Regardless of outcome, HD-134 primary to leave mark on Texas politics

The Republican primary for House District 134 has turned into a intra-party battle with implications that could reach far beyond the Houston-based district.

State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-University Place (left), and her Republican primary challenger, Susanna Dokupil.

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There is not much both sides can agree on in the Republican primary for House District 134. But at least one thing seems to unite them: Whatever the outcome Tuesday, the race is likely to leave a lasting mark on the Texas political landscape. 

Making an extraordinary effort to unseat state Rep. Sarah Davis — a fellow Republican — Gov. Greg Abbott has called it a "fight for the very future of both the Republican Party and the state of Texas." Supporters of the defiant Houston-area lawmaker, meanwhile, are similarly aware of the stakes in the final days before Tuesday's election, which pits Davis against Abbott-backed challenger Susanna Dokpuil.

"For me, this is perhaps the most important race in the state of Texas because it will answer that question of, 'Who is the Republican Party?'" Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. "Does the Republican Party have to toe the line of statewide elected officials, or is the Republican Party able to represent its constituents? And in this case, Sarah Davis has done that very well."

On the line Tuesday is not only the political career of an all-but-extinct breed in Texas — a moderate, pro-abortion rights Republican — but also Abbott’s ability to influence a down-ballot election as the most popular GOP statewide official. It’s being tested in two other House primaries where Abbott has endorsed challengers, though neither has captured Abbott’s attention the way the Davis-Dokupil contest has.

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Abbott's campaign has now spent close to a remarkable quarter-million dollars working to unseat Davis, most of it on TV ads blistering the incumbent as a phony Republican hostile to his agenda. He has also headlined a fundraiser for Dokupil and starred at a get-out-the-vote rally in the district.

Davis and her campaign see encouraging signs in the homestretch, convinced Abbott's heavy-handed tactics aimed at unseating her have backfired in her House District 134, which encompasses a number of affluent, well-educated neighborhoods in the Houston area.

"You can just look at the fundraising and really see that," said Davis, who outraised Dokupil in individual contributions during the most recent period by a margin of more than 3-to-1 — a haul that included a $50,000 donation from House Speaker Joe Straus. "I'm getting money as we speak."

Yet she said she was not taking the race for granted — and that the broader meaning of the race is not lost on her.

"I represent so many Republicans that are just like me and feel that I give them a voice and a home in the party, and without someone like me, they are starting to wonder: What does it even mean to be a Republican?" Davis said. "We have to be a big-tent party." 

Fiscal vs. social issues

From the start, Dokupil, a businesswoman who worked for Abbott when he was attorney general, has sought to center the race on fiscal issues, namely Abbott’s top priority for the next legislative session: property tax reform. It got jammed up in the House last year — as did a number of other Abbott-backed measures — and as a top Straus ally, Davis made an enticing target.

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"I am more socially conservative than [Davis] is, but I believe this race is primarily going to turn on the fiscal issues," Dokupil said in an interview shortly after she entered the race in November. "When people look at her real voting record, they’re going to question whether they’re getting what they thought they were getting."

Yet the temptation for some anti-Davis Republicans to turn the race into a referendum on her abortion views has not been insignificant. One of the TV ads that Abbott’s campaign has run against Davis brands her as ideologically aligned with Wendy Davis, the former Democratic state senator from Fort Worth famous for her 2013 filibuster against abortion restrictions. She lost the 2014 gubernatorial race to Abbott in a landslide.

"You said 'no' to Wendy Davis," the ad says. "Now it is time to say 'no' to Sarah Davis."

To be sure, Davis has also played offense in the race, questioning how Dokupil can represent a district with the world’s largest medical complex — the Texas Medical Center — while being supported by Texans for Vaccine Choice, which believes in letting parents opt out of vaccinating their children. Davis has also drawn attention to Dokupil’s involvement in the Seasteading Institute, which bills itself as a "nonprofit think-tank working to make floating societies a reality."

