Voter arrive to cast their ballots at the Moody Park Community Center polling station in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.
Sharon Steinmann | Bloomberg | Getty Images
To find the forces fueling Democrats’ dream of a blue Texas in 2020, the Houston suburbs offer a good start.
The party flipped one U.S. House seat on the outskirts of the country’s fourth-most populous city in 2018. Democrats have set their sights in the Nov. 3 election on a couple of other area seats, including the state’s 22nd District, which spreads out to the south and southwest of downtown Houston.
Republican Rep. Pete Olson has won six straight elections there. He carried the district by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016. But his decision not to run for reelection has left a Republican, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, vying for the open seat with Olson’s 2018 opponent, Democratic former foreign service officer Sri Preston Kulkarni.
After Kulkarni lost to Olson by only about 5 percentage points in the midterms, the district became one of the most closely watched House battlegrounds in the country. The race has seen a flood of outside money — more than $12 million for and against Nehls and Kulkarni — putting it among the most expensive contests in the country.
Texas’ 22nd District is one of the most racially diverse congressional seats in the country. The presence of the energy sector, the health-care industry and NASA have sent the area’s education levels and median incomes soaring.
It’s exactly the type of place where Democrats have seen success in the Trump era. It’s also one of about a dozen potentially competitive U.S. House races in Texas where the party still has to overcome years of GOP success to win.
“Donald Trump’s presence in the White House has played a prominent role in converting what was once a safe Republican district as recently as 2016 into a toss up race in 2020,” Mark Jones, a political science fellow at the Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston, said in an email.
Nehls, 52, is a well known and generally liked local official who has twice won election in Fort Bend County, where most of the district’s voters live. Even so, political experts in the area said anti-Trump sentiment could drive more people toward the 42-year-old Kulkarni in what is expected to be a tight race.
Democrats aim to keep or even expand their House majority this year in an election where Republicans will struggle to keep control of both the Senate and White House. Success in the House races could go hand in hand with support for Democrats statewide, as the party reaches for a so far elusive goal of flipping the gargantuan state blue.
An average of recent Texas polls shows President Donald Trump leading Democrat Joe Biden by about 3 percentage points in a close 2020 presidential race. However, GOP U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has an average 8 percentage point edge in this year’s reelection bid — underscoring his favorability relative to Trump’s in the conservative-leaning state.
A supporter holds a campaign sign for former Vice President Joe Biden outside of the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center polling station in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.
Sharon Steinmann | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Trump’s policies have contributed to making the 22nd District more competitive. Still, the president only amplified demographic forces at work over the last decade.
“CD 22’s population portends what Texas will look like in the coming decades with the nation following decades later,” Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, said in an email.
About 60% of the district’s population was White last year, while roughly 27% identified as Hispanic or Latino, according to Census data. More than 14% of the district’s residents were Black.
Asian Americans have most driven the 22nd District’s diversity. They made up about 18% of the area’s population in 2019, up from 11% in 2009.
“With these demographic factors in place, the Democratic Party will continue to gain ground in CD 22 and the rest of Texas unless the Republican Party’s positions begin to address the interests of non-white voters,” Cross said.
Asian Americans are generally considered more likely to support Democrats than Republicans now, but that was not always the case. Jones said fiscal conservatism among the bloc, and anti-communist sentiment among Vietnamese Americans in particular, have helped Republicans in Texas.
But Trump has appeared to damage the GOP’s prospects with Asian American voters. The president’s efforts to crack down on immigration appeal to many Republicans in the district, but may not help with other voters in an area where more than a quarter of the population was born outside of the U.S., according to Cross.
Jones and Cross both said Trump’s rhetoric around Covid-19, including repeatedly calling it the “Chinese virus,” could inflame disapproval of the president. Efforts to limit H1-B visas for high-skilled employees, which workers from India disproportionately claim, “have not gone over well” among the district’s Asian American voters, Jones said.
