Frontrunners for Texas’ new congressional seats look to send message with decisive primary wins

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Wesley Hunt, a Republican candidate for U.S. House District 38, wave to a crowd at a rally in Houston on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (Briana Vargas For The Texas Tribune, Briana Vargas For The Texas Tribune)

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HOCKLEY — Headlining a rally here recently in one of Texas’ new congressional districts, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz made a proclamation that will likely be boilerplate across many U.S. House races this year as Republicans seek to retake the majority.

“Turning this country around starts in November 2022,” Cruz said, “and it starts right here in Texas in new CD-38.”

But here, the rallying cry carries a particular urgency, as Republicans press to deliver Army combat veteran Wesley Hunt an outright primary win over a crowd of underdog opponents vying for the solidly Republican seat. And it is a similar story in Texas’ other new district — a bright-blue seat in the Austin area — where there is also a clear frontrunner, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, out for a decisive win.

Neither of the races for the state’s two new seats may end up being all that competitive, but they carry worthwhile implications for each party and candidate. Hunt’s election would send a Black conservative to Congress at a time when the GOP is eager to diversify, while an outright Doggett victory would show the 27-year incumbent remains a political force despite the fast-changing city he represents — and would represent even more of after this year.

To the extent either is facing competition in their primaries, it is not necessarily over issues but the assets that are fueling their heavy-favorite statuses — Hunt’s backing from Republicans in Washington, D.C., and Doggett’s long tenure in Congress.

“It’s always good to get new perspectives, but we don’t have a ‘new faces’ problem as much as we have a need for more faces,” Doggett said in an interview, alluding to Democrats’ thin majorities in both chambers. He added that he was “excited that Austin continues to be a youthful, energetic, vital community” and pointed to endorsements he has received from groups like the Texas College Democrats.

Texas was the only state to receive two new congressional seats, a result of the biennial process known as reapportionment in which states gain or lose seats based on how much their population has changed. State lawmakers concentrated one of the new seats, the 37th Congressional District, in Austin and anchored the other, the 38th Congressional District, in Houston and stretched it into the city’s northwestern suburbs.

The primary is the main show in each district, given how much they favor one party in the general election. If the 37th District had existed in 2020, President Joe Biden would have carried it by 53 percentage points, while former President Donald Trump would have won the 38th District by 18 points.

Hunt’s interest in the new Houston seat was no secret for much of 2021. After challenging U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, last year in a national battleground district, coming up 3 percentage points short, Hunt reiterated multiple times that he planned to run again in the Houston area, whatever the seat may end up being.

Hunt announced his campaign for the 38th District the day after lawmakers unveiled their first congressional map proposal, and he quickly accumulated impressive fundraising and endorsements. Within days, he was endorsed by U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other members of House GOP leadership, as well as Cruz. He replenished his campaign war chest to reach $1 million within days of announcing.

There was some chatter about potentially serious competitors — Hunt’s campaign even included former U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, in an internal poll — but none materialized. Then, with less than a few hours until the filing deadline in early December, Hunt received perhaps his most legitimate competition: Mark Ramsey, a longtime GOP activist who previously represented much of what is now the 38th District while serving on the State Republican Executive Committee.

“It’s an underdog David-and-Goliath kind of battle,” Ramsey said. “The clear issue is that [Hunt] is supported by the Washington, D.C., establishment, and we don’t like the idea of them trying to dictate to us what our representatives should be.”

Within a month or so, Ramsey accrued a list of notable endorsements reflective of his long history in Texas GOP politics — Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian and four state representatives from the Houston area.

Ramsey also started reminding people that Hunt voted in the 2008 Democratic primary. It was an issue in Hunt’s last congressional primary, and he explained it by saying he was participating in Operation Chaos, a strategy by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh to get Texas Republicans to drag out the Democratic presidential nomination battle after John McCain already secured the GOP nomination.

Ramsey said there are 10 candidates in the primary, and “nine of us are running against [Hunt] essentially.” The rest of the field includes Roland Lopez, a Houston executive consultant who has been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, a member of the House Freedom Caucus who is known for bucking House leadership. There is also Jerry Ford, a former assistant fire chief from Houston who ran last year as a Democrat against U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston.

Whatever the opposition, though, Hunt’s allies are dead set on making him the presumptive next congressman — and preferably on March 1. A super PAC aligned with U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., pledged in November to spend at least $250,000 to get Hunt through the primary, and it has already made good on that with $429,000 in pro-Hunt TV ads, digital ads and mailers.

Scott is the only Black Republican in the Senate, and there are just two Black members of the House. In that context, Hunt and his supporters are well aware of the meaning of his candidacy.

Speaking before Cruz at the rally in Hockley, addressing over 200 people filling most of an outdoor patio deck, Hunt said voters were allowing him to “live Martin Luther King’s dream” — and face judgment based on the content of his character, not the color of his skin.

Wesley Hunt, a Republican candidate for U.S. House Texas District 38, speaks at a rally in Houston on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022.

