Traditionally, we have rated contested elections on a 5-star scale, which one star indicating a very low-interest race with no chance of flipping and five stars indicating a high-interest race with a relatively high likelihood of flipping. Our Crib Sheets still reflect these ratings. In this analysis, we use the more frequently employed seven-point scale that divides seats into strong, likely, leaning and toss up categories.
Yesterday, we looked at state legislative races we rated as “lean Republican,” “toss up” or “lean Democrat.” Today, we look at the four federal seats we rate “lean Republican” and the two “toss ups.”
The state’s marquee race appears to be tightening. Because of the challenger’s superior fundraising results, the incumbent’s tonal shift toward attacking his challenger and the influx of independent expenditures attacking the challenger, we rate the race between U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) as “lean Republican.” In that opinion we are currently joined by national pundits Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato as well as news outlets CNN, Fox News and Politico. Most of these handicappers have moved the race to “lean” from “likely” since around Labor Day.
O’Rourke is on pace to be the first Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate to out-raise the Republican nominee since 1988, which was the last time former U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) was re-elected. In fact, he is on a fundraising pace that could end up eclipsing the amounts raised by every Democratic nominee since 1988 combined. Cruz meanwhile will end up raising the most ever raised by a Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from Texas.
We would not expect the Cruz campaign to go negative this far out from Election Day unless internal polling showed the race to be too tight for comfort. Add to that the seven-figure independent expenditure entry of Club for Growth Action, which spent more than $5M in support of Cruz’s initial Senate bid, and commitments from other national groups that would likely prefer to spend their resources in other states, and we find that national Republican leadership is concerned about this race.
Most credible recent polls have shown Cruz just at or under 50%, with leads ranging from the mid- to low single digits. In those polls, Cruz’s approval rating has consistently trailed Gov. Greg Abbott (R) among independent voters with higher unfavorable ratings among Republicans. For example, an NBC News/Marist Univ. poll from last month found Cruz’s favorability rating among independents to be 45/42 (+3) while Abbott’s was 58/29 (+29) among the same group. Among Republicans, Cruz’s favorability rating was 87/10 (+77) compared to Abbott’s 91/4 (+87). A June Univ. of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that a third of independents strongly disapproved of Cruz compared to 25% for Abbott.
Based off the 2014 gubernatorial election results, which Abbott won by 20 points, O’Rourke would need about 10% of voters statewide to vote from him and Abbott. Polls indicate, at least at this point, that the potential is there for Cruz to underperform Abbott. Ten points is a high hurdle, but we nonetheless believe this race no longer justifies a “likely” rating.
U.S. House of Representatives
Long recognized as the state’s true “toss up” race, CD23 re-elected U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio) despite his Democratic opponent having a nearly 16K-vote advantage in straight-party voting. Hurd received 60% of the full-ballot vote against former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine), who received 52% and 51% of the full-ballot vote in his 2012 and 2014 campaigns for the seat. Fortunately for Hurd, Republican candidates had a slight straight-party advantage in 2014, enough for him to edge out Gallego.
Unfortunately for Hurd, her opponent, San Antonio former intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones, has posted strong fundraising numbers. Jones raised almost $750K since May 3, well ahead of Hurd’s quarterly total of $446K. He maintains a slight edge in total contributions for the election cycle, $2.1M to $1.8M, and he has a significant advantage in cash on hand, $2.0M to $1.2M. However, her cash-on-hand figure is the largest for any challenger for U.S. House from Texas.
That we consider CD7 to be a “toss up” should be no surprise. U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Houston) has been consistently out-raised by Democratic challenger Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. By the end of last year, Culberson had raised more than any single challenger individually, but the Democratic field had out-raised him, $2.7M to $944K, collectively. Heading into the primary, three of those challengers individually out-raised Culberson, who was facing token primary opposition, and one more raised almost as much as Culberson. For the first quarter of this year, Culberson was out-raised by each Democratic runoff opponent. Stunningly, the candidates’ July quarterly reports revealed Fletcher raised $878K since May 3 compared to Culberson’s $339K raised since April 1. As of June 30, Fletcher has out-raised Culberson $2.3M to $1.7M. Culberson still leads in cash on hand, $1.3M to $800K.
While only barely bluer than the state as a whole in 2016, CD7 has grown 15 points bluer since 2002, the biggest shift toward the Democrats for any congressional district in the state. Republicans’ straight-party voting advantage was cut more than in half between 2012 and 2016, and it was the smallest Republican advantage in a Republican-held district that year.
In 2014, every Republican incumbent facing a Democratic opponent fared better than the rest of the Republican ticket in their districts. The average over-performance was 1.9%. Culberson’s 0.2% was last among those incumbents. In 2016, Culberson’s head-to-head vote percentage against his Democratic opponent was exactly the average of the Republican ticket. Only two incumbents fared below Culberson: former U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold (-0.6%), U.S. Rep. Roger Williams (-0.5%).
