On this windy Tuesday afternoon in a conservative stronghold in Texas' 2nd Congressional District, state Rep. Kevin Roberts and real estate firm CEO Rick Walker each worked the Kingwood Community Center parking lot hard while still allowing his rival to also speak to voters uninterrupted.
"At the end of the day, we want to elect the most qualified person that's going to represent us, because whoever wins is going to represent us," said Roberts, a Houston Republican.
But the two men also had a common feeling about their race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Ted Poe of Humble, whether it was overt or implied: intense frustration at another of their competitors, Republican donor and technology consultant Kathaleen Wall, who has dominated the field by spending nearly $6 million of her own money.
Walker went so far to suggest that if Wall was unable to draw the majority of the vote needed to avoid a runoff, the rest of the field would coalesce behind whoever is the opposing Republican candidate.
"We all want to win, but we understand we've got to live with each other in the long run," said Walker. "And with a nine-person race, there's going to be a runoff, and so the runoff is probably going to be against the one person trying to buy the race."
"And so we've got to keep the personalities out of it," he added. "So we may take digs on each other once in awhile, but in the long run we know we're going to have to be working together."
Wall's team fired back at the insinuations.
"Kathaleen Wall has a long history of volunteering and supporting conservative Republicans in Texas," campaign spokesman Matt Langston emailed to the Tribune in response. "It's why she has the backing of so many Republicans, from local precinct chairs to Gov. [Greg] Abbott and Sen. [Ted] Cruz."
All over TV
Right now, Wall may be one of the the most famous people in Houston.
Anyone who watches broadcast television knows her name and is well aware she is running for Congress. There are three major congressional races in the Houston metropolitan area this year and most of those candidates have found ad rates in that market too expensive for even small television buys – let alone the massive ad campaign Wall has unleashed.
The spending has allowed her to become known to voters without sitting down for interviews with the local media, including the Tribune. That's a further point of criticism from her rivals but one that Wall's campaign argues is unwarranted.
"She and her team are taking their case directly to the voters, knocking tens of thousands of doors and hosting neighborhood meet and greets," Langston said in an email. "We're not trying to win this race via the press, we're trying to win it on the ground, and it's why we've put together such a great grassroots team."
Should she win her party's nomination and the seat, Wall could be part of the first class of Texas freshmen women elected to a full term in Congress since 1996.
She could also end this cycle as the top-spending U.S. House candidate and one of the biggest self-funders in a U.S. House race in Texas history.
She also brings to the race a slew of noteworthy endorsements. Along with Abbott and Cruz, she also has the backing of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and nearby U.S. Rep. Randy Weber of Friendswood.
Meanwhile, Roberts, the second best well-funded candidate in the race, has raised nearly $700,000, which includes about $320,000 from his own pocket.
Like Wall, Walker, who is the CEO of commercial real estate firm GreenEfficient, is self-funding most of his campaign – but his loan of $375,000 pales in comparison to Wall’s $5.9 million investment.
There are, to be sure, a host of other candidates running for this seat beyond those three. Health care executive David Balat, retired Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw and veteran Jonny Havens make up the second tier of candidates when it comes to fundraising, pulling somewhere in the ballpark of $150,000 in each of their campaigns.
Three others – investment banker Justin Lurie, doctor and lawyer Jon Spiers and lawyer Malcolm Edwin Whittaker – are also running for the Republican nomination.
Besides Wall's self-funding, the top issues in this district are immigration and the post-Hurricane Harvey recovery effort. From that voting station parking lot, Walker pointed to an HEB across the way that flooded in late August due to the hurricane.
A sleeper race in November?
All the while, some national Republicans and Democrats have begun cautiously wondering whether this race is one to watch in November.
Poe easily held the seat for years and Republican Donald Trump carried the district by about nine points in 2016. That should be a healthy enough margin to protect it from Democratic control.
Even so, spikes in early voting turnout among Democrats in urban areas like Harris County have spurred questions as to whether this could shape up to be a sleeper race.
Democrats have five candidates running, including Todd Litton, who has raised over $400,000 and is running a polished campaign. That is not the largest sum in the county but it is a substantial amount, particularly given the partisan history of the district.
Whoever wins will replace Poe, a popular and quirky personality on the House floor first elected in 2004.
“I’m not supporting anybody,” he said in an interview earlier this month.
When asked if he had advice to anyone who might succeed him, he said, “You’ve got to know the district.”
“They must remember that they represent the people of Texas,” he added. “They don’t represent the party, They don’t represent any other entity but the people of Texas.”
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