Voters will arrive at the Moody Park Community Center polling station in Houston, Texas, USA on Tuesday, March 3, 2020 to cast their ballots.
Sharon Steinmann | Bloomberg | Getty Images
To find the forces to fuel the Democrats' dream of a blue Texas in 2020, the Houston suburbs are off to a great start.
The party flipped a seat in the US House of Representatives on the outskirts of the country's fourth largest city in 2018. The Democrats have targeted a few other seats in the region in the November 3rd election, including the state's 22nd district, which extends to the US state south and southwest of downtown Houston.
Republican MP Pete Olson has won six straight elections there. He led the district by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016. But his decision not to run for re-election has left a Republican, Fort Bend County's Sheriff Troy Nehls, who was vying for the vacancy with Olson's 2018 opponent, Democratic former expatriate officer Sri Preston Kulkarni.
After Kulkarni lost only about 5 percentage points to Olson in the medium term, the district became one of the most closely watched battlefields in the country. The race has seen a flood of foreign money – more than $ 12 million for and against Nehls and Kulkarni – making it one of the most expensive competitions in the country.
The 22nd district of Texas is one of the most racially diverse seats in the country. The presence of the energy sector, healthcare, and NASA have all boosted education levels and median incomes in the region.
It's exactly the kind of place where Democrats thrived in the Trump era. It's also one of roughly a dozen potentially competitive U.S. home races in Texas that the party will have to traverse years of GOP success to win.
"Donald Trump's presence at the White House has played a prominent role in transforming a formerly safe Republican district in 2016 into a race in 2020," said Mark Jones, political scientist at Rice University's Baker Institute in Houston, said in an e- Mail.
Nehls, 52, is a well-known and popular local civil servant who has twice won elections in Fort Bend County, where most of the district's voters live. Even so, political experts in the region said anti-Trump sentiment could lead more people to the 42-year-old Kulkarni in what is expected to be a close race.
Democrats want to keep or even expand their house majority in elections this year, in which Republicans will struggle to maintain control of the Senate and the White House. Success in the House of Representatives races could come with support from Democrats across the state as the party seeks a previously elusive goal of turning the gigantic state blue.
An average of the most recent polls in Texas shows that President Donald Trump leads Democrat Joe Biden by about 3 percentage points in a tight 2020 presidential race. However, GOP US Senator John Cornyn has an average lead of 8 percentage points in this year's re-election offer – which underlines his favorable position compared to Trump's in a conservative state.
Why the Houston suburbs look bluer
A supporter holds an advertising sign for former Vice President Joe Biden outside the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center polling station in Houston, Texas, United States, on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.
Sharon Steinmann | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Trump's policies have helped make the 22nd district more competitive. Still, the president has only increased demographic forces over the past decade.
"The population of CD 22 shows what Texas will be like in the decades to come, with the nation after decades," 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 were white last year, while about 27% were identified as Hispanic or Latino according to the census data. More than 14% of the district's residents were black.
Asian Americans have been the most important contributors to the diversity of the 22nd District. They made up about 18% of the region's population in 2019, up from 11% in 2009.
"With these demographics, the Democratic Party will continue to gain ground in CD 22 and the rest of Texas unless the Republican Party positions begin to address the interests of non-white voters," Cross said.
It is widely believed that Asian Americans are more likely to support Democrats than Republicans, but that hasn't always been the case. Jones said fiscal conservatism in the bloc, and particularly anti-communist sentiment among Vietnamese Americans, helped the Republicans in Texas.
But Trump appears to be damaging the GOP's prospects among Asian American voters. The president's anti-immigration efforts appeal to many Republicans in the district but, according to Cross, could not help other voters in an area where more than a quarter of the population was born outside the United States.
Jones and Cross both said Trump's rhetoric about Covid-19, including the repeated term "Chinese virus", could fuel the president's disapproval. Efforts to limit H1-B visas for highly skilled workers, of which Indian workers disproportionately claim, have "not been well received" by the district's Asian American voters, Jones said.
Kulkarni, the son of an Indian immigrant, wants to win not least by increasing the turnout of Asian Americans in the district. In February, he told CNBC that his campaign had reached voters in 15 different languages.
Meanwhile, the district's median income rose from just under $ 70,000 a decade ago to over $ 100,000 in 2019. More than 43% of those over 25 had a bachelor's or advanced degree in the past year, up from 33% in 2009.
Polls in Texas this year have repeatedly found that both Trump and Cornyn perform worse among college-educated voters than non-college voters.
How Nehls and Kulkarni win
Despite the demographic change in the district, Nehls has some significant advantages over Kulkarni. The district has supported the GOP in the last six US House elections and is still red overall.
Additionally, his notoriety as a local elected official gives him an edge over Kulkarni, who had to work harder to introduce himself to the voters. This could help Nehls' campaign as it faces a huge fundraising deficit: Nehls raised $ 1.5 million in the 2020 cycle, less than a third of the nearly $ 4.9 million the Kulkarnis campaign made has taken.
The borough covers most of Fort Bend County, one of the most populous in the state. Nehls has won two previous national elections.
It also includes part of Harris County, the most populous county in the state in which Houston is located, 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 Fort Bend area winner will prevail in the elections.
Olson won the Fort Bend portion of District 22nd by more than 4 percentage points in 2018. Democrat Beto O & # 39; Rourke defeated Republican Senator Ted Cruz in the county by about 12 percentage points when he narrowly lost nationwide.
At Fort Bend, early voting rates have skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic. By Monday, more than 54% of the county's registered voters had cast ballots, according to the Texas Tribune, and there were four days left before the vote. The total early turnout in the county in 2016 was around 53%.
It is currently unclear whether the high turnout overall indicates higher voting rates or is due to people who would normally cast votes in advance on election day.
The Nehls and Kulkarni campaigns did not respond to CNBC's requests for comment.
For the second year running, Kulkarni has campaigned with healthcare as its main theme. Most recently, it targeted Trump after the president repeatedly failed to detail what he would do to replace the Affordable Care Act if the Supreme Court put it down during an interview on CBS's "60 Minutes" program.
"Today the President revealed what many of us have long known: 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 supports a public health option that Democrats are likely to pursue when they control both the Chambers of Congress and the White House next year.
Nehls has announced that he will work to maintain the ACA's protection for people with pre-existing conditions. Republicans made the issue a focus this year after Democrats pounded the GOP over Obamacare's repeal attempts en route to flipping the house in 2018.
Access to medical care has become a bigger problem during the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak has hit the Houston area particularly hard. Harris County's nearly 160,000 cases are the fourth most common in the US, while only eight counties have recorded more than 2,783 Harris deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
According to Cross, Covid-19 has also received more attention in the 22nd district than in many other parts of the country, as the healthcare industry is a major employer. She added that the economic downturn caused by the outbreak exacerbated problems caused by lower oil prices even before the pandemic.
Biden threw in another potential wild card in the race when he said during the last presidential debate that he was moving away from oil. He later tried to clarify that he wanted to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies.
Both Kulkarni and Nehls have attempted to balance the often competing interests of protecting a large industry in their area and slowing climate change that has left Houston vulnerable to extreme weather. The region suffered catastrophic flood damage from Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Biden's oil comment could have caused trouble for Kulkarni. However, experts say the top of the Republican ticket is a daunting challenge for Republican candidates in the 22nd District and other areas of State Democrats are hoping to turn blue this year.
"If Nehls loses, it will be largely due to the burden Donald Trump placed on his candidacy," Jones said.
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