Both Texans for Vaccine Choice and the Seasteading Institute were among the subjects of a Davis TV ad highlighting Dokupil’s "dangerous allies" and "whacky ideas."

Despite the Davis campaign's best efforts, Dokupil has not directly addressed the backing of Texans for Vaccine Choice. The closest thing came in a letter that Dokupil wrote in January to the Houston Chronicle, saying she and her four children are fully vaccinated and that she supports “removing cost barriers for parents who parents who choose to vaccinate their children.”

In that letter, Dokupil also addressed Davis’ ridiculing of the Seasteading Institute, shifting attention to its work addressing things such as "problems of sea level rise."

"Is my opponent against helping people who are losing their land to environmental changes?" Dokupil asked.

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Looking to November

In a way, the story of the race will not be over Tuesday. Whoever wins the Republican nomination is expected to face general election headwinds in HD-134, which Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, carried by 15 percentage points. To that end, Davis’ backers contend that Republicans risk losing the seat if they nominate someone like Dokupil — an argument Abbott, for one, has dismissed, claiming HD-134 is already effectively held by a Democrat.

Allison Lami Sawyer, one of two Democrats running for the seat, made clear an interview that she entered the race to "kick Sarah Davis out of office," driven by Davis’ support for the "sanctuary cities" ban last year, among other issues. Yet Sawyer, the owner of an oil and gas safety company, acknowledged she sees an easier path to victory with Dokupil as the nominee.

"As far as Susanna vs. Sarah, I don’t think Susanna will win the primary, but if she does, I think Republicans are right — we probably will beat her, and we’ll beat her because Susanna is a terrible fit for the district," Sawyer said. "It’s as simple as that."

In the November interview, Dokupil pushed back on the notion she would be a weak general election candidate. "I think I support a lot of the values in this district," she said.

Anecdotally, some Democrats and independents in HD-134 are so alarmed by the Davis-Dokupil fight that they have decided to vote in the GOP primary for Davis to try to keep Dokupil from advancing. The trend has gotten the attention of at least one prominent Democratic candidate in the area who may need those Democrats' votes in a potential runoff in her own race. (In Texas, voters cannot cast a ballot in one party's primary and then later participate in the other party's runoff.)

"I have heard a lot of people are frustrated with what the Republicans are doing here in Texas," said Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who's running for Texas' 7th Congressional District. "In my Texas legislative district, people are very concerned about the candidate running against Sarah Davis ... so I have heard from several people that they’re voting in the Republican primary."

Settling debates

Tuesday will go a long way toward settling that debate — and several others. To Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, the race represents a three-in-one barometer of the conservative movement’s reach into moderate GOP districts, Abbott’s political clout and even Republicans repelled by President Donald Trump.

"It’s kind of all these things wrapped up into one," Rottinghaus said, "and the battle couldn’t be more textbook."

With the finish line days away, there has not been any hand-to-hand combat between the candidates — they haven't debated and aren't expected to before Tuesday — aside from some sniping on Twitter. Dokupil recently caught voters' attention with a mailer seeking to tie Davis to terrorist activity on the border, complete with a shape of Texas filled with Arabic-looking writing.

Yet for all the attacks on Davis, some Dokupil supporters see a candidate worth backing regardless of Davis' alleged violations of GOP orthodoxy.

"I would support her even if Sarah Davis weren’t a factor,” said Scott Bowen, a Harris County activist who supports Dokupil. “She is a very good legal mind, she is a creative conservative thinker and would bring things a run-of-the-mill representative wouldn’t."

"I kind of think it’s a shame that a lot of that gets lost in the Abbott-vs.-Davis fight," Bowen added, making clear that he still welcomes the governor’s involvement in the race.

Abbott, for his part, declined Wednesday to make any predictions about the race. Taking questions from reporters during an appearance in Sugar Land, Abbott flashed a smile and turned away when a journalist tried to fit in one last inquiry: Is Davis going to lose on Tuesday? 

"Good luck," he said. 

Abby Livingston contributed to this report

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