We expect Dallas Co. to be the state’s premier battleground this fall, so naturally CD32 is going to be competitive. We rate CD32 as “lean Republican.” U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Dallas) faces Colin Allred, a Dallas civil rights attorney and former special assistant in the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama Administration. Sessions has out-raised Allred by nearly $1M over the election cycle, but Allred raised $881K since May 3, outpacing the $695K Sessions raised since April 1. Session has a 2-to-1 advantage in cash on hand, $1.9M to $942K, as of June 30. Allred’s cash on hand figure is the second largest for any Texas challenger, and he has more on hand than 18 Texas incumbents seeking re-election.
Since 2002, the precincts currently comprising CD32 have shifted 10 points bluer, going from 8 points redder than the state as a whole to 2 points bluer. Between 2012 and 2016, Democratic straight-party voters cut the Republicans’ advantage from 32K votes to fewer than 13K. After going for Mitt Romney, 57%-42%, in 2012, the district favored Hillary Clinton, 48%-47%.
CD32 overlaps a number of competitive races elsewhere on the ballot, including all or large swaths of a number of state House seats and a Senate seat we rated as “lean” or “toss up.”
Only twice since the voters of CD31 elected him in 2002 has U.S. Rep. John Carter (R-Round Rock) been held to less than 60% of the vote: 2006 and 2016. He has never faced an opponent as well-funded or compelling in his nine U.S. House campaigns. The candidacy of Round Rock nonprofit executive and former military pilot M.J. Hegar, nationally known for her superior “Doors” advertisement, causes us to rate this race as “lean Republican.”
Buoyed by that ad, Hegar raised $1.1M between May 3 and June 30, more than Carter has raised for the entire election cycle, for which she has out-raised the incumbent, $1.6M to $1.0M. She had an $867K to $538K advantage in cash on hand as of June 30.
CD31 remains redder than the state as a whole, but it is trending toward blue. Statewide Democratic candidates received less than 40% here, head-to-head, against Republican opponents in 2016, and Donald Trump carried the district by 12.5 points. However, Democrats are making inroads into a longtime Republican stronghold. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of straight-party Democratic votes increased 39%, outpacing the 19% growth in straight-party Republican votes. Clinton received more than 24K more votes in the district than Obama in 2012.
Women and younger voters could be the key here, and Hegar appeals to both.
Finally, we rate CD22 as “lean Republican” because the Democratic challenger, Houston former foreign service officer Sri Preston Kulkarni, has the potential to tap into a growing Asian-American population in a rapidly diversifying district. Virtually every metric we find important favors Olson, so this race is rated “lean” based on an intangible, something we normally wouldn’t do.
U.S. Rep. Pete Olson (R-Sugar Land) has not been seriously tested since he ousted former U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, 52%-43%, in 2008 (Lampson received 52% of the vote two years earlier when the resignation of former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) left no Republican on the ballot.). Two of Olson’s re-election campaigns were won against Kesha Rogers, a Lyndon LaRouche acolyte whose main campaign plank was impeaching President Obama.
In 2008, CD22 was about 5 points redder than the state as a whole. In 2016, it was just 0.6% redder. Almost all of the gap between those two numbers occurred in the last election cycle. Between 2012 and 2016, Democrats cut the Republican straight-party advantage roughly in half.
Olson has out-raised Kulkarni, $1.1M to $396K for the election cycle, but the incumbent had just a $164K edge in cash on hand as of June 30 and Kulkarni raised $171K since his runoff victory.
The district includes 75% of Fort Bend Co., one of the most diverse in the nation. When the district was drawn, more than one out of every six voting-age residents of CD22 was racially classified as “other,” the highest of any congressional district, and it has increased by roughly a third since then. Kulkarni’s campaign volunteers speak 13 languages, and all are used in its voter registration, block-walking and phone-banking efforts.
Unless these efforts result in greatly increased turnout, and Democratic voting, among Asian-American populations, the district would remain in Republican hands. This district is likely considerably closer to “likely Republican” than “toss up” at this point, but a strong fundraising performance by Kulkarni could move the needle just a bit closer to “toss up.”
We rate seven Republican-held districts as “likely Republican”:
- CD2 open, where Dan Crenshaw seeks to hold the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Humble)
- CD6 open, where Tarrant Co. Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright seeks to hold the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Ennis)
- CD10, held by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Austin)
- CD14, held by U.S. Rep. Randy Weber (R-Pearland)
- CD21 open, where Chip Roy seeks to hold the seats being vacated by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio)
- CD24, held by U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Carrollton); and
- CD36, held by U.S. Rep. Brian Babin (R-Woodville).
All other seats are either rated “strong Republican” or “strong Democrat.”
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