Austin's Blue Surge Pushes Wendy Davis and Mike Siegel Toward D.C.
After losing recent elections, two candidates come out fighting
As of Wednesday, Oct. 7, the FiveThirtyEight polling average for Texas shows Donald Trump with a 1.4% lead over Joe Biden. That's not only far less than his 9-point win in 2016, but even less than Ted Cruz's 2.7% edge over Beto O'Rourke in the 2018 Senate race. In that cycle, Democrats flipped two seats in Congress and came within a hair of several more, including two that include large chunks of Austin. So you can imagine what an even weaker top-of-the-ticket performance for the GOP would lead to.
In both of those races, the GOP nominees – incumbent Michael McCaul in TX-10 and Chip Roy in the open TX-21 formerly held by Lamar Smith – ran ahead of Cruz, but close enough to make them instant targets this cycle. Though both districts are products of past gerrymanders to fracture the Austin vote, they're also both dominated by the exact sort of suburban voters who are fleeing the Republican Party in great haste, and who helped O'Rourke win outright in TX-10 and come within 0.1% of Cruz in TX-21.
McCaul's challenger, Mike Siegel, lost by less than 4 points in 2018 and has basically continued running ever since, and he tells the Chronicle his campaign feels "that we're on the cusp of a fantastic victory. There's just a lot more excitement and engagement around this race, and a lot of belief that Democrats can finally flip Texas. We have a tremendous amount of momentum."
On paper, the race is a toss-up, or slightly leaning the incumbent's way, based on polling and the race-ranking forecasts. Siegel is raising major money, is on TV in both Austin and Houston, and has made tens of thousands of voter calls to replace door-knocking in the age of COVID-19. The former teacher and Austin city staff attorney was seen, even as a returning candidate, as a somewhat risky choice by more centrist Dems who backed his two primary opponents, but his grassroots support from labor, enviros, and Sanders progressives is translating now into "a tremendous volunteer effort," he says.
That includes in Harris County, where McCaul has usually blown away his Democratic opponents in Katy, Cypress, Tomball, and "historically some pretty conservative suburbs," Siegel says. "But there has been a ton of demographic change even in the last three years, and a lot of work by Democrats in those areas." That includes some of the closest Texas Statehouse races last cycle and this, where Houston-area progressives, party groups, and unions are going full-bore to hold and flip seats and thus the chamber. "I think Austin will always have a stronger base of Democratic activists, but I'm very optimistic about all the work being done."
Ever since his 2018 close call, McCaul has "made a big show of 'taking the race seriously,'" in Siegel's view, and has been advertising since July to make sure voters know "that I'm a communist socialist [who's] dangerous for Texas. So we have to push back against that narrative." Although Siegel sees the attention from McCaul as evidence that the race is truly competitive, he agrees that the district is more concerned with the mainstream issues defining the cycle nationwide – "health care and jobs. We need universal health care, and 50 million people have applied for unemployment, and we're not doing very much at all to make sure it's safe to go back to work." He's also focused on climate – "how we can have this conversation in Texas about transitioning to a renewable economy, repurposing the Fayette coal plant" – but thinks the first priority of a new Democratic D.C. "has to be voting rights."
McCaul is no moderate, but he's pretty establishment, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, and has focused on national security issues that are somewhat less polarizing. Chip Roy, on the other hand, is very much a culture warrior, who wants to be seen and heard and, almost certainly, to hold higher office, much like his former bosses Ted Cruz and Ken Paxton. Unfortunately for him, he now faces an opponent with all the clout he aspires to have: Wendy Davis.
Ever since the former state senator, iconic for her 2013 filibuster championing reproductive rights, and 2014 nominee for governor declared her interest in the TX-21 race, she's been a fundraising juggernaut, substantially outpacing Roy, and a magnet for attention from both state and national Dems. The district, which connects Austin to San Antonio and includes much of the Hill Country, is slightly redder than TX-10, largely because it's older and wealthier, with lots of veterans and retirees. But that lines up well with Davis' and the Dems' focus on health care; voters "are looking for leaders who will listen to experts and get the virus under control, [and] fight to make sure they have access to insurance," she tells the Chronicle via email.
In this race, while Roy echoes McCaul in portraying his challenger as a communist and a handmaiden of antifa (most recently at a San Antonio debate Tuesday evening), it's the incumbent who most easily wears the mantle of an extremist – not just for being anti-Affordable Care Act and anti-mask, but for single-handedly holding up federal disaster relief for Texas that had unanimous bipartisan support, in order to send Nancy Pelosi a message, or something. "Our campaign is working to make sure people know how dangerous Roy is," Davis says, "and then how and where they can vote him out."
Within the GOP bubble, Davis has a reputation not only as "Abortion Barbie" but also as a loser after her doomed-from-the-start 2014 challenge to now-Gov. Greg Abbott. Her strength in the current race has caught some off guard. "I'm a better candidate because I've had the blessing of both winning and losing elections," she says. "I've learned from both experiences how to listen, how to fight, and how to connect with ... Texans [who] need someone looking out for them and their interests. Chip Roy has failed in that regard."