U.S. House Democratic campaign arm to open Austin office, boosting focus on Texas in 2020

Texas Tribune News

Wall at the Travis County Democratic Party headquarters in Austin, Texas.
Wall at the Travis County Democratic Party headquarters in Austin, Texas.
 Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON – National Democrats are ratcheting up their Texas offensive yet again ahead of 2020.

The chairwoman of U.S. House Democratic campaign arm announced Tuesday morning that her committee will open a new satellite office in Austin. The move replicates the committee’s 2018 California playbook, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had a substantive, on-the-ground presence in the Golden State and flipped seven U.S. House seats there.

“When it comes to places where House Democrats can go on offense, it doesn’t get any bigger than Texas,” said U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., the chairwoman of the DCCC. “In 2018, Texas Democrats proved that they can win in competitive districts. That’s why we are continuing our investments in the Lone Star State by opening a new DCCC:Texas Headquarters.”

The DCCC previously announced a national offensive effort for the 2020 elections that would install staffers in the Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio suburbs. Monday’s announcement takes that initiative a step further, opening a central office in Austin with eight staffers including Texas Democratic operatives Roger Garza and Michael Beckendorf.

Last year, Democrats flipped two U.S. House seats in Texas – replacing Republicans John Culberson of Houston and Pete Sessions of Dallas with Colin Allred and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, respectively. The committee announced earlier this year that it intended to target six GOP incumbents in 2020: U.S. Reps. John Carter of Round Rock, Kenny Marchant of Coppell, Will Hurd of Helotes, Michael McCaul of Austin, Pete Olson of Sugar Land and Chip Roy of Austin. All of these incumbents won by fewer than five points.

Of those districts, the three occupied by Carter, McCaul and Roy cut into the Austin metropolitan area where the new DCCC office will be based.

This is an aggressive move. Even as Bustos and others in Washington crow about the Texas offensive, the DCCC is also tasked with defending more than 40 vulnerable incumbents, including two Texas freshmen – Allred and Fletcher. Republicans are recruiting opponents for both districts. Last week, veteran Wesley Hunt announced a challenge to Fletcher for her west Houston district.

And geographically, many of these districts are historically more conservative than the two districts Democrats flipped last year. Olson’s 22nd District was the home base of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and Marchant’s 24th District includes one of the most potent pockets of the Texas tea party: northeast Tarrant County.

Democratic sources shrug off that history.

Back in 2017, the DCCC’s decision to open an office in Orange County – the home of President Richard Nixon – was met with skepticism. Democrats swept the county, picking up four seats and won three others to the north in Los Angeles County and in the San Joaquin Valley.

As for Texas Republicans, there are mixed emotions about this kind of spending and rhetoric.

A number of Republican insiders working in the state look back at the 2018 midterms as a perfect storm with Democrats benefitting from a uniquely talented standard-bearer in former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke running against a polarizing incumbent in U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, and a statewide burst of organic enthusiasm that may already be subsiding.

But other Texas Republicans are anxious about the U.S. House map. Many of the concerned conversations are happening in private, but the Republican Party of Texas has been eager to ring the alarm and raise money off of these kinds of DCCC announcements.

“The Democrats have zeroed in on Texas for 2020. Story after story from national news outlets are posting about how Texas is likely not reliably ‘red’ in 2020,” state GOP Chairman James Dickey said in a Feb. 14 fundraising email. “The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has wasted no time and has already targeted SIX RACES IN TEXAS – more than any other state in the nation.”

“We need your help – today – to defend Texas,” he added.