National pundit Charlie Cook has moved the seat held by U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Houston) to toss-up from leans Republican, citing his relatively weaker financial condition and the swing from Romney +21 to Clinton +1 in four years. CD7 was one of seven districts nationally, and the only one in Texas, to shift toward Democrats, further bolstering the party’s chances of retaking the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.
We still consider the district to lean Republican. Statewide Republican candidates not named Donald Trump carried the district by an average of 14 points, and Culberson defeated Houston attorney James Cargas by 12 points. Culberson received 56% of the vote, which was higher than all but one of the statewide Republican candidates.
However, the district is within reach of the eventual Democratic nominee if the 2018 election resembles this year’s Virginia Assembly elections, in which several dozen seats shifted toward Democratic candidates by 10 or more points.
Culberson has faced Cargas each of the last three cycles. Culberson defeated Cargas, 61%-36% in 2012, 63%-35% in 2014 and 56%-44% last year. Cargas raised $77K, $74K and $68K, respectively, for those campaigns. The field of potential 2018 challengers includes several candidates who have already raised considerably more.
Culberson, who is serving his ninth term, was the only U.S. House member to be out-raised by an opponent during the third quarter of 2017.* Houston attorneys Lizzie Pannill Fletcher ($184K) and Alex Triantaphyllis ($219K) raised more money than Culberson ($172K) during the quarter, and Houston journalist Laura Moser came in just behind him with $166K in contributions. Culberson has less on hand ($389K) than Fletcher ($403K) and Triantaphyllis ($536K).
Of course, those Democrats must still go through each other to get to Culberson, and a primary runoff is highly likely. So far, Culberson has no primary opponent, so he has the opportunity to raise money for what is likely to be an expensive general election.
A wave election built upon 2016 turnout and vote percentages would likely flip the seat. However, turnout patterns in the state suggest the 2014 election results are a better starting point. Culberson won by 28 points, so a 10-point swing toward the Democrats would still leave their nominee a few points short of victory.
In addition, Virginia’s wave was accompanied by competitive statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, all won by Democrats by at least 5 points. Texas Democrats running for Congress are highly unlikely to have any such statewide tailwind. Gov. Greg Abbott carried CD7 by 22 points in 2014, which was a significant step backward for the Democratic nominee from 2010, when former Gov. Rick Perry carried its current precincts by 15 points.
Straight-party voting still favors Republicans in the district, but Democrats chipped into that advantage in 2016. Measured head-to-head, Republicans received 64% of the straight-party vote in 2012 and 68% in 2014. Democrats cut that advantage to 55% in 2016, decreasing the raw-vote margin to 17.5K from nearly 42K. In 2014, Republican candidates had a 32K-vote advantage in straight-party voting. Both parties lost voters from 2012 to 2014, but Democrats lost a higher proportion (47%) than Republicans (36%), a pattern similar to other districts across the state.
A recent poll conducted for Patriot Majority, a national liberal dark money group, showed Culberson trailing a generic Democratic opponent by 10 points. It was conducted by Public Policy Polling, but no other information about the poll was provided. We consider it to be, at best, an internal poll that may help fundraising efforts, but it’s another indicator of the incumbent’s potential vulnerability.
For the reasons outlined, we are not ready to consider the seat a “toss up.” We will explore this race further in the coming months.
* U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) was out-raised by U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso), $1.7M to $1.3M, during the third quarter of the year.
©2017 Texas Election Source LLC