The Midweek Mop-Up: Deep in the Heart of Texas’ 21st District
The race between Chip Roy and Wendy Davis shows that a purple Texas does not mean a moderate Texas.
Texas is officially a battleground state. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are within one point of each other, according to polling averages. But that doesn’t mean Texans have moved to the middle or become more centrist. As we know, 45 and 55 have the same average as 5 and 95.
Welcome to Texas’ 21st Congressional District.
David and I interviewed Rep. Chip Roy on Advisory Opinions back in March. Since then, the race has heated up between two extremes: a deficit-hawking constitutional wacko bird tied in the polls against a bleeding-heart liberal social justice warrior deep in the heart of Texas. How can this be? I asked Nate Hochman from our team to look into this so-called purple district and see what’s happening.
Full disclosure: I worked with Rep. Chip Roy back in 2002 on the Cornyn campaign (he was in law school while I was only in college so I considered him one of the big kids!), and my husband worked with him in Sen. Ted Cruz’s office. We consider him a friend; my husband has donated money to his campaign.
First-term Republican Rep. Chip Roy, a Tea Party-style conservative who voted against the first-round coronavirus relief package, is in a dead heat against progressive Wendy Davis seven years after her 11-hour-long filibuster against abortion restrictions launched her onto the national stage.
The 21st, which covers the area from northern San Antonio to Austin, used to be regarded as a GOP stronghold. Republican Lamar Smith retired after representing the district for more than 30 years. In 2016, the district went for Donald Trump by 9.9 points. But by 2018, Roy won the open seat by less than 3 percent.
In an increasingly purple district, one would imagine that successful candidates would be politically moderate. But not so in TX-21. Roy has voted with Trump 93 percent of the time, but even that doesn’t tell the whole story. His votes against Trump tend to flank the president from the right, including Roy’s vote against the budget and the coronavirus relief package. On the other side of the ballot, Davis’ stated legislative priorities read like a progressive policy wish list, including raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, adding a public health care option, and passing a series of stricter gun control regulations, including one banning “assault-style weapons.”
Davis infamously lost her bid for governor to Republican Greg Abbott by more than 20 points back in 2014. But her bid to unseat Roy is looking to be significantly more competitive. The Cook Political Report moved the district from “Lean Republican” to “Toss-Up” in mid-July, leading to an influx of money to Davis’ insurgent campaign, as the tightening polls attracted the attention of national Democratic organizations eager to flip Roy’s seat. (“We’ve got a race, y’all!” Davis tweeted in response to Cook’s ratings shift. “The people of this district are done with Chip Roy’s failed leadership and they’re ready for change.”) As of July 20, Davis had raised $4.4 million—a full 75 percent more than Roy.
Roy’s campaign, for its part, remains unflustered. “I think competition is a good thing,” says Josh Perry, a senior adviser to Roy’s re-election bid. “It just means we're going to be on top of our game and get people to turn out as well. But it's good for democracy that these races are competitive.”
“We had always anticipated that this was going to be a close race and that there was going to be a lot of money here,” he adds.
The two have largely campaigned by attempting to highlight each other’s more immoderate tendencies. In campaign emails, Roy warned that Davis “would be one of the most extreme liberal members of Congress, right up there with AOC, Ilhan Omar, Pelosi and the rest of the socialist Democrats.” Davis fired back by calling Roy “an extreme voice who has spent his time in Washington looking out for corporate drugmakers and wealthy special interests.”
For now, the momentum seems to be with Davis—and the House Democrats. When Cook Political moved TX-21 from “Lean Republican” to “Toss-Up,” it came alongside a whopping 20 other congressional districts that had also moved in the Democrats’ direction in recent months. “I can’t recall the last time we moved so many races at once,” tweeted Cook’s Dave Wassermann. “Let alone in the same direction.”
But the Roy campaign is cautiously optimistic. When Davis “ran for governor in Texas in 2014, she lost the state by nearly 20 points against governor Greg Abbott,” Perry points out. “One of the things we've consistently found is that once we reintroduce her to Texans and remind them why they voted against her then, there's kind of like an ‘ah-ha!’ moment in people's heads. ... We just want to make sure that we introduce people to who she really is and what her positions are.”
A metaphor for our politics in 2020? We’ll see. But it’s definitely a bellwether race I’ll be watching closely for the next 80 days.
Photograph by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.