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Democrats make Texas central to 2018 midterms strategy

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced Monday morning that the party intends to target two longtime GOP incumbents next year: U.S. Reps. Pete Sessions of Dallas and John Culberson of Houston.

Scenes at the Harris County Republican Party headquarters election watch party  in Houston, Texas on Nov. 8, 2016

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

WASHINGTON – Nearly two years out, House Democrats are publicly staking their claim on the state of Texas for the 2018 midterms.

The House Democratic campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, announced Monday morning that the party intends to target two longtime GOP incumbents that, until recently, have long been considered locks for re-election: U.S. Reps. Pete Sessions of Dallas and John Culberson of Houston.

The two races are in addition to the committee's targeting of U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of San Antonio, who represents Texas' 23rd District, a perennial target that includes much of the state's border communities. 

National Democrats' expansion into Dallas and Houston, along with several other Republican districts the committee has added to its target list, marks a highly aggressive strategy, one that is clearly betting on a deteriorating political environment for Republicans over the next two years.

They will need it if they intend to make progress in winning the House back. The current House maps were crafted in the wake of the 2010 GOP wave. Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country drew congressional districts to benefit Republican officeholders. 

Sessions and Culberson represent traditional bastions of Republicanism: some of the wealthiest enclaves in the entire state. But, Democrats argue, the incumbents' business-friendly style of conservatism does not match with President Trump's tone. 

The National Republican Congressional Committee dismissed its Democratic counterpart's latest plans as a pipe dream.

“The DCCC’s wishful thinking in targeting Republicans like Pete Sessions and John Culberson shows Democrats are grasping at straws after a decimating 2016 election," said NRCC spokesman Jack Pandol. "Cycle after cycle, the DCCC makes big predictions and underperforms — this election is no different.”

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried all three districts in November, falling just short of an outright majority in each place, according to a DCCC analysis of election records. In contrast, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the same districts in 2012.

While many political observers say Clinton's performance was likely a one-time phenomenon in the Sessions and Culberson districts, it could serve as a warning sign to Republican incumbents as split-ticket voting is a diminishing habit.

Culberson's district saw the most dramatic shift: Romney carried the seat with 60 percent of the vote. Four years later, Trump drew 47 percent support, according to the DCCC.

If a serious race comes to pass, Sessions will undoubtedly have a formidable political operation.

He previously ran the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP campaign arm, along with his longtime aide and consultant, Guy Harrison, a Dallas native. The pair helmed the committee in 2010, a massively successful year for the GOP, and that committee experience will undoubtedly translate into staggering fundraising for the 11-term incumbent. 

The Sessions camp is bullish on his re-election chances. A spokesperson described the DCCC's plan to target his district as a waste of time and money given Sessions' level of support there.

Culberson faced two primary challengers in 2016, and the nine-term member had to spend some effort to bring his own campaign apparatus into the modern era. He serves on the House Appropriations Committee, which would likely lend itself to robust fundraising if he finds himself in a difficult spot. 

That Hurd was on the target list was no surprise. He narrowly defeated former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego in 2016 in the most evenly divided district in the state. In his first term, Hurd worked to forge deep ties across the sprawling district, and he is increasingly a noteworthy voice on national security matters. 

Even so, Democrats say Hurd could be susceptible to a Democratic wave, if that were to occur.  

Democrats on Capitol Hill say President Trump's performance in Texas against Clinton is why they are concentrating on a state they mostly ignored in the last several cycles, save for Hurd's district. Trump's 9-point win over Clinton in Texas was the narrowest for a Republican presidential candidate in 20 years.

Democrats further argue that Trump underperformed in Texas' urban areas, particularly in Dallas and Harris Counties. At least one Democratic operative close to leadership who was not authorized to speak on the record called the president a potential "albatross around their neck." 

Multiple interviews with House Democratic sources have yet to scare up any possible recruits in the two districts. 

"It's more of a, 'Where can we go and create opportunities?'" said Moses Mercado, a plugged-in Washington lobbyist with Texas roots. 

Still, if Democrats are serious about this effort, it will be costly. Dallas and Houston are expensive television advertising markets. Oftentimes, national party decisions on which candidates to financially support — and which not to — can be based on how much it costs to run advertising in a district. 

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report. 

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Politics John Culberson Pete Sessions Will Hurd