Kulkarni, the son of an Indian immigrant himself, aims to win in no small part by boosting turnout among Asian Americans in the district. In February, he told CNBC that his campaign has reached out to voters in 15 different languages.
Meanwhile, the district’s median income jumped above $100,000 in 2019 from just under $70,000 a decade earlier. More than 43% of residents older than 25 had bachelor’s or advanced degrees last year, up from about 33% in 2009.
Statewide polls in Texas this year have repeatedly found both Trump and Cornyn fare worse among voters with college degrees than those without them.
Despite the demographic changes in the district, Nehls has a couple major advantages over Kulkarni. The district has supported the GOP in the last six U.S. House elections and still leans red overall.
In addition, his name recognition as a local elected official gives him an edge over Kulkarni, who has had to work harder to introduce himself to voters. That could help Nehls’ campaign as it faces a huge fundraising deficit: Nehls has raised $1.5 million during the 2020 cycle, less than a third of the nearly $4.9 million taken in by Kulkarni’s campaign.
The district includes most of Fort Bend County, one of the more populous in the state. Nehls has won two previous countywide elections.
It also holds a sliver of Harris County, the state’s most populous county where Houston sits, and part of Brazoria County.
Jones expects Nehls to carry the Brazoria portion of the district and Kulkarni to win the Harris piece. Therefore, he believes the winner of the Fort Bend area will prevail in the election.
Olson won the Fort Bend portion of the 22nd District by more than 4 percentage points in 2018. Democrat Beto O’Rourke defeated Republican Sen. Ted Cruz by about 12 percentage points in the county as he narrowly lost statewide.
Early voting rates have exploded in Fort Bend during the coronavirus pandemic. By Monday, more than 54% of the county’s registered voters had cast ballots with four days of early voting remaining, according to the Texas Tribune. Total early turnout was about 53% in the county in 2016.
It is unclear now whether the high turnout portends increased voting rates overall, or is a result of people who would normally cast ballots on Election Day doing so ahead of time.
The Nehls and Kulkarni campaigns did not respond to CNBC’s requests for comment.
Kulkarni has for the second straight election run with health care as his leading issue. He most recently targeted Trump after the president, during an interview on the CBS program “60 Minutes,” repeatedly would not detail what he would do to replace the Affordable Care Act if the Supreme Court strikes it down.
“Today, the president revealed what many of us have known for a long time now: there is no plan to replace coverage for pre-existing conditions if the Affordable Care Act is repealed,” the Democrat said in a statement Friday. Kulkarni backs a public health-care option, which Democrats will likely pursue if they control both chambers of Congress and the White House next year.
Nehls has said he will work to keep the ACA’s protections for people with preexisting conditions. Republicans have made the issue a point of emphasis this year after Democrats hammered the GOP over Obamacare repeal attempts on the way to flipping the House in 2018.
Access to health-care coverage has become a bigger issue during the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak has hit the Houston area particularly hard. Harris County’s nearly 160,000 cases are fourth most in the U.S., while only eight counties have seen more than the 2,783 deaths in Harris, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Cross said Covid-19 has also received more attention in the 22nd District than in many other parts of the country because the health-care industry is a major employer. She added that the economic downturn caused by the outbreak compounded issues already created by lower oil prices before the pandemic.
Biden threw in one more potential wild card in the race when he said during the last presidential debate that he would transition away from oil. He later tried to clarify that he wants to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies.
Both Kulkarni and Nehls have tried to balance the often competing interests of protecting a major industry in their area and slowing climate change that has left Houston vulnerable to extreme weather. The region saw catastrophic flood damage from Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Biden’s oil comment could have created difficulties for Kulkarni. Still, experts say the top of the Republican ticket poses a formidable challenge for Republican candidates in the 22nd District and other areas of the state Democrats hope to turn blue this year.
“If Nehls loses, it will be largely due to the burden imposed on his candidacy by Donald Trump,” Jones said.
Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa.
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images
In a year when Democrats have high hopes of expanding their House majority, the task starts with defending the ground they gained in flipping the chamber in 2018.
A rematch in swing-state Iowa will offer clues about whether forces that drove the party’s success two years ago will hold up on Nov. 3.
Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne, 55, aims to win a second term in Iowa’s 3rd District in the southwestern portion of the state. She faces Republican David Young, the former two-term congressman whom she narrowly beat in 2018.
In the district and in many others around the country, highly educated suburban voters — and White women in particular — showed signs of moving away from President Donald Trump and the GOP and toward Democrats who pledged to forge an independent path in Washington. With Trump at the top of the ticket again, 2020 will start to test whether the midterm results point to a longer-term trend.
“Much of the story of 2018 (and 2020) is a story of suburbanites, particularly white suburban women with a college education who cite community security, health care and education as important policy concerns,” Rachel Paine Caufield, a professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines, wrote in an email to CNBC. Des Moines, the Iowa capital, sits in the northeast corner of the 3rd District.
She added that suburban voters are generally more likely to disapprove of the president’s immigration policies and handling of the coronavirus pandemic, along with Trump’s overall “tone and tenor.” Republicans such as Young have tried to regain seats they lost in the Trump era by pledging to recapture the strong pre-pandemic economy and bolster small businesses.
The geographically diverse 3rd District includes young city dwellers and rural farming communities to whom Axne and Young have tried to appeal, forcing them to walk an at times tricky political line. But for political observers looking in Iowa for signs of how the rest of the country could vote, the suburbs to the north and west of Des Moines may hold the most clues.
The electoral intrigue in Iowa this year goes well beyond the southwest corner of the state. Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer also aims to defend a northeast Iowa seat she flipped in 2018. The state’s other two House elections — contests to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack and succeed racist Republican pariah Rep. Steve King — also appear competitive based on recent polling.
Statewide, Iowa could play a major role in shaping the U.S. policy path for the next two years. Incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is locked in a tight race with Democrat Theresa Greenfield as the GOP tries to hold its 53-47 majority in the chamber.
While the 3rd District has drawn national interest, the money coming into the race suggests the contest may not be as competitive as some other House elections Republicans have targeted as they try to cut into Democrats’ 2018 gains. Axne has easily outraised and outspent Young, though she entered the final stretch of the campaign with about $810,000 in the bank, versus roughly $660,000 for her opponent. Outside groups have spent about $4.1 million in the race, significantly less than they have shelled out in 2020’s most expensive House races.
Iowa Congressman David Young votes in his home precinct on November 6, 2018 in Van Meter, Iowa.
Steve Pope | Getty Images
Iowa’s 3rd District underwent a demographic shift over the last decade similar to that of many of the U.S. House seats that flipped to Democratic control in 2018. The area’s median household income topped $67,000 in 2019, a spike from about $52,000 in 2009, according to U.S. Census data.
Last year, 24.6% of the district’s residents older than 25 had bachelor’s degrees, up from 20.6% a decade earlier. In the same time period, the share of people over 25 in the 3rd District with a master’s degree climbed to 7.6% from 5.8%.
Paine Caufield said that as suburbs near Des Moines “have grown and developed, they have attracted more highly educated residents with higher median incomes.” One example is Ankeny, a community north of the capital city that also sits close to Iowa State University in Ames.
At the same time, the area has not become much more racially diverse, as some suburban districts that shifted toward Democrats in 2018 did. About 88% of the district’s residents were White in 2019, down from about 90% in 2009.
Polls show that Axne fares better among more highly educated voters. In a Monmouth survey released last week, she held a 52% to 43% lead over Young among registered voters. The disparity in voter preference by education was stark: She had a 20-percentage-point advantage among White voters with a college degree versus a 5-percentage-point lead among voters without one.
