The federal Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has set its sights on three Texas districts currently held by Republicans, including Harris Co.-based CD7, which has been represented by a Republican since 1967. Only the U.S. Senate seat occupied by John Cornyn has been held by Republicans for a longer period (1961-present).
In November, U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Houston) won re-election by 12 percentage points, his smallest margin of victory in his nine elections to Congress. His only other close race was in 2008, when the combination of a well-financed opponent and a national tide created by enthusiasm for Barack Obama held Culberson just below 56% of the vote.
Democrats can see some reasons for optimism in CD7 based on the 2016 results. First, Culberson received the second-lowest percentage of the vote (56%) by any Republican congressional incumbent in the state. Second, Democratic voters cut the Republicans’ advantage in straight-party voting in the district by more than half. This shift was almost entirely caused by a surge of more than 20K new Democratic straight-party voters. Third, Hillary Clinton narrowly carried the district by about 2,500 votes over Donald Trump just four years after then-President Obama lost it by nearly 50K votes.
Despite these results, Republican candidates still enjoyed a 17.5K-vote lead in straight-party voting among CD7 voters. Clinton received 63% of from voters not using the straight-party option (full-ballot voters), and that was just enough to overcome the straight-party vote deficit. Obama received just 48% of the full-ballot vote in 2012 while facing an even greater straight-party vote deficit.
However, this partisan turnaround only occurred at the very top of the ballot. Republicans down the ballot fared much better than Trump:
- Culberson defeated his Democratic rival by more than 31K votes, taking 58% of the full-ballot vote head-to-head over the Democrat.
- In the RRC race, Wayne Christian defeated his Democratic rival by nearly 34K votes, taking 63% of the full-ballot vote head-to-head over the Democrat.
- In a Supreme Court race, Justice Paul Green defeated his Democratic rival by nearly 27K votes, taking 56% of the vote head-to-head over a Latina Democrat.
- For the State Board of Education, incumbent Donna Bahorich defeated her Democratic rival by more than 30K votes, taking 63% of the vote head-to-head over an LBGT Democrat; and
- In the Harris Co. sheriff race, incumbent Ron Hickman carried the district over his Democratic rival by more than 25K votes, taking 54% of the full-ballot vote head-to-head over the Democrat. Hickman lost overall, just not in CD7.
Countywide, Democrats swept races against Republicans thanks to an increase of 70K straight-party Democratic votes coupled with a slight dip in the number of straight-party Republican votes. Despite these numbers, there were virtually no changes in the partisan balance of district-based seats occupying just a portion of the county.
National Democratic strategists are betting that Republican congressional incumbents will be dragged down by Trump to the point that their districts become competitive. They point to the national historical trend that the president’s party loses seats in the midterm election, and that trend was very evident in Texas in 2010 when a conservative state reacted to a more liberal president and a significant chunk of his supporters did not return to the polls.
Democratic turnout in midterm elections historically drops more than Republican turnout. Democrats must buck that trend to make CD7 truly competitive in 2018. This assumes a good, well-funded candidate steps forward.