That would be one conclusion you could draw, pondering the reconfigured local Congressional districts that comprise most of the metro area's population. Rep. Lloyd Doggett's Dist. 10 (eastern Travis Co.) is now impregnably Democratic; the new Dist. 31 (most of Williamson Co. and part of Bastrop, stretching east through Aggie Land into the Houston suburbs) is radically Republican, and Rep. Lamar Smith's Dist. 21 slightly less so. The redistricters paid Doggett the dubious respect of ceding him the plurality of Cen-Tex Democrats, and though he has a Libertarian opponent (Michele Messina), the absence of a GOP standard-bearer is no accident -- the elephants are looking for easier prey elsewhere.
Similarly, the Dist. 31 race was essentially settled in the primary, when former state District Judge John Carter surprised both heavily funded Houstonian Peter Wareing and Rep. Joe Barton's (R-Ennis) baby boy Brad, each of whom had eagerly moved to Bryan-College Station in expectation of clearing the newly set GOP Table 31. Neither apparently counted on Carter's devoted Williamson Co. followers -- nor indeed seemed to have counted Williamson Co. residents at all. When the dust cleared, Barton had been eliminated; in the runoff, Carter whupped Wareing so badly in Williamson Co. (80%, or 4,300 votes) that Wareing's 1,200 vote margin in the other eight counties was rendered moot.
Carter does have a Democratic opponent: Washington Co. computer consultant David Bagley, who won't be nearly as disappointed as Wareing or Barton when he loses. Judge Carter -- who (surprise) wants to cut taxes and build highways -- promises at least to be entertaining. Carter was the judge in the legendary "Orange Socks" murder trial that put Henry Lee Lucas on death row, only to be granted clemency when two state attorneys general politely pointed out that Lucas was in Florida at the time of the Texas murder. And after 9/11, Carter complained that those softheaded East Coast courts didn't even bother to bring the terrorists to justice, just because they were already dead. "If it had happened in our county," declared the candidate, "we would have tried them, I guarantee you that." Well, like they say, Williamson Co. is a whole 'nother country.
The new Dist. 21, which stretches from the north San Antonio suburbs up and out through the Hill Country and then back into western Travis Co., also looks like a slam dunk for the GOP, at least at first glance. With 11-term incumbent Lamar Smith facing a neophyte Dem candidate, San Antonio schoolteacher John Courage, early handicapping had the Republicans welcoming Courage into the race -- one suggested a breathing opponent might rouse 25,000 additional GOP votes. Shoot, the competition might even bring Rep. Smith back to his legal residence in Bexar Co., from either Northern Virginia or Cape Cod, where he is rumored to spend most of his time.
By the Numbers
Courage, as his name might suggest, is undaunted. He acknowledges he's a long shot, and that it took him 15 months of campaigning before the state and national Democratic organizations began to take him seriously enough to lend even a bit of support. "They're starting to say they think I've got a shot," Courage said last week. "I think I'm going to do better than that -- I'm going to win this race."
Smith will have little trouble beating Courage in the southern and far western parts of Dist. 21, but the Democrat is counting on the importance of the new district lines, which removed Midland and added Hays, Blanco, and about half of Travis Co. (roughly west of MoPac). "Thirty-five percent of the district voters are brand new," said Courage, "and many of those are Democrats or independents." The result made the district less Republican, and Courage says that the incumbent cannot take it for granted. "About 23-25% voted in the Democratic primary, about 30-35% in the Republican primary. That means 40% of the voters remain to be persuaded, and they are generally conservative but independent-minded folks who vote the person, not the party."
Courage -- a special education teacher who says he initially entered the race out of frustration at the lack of consistent federal support for education -- is nothing if not persuasive. He has stumped vigorously in the Hill Country, and says voters tell him they don't really know Smith and are worried Congress isn't paying much attention to the slumping economy. "They're concerned about pocketbook issues," he said. "There's a high percentage of retired voters who see their retirement threatened by corporate fraud and piracy, and their sense of Smith is as an unresponsive congressman who doesn't feel any necessity to listen to them or respond."
Looking at the Purse
Courage is pounding the persistent Democratic issues -- the economy, education, health care, Social Security -- and points to Smith's terrible voting record on all these (not so terrible, of course, to the district's conservative Republican voters). And on both ends of the district, he has received vocal and financial support from immigration attorneys, who blame Smith's legislation for unconstitutional restrictions on working immigrants as well as the increasing militarization of the border. Courage says that immigration is not one of the "top four or five" issues he's hearing about from voters, but that he does meet employers (e.g., ranchers) who are finding it more difficult to help their longtime resident workers achieve legal status.
One other curious effect of redistricting is that Smith has suddenly become a "high-tech" Congressman, much more responsive to West Austin cyber-CEOs' (and campaign contributors') complaints that because of restrictions on H-1B visas (due in part to Smith-sponsored legislation) they can't recruit enough foreign engineers. "He's done a complete 180 on that issue," said Courage, "but a leopard can't change his spots."
More than likely, Smith won't have to. Dist. 21's demographics remain in his favor, and by the time you read this, Travis Co. voters should be awash in the half-million dollars he's said to be spending on media buys to introduce himself here. The usual pundits still call it for Smith, although if Courage can at least make a decent run, the district could certainly be in play next time around.
And if Hays, Blanco, and Travis counties are listening, Courage believes it already is.