In 2011 — after Republican Paul Workman unseated state Rep. Valinda Bolton, D-Austin — lawmakers redrew House District 47 to include a larger swath of western Travis County.
The new district, which gained more rural areas and lost some of liberal South Austin, stretched from Onion Creek to Lago Vista to Leander. It became a conservative stronghold, and to this day, Workman is the county's only Republican state representative.
Seven years later, it’s a potential swing district again. Texas political experts point to rising frustration with President Donald Trump and the Republican Party that could rally the Democratic base and cause conservative voters to stay home on Election Day.
The effects of this trend would be more pronounced in districts Trump either lost or just barely won two years ago. And Trump carried HD-47 — where many residents are white and have a household income greater than $100,000 — with fewer than 200 votes.
Hoping to flip the seat for the first time since 2011, five Democrats are running in the March 6 primary: Elaina Fowler, the executive director of a union of retired government employees; Vikki Goodwin, a real estate broker; Sheri Soltes, the founder of a nonprofit that trains service dogs; Candace Aylor, a recovery room nurse; and Will Simpson, a technology field executive.
“We are seeing more money and more activity in this district than we have in a long, long time,” Austin political consultant Mark Littlefield said. “There is definitely greater energy from the Democrats than ever before.”
In the Republican primary, Workman is being hit from the right by retired registered nurse Patty Vredevelt and Jay Wiley, who owns a concierge medical practice for prenatal care. Wiley ran against Workman in 2016 and lost by roughly 20 percentage points.
Two Democratic frontrunners
Although Trump won House District 47 by a narrow margin in 2016, Workman still enjoyed a comfortable 12-point lead over his Democratic challenger, Ana Jordan.
“The challenge here for Democrats is you can't beat somebody with nobody,” said Harold Cook, an Austin Democratic political strategist. “At the end of the day, they will need to have nominated a candidate who is really articulate on messaging and has the funds with which to communicate with voters.”
None of the Democratic candidates have run for office before. But all of them said they’re fed up with the social ramifications of the state's "bathroom bill" discussion and the 2016 election. They also hope to improve public school financing, transportation and the district's environmental preservation.
The candidates' policy stances are similar, but Fowler and Goodwin have emerged at the forefront of the race, Littlefield said. Fowler has the most legislative experience of the group, and Goodwin has raised the most money.
Fowler previously served as chief of staff to state Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, and as a policy aide to former Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole. Fowler recently received the endorsement of the Austin Chronicle, which cited her record of working across party lines and helping write bills in 2015.
"Eight of my bills passed in the 84th legislative session and actually went on to become state law. No other candidate can claim that," Fowler said about her Democratic opponents. "And no other candidate can claim that they know what goes on day to day in the Legislature."
Goodwin, on the other hand, brought in roughly $43,000, whereas none of the others cleared $17,000, according to the latest finance reports. Goodwin is also loaning her campaign $55,000. She was endorsed by Central Austin Democrats and South Austin Democrats.
"I’ve supported a lot of Democrats over the years. I've block walked and fundraised for them," Goodwin said. "My business background differentiates me, but so does my extensive volunteer work in the community."
Soltes has been endorsed by Circle C Area Democrats, the largest Democratic organization in Travis County, and Aylor by Our Revolution Texas, a statewide progressive organization. Simpson, the only male Democratic candidate, said his campaign is not targeting larger groups for endorsements yet.
All five Democrats said they are avoiding negative campaigning against each other.
Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist who lives in the district, said none of them are close to becoming a “top-tier candidate” that could peel away enough independent and moderate Republican voters upset with Trump while energizing the district’s liberal base in the fall.
“I'm not a betting man, but if I was, I would not bet against Paul Workman in this,” said Steinhauser, who did digital marketing work for Workman's 2016 campaign. “If I was a Democrat, I would probably be putting my money elsewhere and my time elsewhere.”
Workman’s bid for re-election
Workman said the only House seat viable for Republicans in Travis County needs to be held by a senior legislator who can counteract “Austin and its socialist policies.” He has criticized the city's Fair Chance Hiring ordinance and recent paid sick leave mandate.
“We are speaking to a lot of people about what the City of Austin is doing, and it’s my goal to keep trying to fix that next session,” Workman said. “If [my opponents] were to win in the fall, they would be freshman legislators and wouldn’t have any influence to do the things that need to be done."
His Republican challengers have tried to paint him as not conservative enough, but Workman earned the endorsement of Gov. Greg Abbott. And Steinhauser said the incumbent’s record on issues like transportation and property taxes is viewed favorably by many Republican voters.
Political experts agreed the March primaries will determine whether the district can turn blue.
"There's a real opportunity here," Cook said. "It's heavy lift for a lot of Republican legislative candidates around the country running for re-election in marginal areas — even areas that were not drawn to be marginal, but are now because of the unpopularity of Trump.”
Disclosure: Paul Workman has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.