Republicans are pressing to deliver Army combat veteran Wesley Hunt an outright primary win over a crowd of underdog opponents vying for the new Congressional District 38, a solidly Republican seat. Here, Hunt speaks at a rally in Houston on Jan. 17, 2022. Credit: Briana Vargas for The Texas Tribune

“The fact that I am standing on this stage before you just speaks volumes,” Hunt said. “For a direct descendant of a slave will someday be the congressman for a Republican-leaning, white-majority district in Harris County because you don’t care. You don’t care what I look like.”

Cruz, meanwhile, reveled in the prospect of adding a Black Republican to Congress, saying Democrats “tell a story that the only people allowed to be Republicans are old, fat, short, white, bald guys.”

“I gotta tell you, Democrats in Washington look at Wesley, and he scares the hell out of them,” Cruz said. “Because you’re gonna have rich, white Democrats prepared to lecture Wesley on what it’s like to struggle and how to achieve the American Dream.”

Ramsey, who fits the profile of a candidate Cruz would back in any other race, said he was puzzled by the senator’s endorsement of Hunt but noted it came months before Ramsey entered the primary. In addition to the elected officials, Ramsey has been touting support from precinct chairs in the district, claiming he has surveyed “about two-thirds” of them and well over a majority have expressed support for him.

One precinct chair who is supporting Hunt, Jan Heinricks, said Hunt has been making progress on disproving any criticism that he is not familiar with the GOP base in the district.

“All of his meet and greets that he’s been involved with and going around the district to different functions, I think, is exposing him, letting people know that he’s more grassroots,” Heinricks said, adding that Hunt comes off as a “regular guy” in personal interactions. “He does a good job of connecting one-on-one with people.”

Doggett’s decision

Unlike Hunt, Doggett’s plan to run in the new seat did not come to fruition until later in the election cycle. He announced in mid-October that he would seek the 37th District seat rather than his current 35th District, which stretches down to San Antonio. He was the instant frontrunner for the new seat, with over $5 million cash on hand and a massive initial endorsement list.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, speaks at the ‘For the People Rally’ at the Capitol on June 20, 2021.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, speaks at a rally in support of federal voting rights at the state Capitol on June 20, 2021. He has settled in as the heavy favorite for the new 37th U.S. House District seat. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Doggett’s decision scrambled the plans of Democrats in the Austin area who had long been waiting for an open congressional seat. Their sights shifted to Doggett’s current 35th District, where Austin City Councilman Greg Casar is now running against state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez of Austin, as well as former San Antonio City Council membert Rebecca Viagran.

But even as Doggett settled in as the heavy favorite for the 37th District, one name persisted: Julie Oliver. The former two-time Democratic nominee against U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, continued to hold out the possibility she could run against Doggett, first with a campaign website saying Austin “deserves a choice” and then with a formal exploratory committee.

After facing a disappointing loss in her 2020 campaign against Williams, Oliver said she dug into Democratic turnout numbers statewide and realized they were the worst in districts like Doggett’s — places where the incumbents were safe in the general election and thus did not spend much money to mobilize their voters. In some cases, as with Doggett, the incumbent was sitting on a massive stockpile of money.

Doggett and Oliver had multiple conversations as she considered running. She said she impressed upon him the need for safe incumbents to spend more to turn out their voters in November; he said he did not necessarily disagree with that — just that it is “a question of how much of those resources and when and how you use them.” She said he was ultimately noncommittal; he said it is true he did not make any commitments, wanting to avoid any appearance of a quid pro quo. In interviews with The Texas Tribune, neither appeared wholly satisfied with how the conversations went.

As Oliver continued to weigh a run, Doggett secured even more high-powered endorsements, including U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren, the U.S. senator from Massachusetts who had backed Oliver in her two previous campaigns.

Oliver announced a week before the filing deadline that she would not run. She said she concluded a primary fight would be “incredibly wasteful” and thought it would be better for the party to continue trying to hold Doggett accountable.

“This is not a ‘Dems-in-disarray’” situation, Oliver said. “This is people who believe in holding their party accountable. Republicans do not hold their own accountable.”

By the time filing was over, Doggett was left with three opponents, including Donna Imam, the 2020 Democratic nominee against U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, and Chris Jones, a director in a transportation technology company from Austin. Both are pushing for televised debates in the primary.

“I’m looking at this city that has grown so much over the last 20 years, and that’s been about how long Mr. Doggett has” represented it, Jones said. “With our population, they’re looking for people who are going to be out there, being very vocal on the issues, kind of advocating as loud as they can to get things passed.”

Jones generally praised Doggett’s voting record and time in Congress but said he could be more proactive in his progressivism. He noted that the Austin chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America ran a pressure campaign before Doggett cosponsored a Medicare for All bill in 2019.

Doggett said he does not think his opponents have “made any case for why they need to replace someone who’s been sufficiently progressive.” Looking forward to the next Congress, when the House could be controlled by Republicans, Doggett said he was working on “some measures that are more narrow and are bipartisan in nature.” But he said he would still be prioritizing issues like climate change, voting rights and abortion rights.

They are issues, he said, “that I will be very vocal on.”