The poll also showed a bigger lead for Axne among women, 12 percentage points, than among men, 8 percentage points. The GOP’s recent struggles to win over suburban women have led Trump to make explicit pleas to the voting bloc, including a series of thinly veiled attempts to stoke White fears of people of color moving into their communities.
“Suburban women, will you please like me?” Trump asked at a rally in Pennsylvania earlier this month.
As Paine Caufield explained, Trump’s health-care goals and his demeanor have contributed to those voters turning away from him. It’s no coincidence that health policy is once again a major focus in the race between Axne and Young. The issue shaped the 3rd District race and many others Democrats won in 2018.
“Health care is a big issue, with the ACA front and center,” said Barbara Trish, a professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa. Locally, the vulnerability of rural hospitals to closure has also played a role, she added.
As in their first matchup, Axne has targeted Young for his 2017 vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. In a debate earlier this month, the congresswoman said her opponent “voted to take away coverage for people with preexisting conditions” — an attack Democrats have used across the country as they play to the popular Obamacare provision.
In a statement to CNBC, Young pointed to an amendment to the GOP-passed bill that he supported in an effort to stop states from letting protections for people with medical conditions lapse. He added, “I and all Iowans want to ensure those with pre-existing conditions are protected and not discriminated against.”
Young also argued a public health-care option — which Axne and many national Democrats support — would start a “slow drip to a complete government takeover of health care.” Democrats who back the policy — which is popular in public opinion polls — say it will give people not covered by private insurance more options, especially in states that chose not to expand Medicaid under the ACA.
Iowa, which did expand the federal-state insurance program for low-income Americans, had one of the lowest uninsured rates in the country last year, at 4.7%.
Meanwhile, Iowa continues to struggle to contain its Covid-19 outbreak as the country reaches record levels of infections. Iowa most recently reported 1,143 new daily cases, a 7.5% increase from a week before, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
The lack of new federal coronavirus relief money has played a role in Iowa congressional races. Though the state’s September unemployment rate of 4.7% was the fifth lowest in the nation, Iowa, like the rest of the country, has seen businesses struggling to survive and residents scrambling to cover bills during the pandemic.
In the latest candidate debate, Young said “Iowa needs help.” He also argued Democrats are “not serious about getting a deal” and have sought “outrageous numbers” for relief money. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has backed a $2.2 trillion proposal.
Axne, who has portrayed herself as an independent voice, has highlighted her efforts to push Democratic leaders to pass less-expensive, more-targeted aid that could also earn support from the GOP-held Senate. She opposed Democrats’ latest bill earlier this month. She said in a statement after her vote that “the only thing that will deliver the help my constituents need is a bill that will actually become law.”
In a statement to CNBC, Axne identified curbing the pandemic and its accompanying economic damage as her top priority.
“We cannot hope to return to any sense of normalcy until we defeat this virus — and that means a national strategy on testing, contact tracing, and protective steps like masks,” she said. “This pandemic has also been an important reminder that we need to continue to work on expanding access to affordable, quality health care, ensuring Iowa families and communities have more opportunities to succeed, and holding our government accountable to its citizens.”
In his statement to CNBC, Young also cited “rebuilding the economy in a safe manner” and developing therapeutics and vaccines for Covid-19 as two of his priorities. He pointed to “keeping taxes low, keeping regulations in check” and “opening new markets for our farmers and manufacturers” as other priorities.
Agriculture, of course, always plays a role in Iowa. During her time in Congress, Axne has opposed the Trump administration’s trade war with China, which damaged many Iowa farmers. She also pushed for swift ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — the Trump administration’s revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement — which helped to stabilize key markets for the state’s agriculture industry.
In a district where political moderation appears to play well with the electorate, both candidates have tied their opponent to national political leaders. Young’s ability in particular to push a message of economic recovery, while creating distance from the most unpopular pieces of Trump’s first term, could determine whether he wins back his seat in Washington.