In an election year with few Texas House districts considered toss-ups, a coastal district losing its longtime Democratic representative could give Republicans their best chance to flip a House seat.
And the district, which is still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Ike in 2008, is hearing plenty of debate from the candidates about the issue of insurance — and whether the state should have any involvement in the industry.
Wayne Faircloth, the Republican candidate in House District 23, advocates for eliminating the state's involvement in the industry altogether to better foster competition among private insurers. Susan Criss, the Democratic nominee, has disagreed, saying such a plan was tantamount to putting insurance companies "on the honor system."
The role of insurance companies — especially the state-created Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which insured property owners who could not get coverage elsewhere — is very important in the area, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, "because it's not just theoretical."
HD-23, which includes Chambers County and part of Galveston County, has been represented by state Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, for two decades. He announced last year that he would not seek re-election.
Observers on both sides of the partisan divide expect a close race between Criss, who spent the last 15 years as a district court judge, and Faircloth, a longtime insurance salesman. Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri described the race as “neck and neck.” Eiland predicted that neither candidate would break 51 percent, a threshold he met in his last two general elections with Republican challengers
Chambers County, the district’s northern section, is a Republican stronghold, while Democrats expect to get stronger support in the southern portions — like Galveston, Texas City and La Marque — some of which were hit harder by Hurricane Ike.
The outcome, Eiland said, will hinge on voter turnout in those southern cities.
The district is viewed as leaning more Republican, particularly after Hurricane Ike struck the area, displacing many Galveston residents. As of 2013, the city's population was still about 9,000 people short of where it had been. Jones noted that a Democratic candidate could be particularly hurt by the fact that low-income housing that was washed away in the storm was never replaced.
As a district judge, Criss presided over many insurance claim disputes that arose following Ike. She said she saw “a lot of litigation where there was no dispute and it was all about trying to wear people down so they took less than they deserved.”
While she has portrayed herself as a seasoned mediator of such conflicts, her campaign has attempted to frame Faircloth, who has spent the last 30 years working as an insurance agent, as emblematic of that sort of problem. State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who represents the region in the Texas Senate, is an insurance agent.
“We don’t need to give both houses to the insurance industry,” Criss said.
But Faircloth, who lost a challenge to Eiland in 2012, said he sees his business background as an asset in a state that values small government.
“They are trying to take something that’s a positive and turn it into a negative,” he said, adding that he hopes voters make their decisions “on the facts, not on scare tactics and fear-mongering.”
An open House seat in a toss-up district coupled with the focus on issues related to insurance disputes has attracted a significant amount of interest and money. At the conclusion of the last reporting period in early October, the Criss campaign boasted more than $270,000 on hand. Faircloth had more than $157,000.
A significant portion of Faircloth’s support comes from the Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which has given his campaign $10,000 in this election cycle. He has also received more than $55,000 from the State Farm Insurance Agents PAC. Criss, meanwhile, has received the support of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and more than $100,000 from trial lawyer and Democratic megadonor Amber Mostyn.
“As much as it’s a showdown between Republican and Democrats, it’s also a showdown between trial lawyers and TLR,” Munisteri said.
While the district may lean to the right, Jones noted, there is nothing to guarantee a flip for Republicans.
"This is a district, particularly the Galveston part, that has a history of splitting their ticket and voting for Democratic candidates who are capable of making a strong personal appeal to them," Jones said.
Disclosure: Rice University, State Farm and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. Amber Mostyn was a major donor to the Tribune in 2010. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.