In Central Texas congressional runoffs, candidates with traditional advantages face scrappy underdogs
Two spirited runoffs are underway for the major-party nominations to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio. Joseph Kopser and Mary Wilson are vying for the Democratic nod, while the two Republicans squaring off are Matt McCall and Chip Roy.
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At a recent forum in Austin, there was a moment of unity between Matt McCall and Mary Wilson — candidates in the Republican and Democratic runoffs, respectively, for the 21st Congressional District. An audience member wanted to know: If you lose your party's nomination Tuesday, how will you support your runoff opponent in November?
"Since I live in the district," Wilson said, pausing briefly after those six words, "I will be voting for whoever the winner of this runoff is, and that's the primary means of support."
"I thought the first part of Mary's answer was funny," McCall said with glee when it was his turn, "because I can say the same thing: I can vote in this district."
The jabs at their opponents — each lives a short distance outside the heavily gerrymandered district — underscored how McCall and Wilson may be running for different nominations, but they find themselves positioned similarly within their runoffs. Both are facing opponents — Chip Roy and Joseph Kopser, respectively — who have much more money, higher-profile endorsements and an ample amount of conventional wisdom on their side. And yet there is undeniable uncertainty heading into Tuesday about how the nominating contests to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, will shake out.
Part of that could be attributed to the volatile outcomes of the March 6 primaries for the district, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio and deep into the Hill Country. On the Democratic side, Wilson came out of nowhere to finish first ahead of Kopser, who vastly outspent her. On the Republican side, Roy finished on top after a massive 18-way primary that amounted to a political fog of war at times, with few making bets about which two would came out of it with a runoff ticket.
Roy vs. McCall
The GOP runoff is now down to two deeply conservative candidates who have little ideological daylight between them, leaving them to zero in on other, less substantive contrasts. For McCall, that means hounding Roy as an outsider in the district who is leaning hard on his political connections to get him across the finish line. For Roy, the contrast is increasingly between his long resume working for top Republican officials in Austin and Washington, D.C. — and McCall's two unsuccessful runs against Smith, in 2014 and 2016.
“My opponent doesn’t seem to be able to answer the question of where he’s been in fighting for conservative principles and any indication that in his past he’s done that,” Roy said in a recent interview, alluding to an appearance McCall made on a radio show hosted by Mark Levin, a Roy supporter, where Levin grilled McCall on what he’s done for the conservative movement beyond lose to Smith twice.
Smith, who was neutral in the primary, got behind Roy shortly after he made the runoff — and has helped make the case his would-be successor has the track record to hit the ground running if elected.
"He has more experience than 90 percent of all members of Congress," Smith said of Roy while campaigning for him earlier this month in New Braunfels. "How many people have that kind of experience? And that's why when he gets to D.C., he's going to be effective from day one."
In addition to his former bosses — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Rick Perry among them — Roy is being massively assisted by the Club for Growth, the national conservative group whose super PAC arm has spent over $1 million in the race. In recent weeks, the group has gone nuclear on McCall, trying to drive a wedge between him and President Donald Trump and tie him to U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“Now they’re saying that I’m somehow magically the Nancy Pelosi guy, which is a bunch of hooey,” McCall said at the forum. “Nancy is going to sue for defamation, I understand, because I’m the constitutionalist — I’m the pro-Trump policy guy.”
Roy did not attend the forum, but that did not keep McCall from laying into his opponent, saying he has only gotten as far in the race as he has thanks to his political connections. “I like to say Chip Roy minus Ted Cruz equals 3 percent” of the vote, McCall said.
It’s not that McCall and his backers don’t like Cruz, who remains a star to Texas Republican primary voters. Terri DuBose, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee who backs McCall, said she is a "a huge Ted Cruz supporter, but I believe a candidate should stand on their own and not always be riding coattails."
Whether it's Cruz or any of his other former bosses in high places, Roy says he's proud to have their support, but he is running on his record, not theirs — and he certainly does not agree with them on every issue. "Ask Governor Perry or Ted Cruz, who I worked for, how often I used to fight with them," Roy said in an interview.
Kopser vs. Wilson
The Kopser-Wilson race, meanwhile, is coming down to two issues that have epitomized the contest throughout: progressive credentials and November viability. Kopser, a veteran-turned-businessman with a GOP history, has long emphasized the need for Democrats to pick a nominee who can appeal to disaffected Republicans, a point he stressed at the Austin forum while looking to ease suspicions that such a strategy would lead to ideological compromises.
"How fantastic is it gonna be that potentially, with your vote this Tuesday, [we could] send forward a Democrat who not only shares your progressive values and will fight for it but has raised more money than these Republicans?" said Kopser, who outraised all three other TX-21 candidates during the second most recent reporting period. "What a nice feeling to know that we're finally going into a fight — not just with better ideas, but with the resources to" win.
Wilson, a mathematician and minister, cuts a less vocal profile than did the two other candidates in the March 6 primary, Derrick Crowe and Elliott McFadden, who had persistently criticized Kopser as insufficiently liberal. But after they lost, she was quickly endorsed by one of them — Crowe — and inherited some of his staff and supporters.
On the campaign trail, Wilson embraces her role as something of a populist underdog while echoing some of the criticisms that dogged Kopser in the first round. At the forum, she scrutinized Kopser’s position on fracking, which he sees as a way to reduce the need for coal in the U.S. economy, pushing a more urgent approach to phasing out that reliance. And while talking campaign finance reform, perched next to Kopser, she noted she does not know any multimillionaires — “except for one sitting next to me.”
In the runoff, Wilson has expanded her supporter list to include people like Leticia Van de Putte, the former San Antonio state senator and 2014 nominee for lieutenant governor. In an interview, Van de Putte said she grew to admire Wilson as she advocated for public education at the Capitol and that her life experiences make her an “unexpected gem” in the race.
Plus, Van de Putte noted, Wilson happens to be running in what is shaping up to be the "year of wonder women."
"Do not take gender politics lightly, not this election cycle," Van de Putte said, noting she regularly encounters Democrats and Republicans alike who are champing at the bit to put more women in office under President Donald Trump. "They don't care who's on the ballot — they're gonna vote for the woman."
Kopser’s team is aware of the dynamic and set up a coalition of female supporters during the runoff called Women for Kopser. It is being led by former state Rep. Debra Danburg, who said in an interview she views the candidates as ideologically aligned and thus prioritizes their viability in the fall, regardless of gender.
“If you’ve got two people who are great on issues,” Danburg said, “why not pick the one who could win?”
Looking to November
Despite the spirited race for the Democratic nomination, it still appears to be an uphill battle to flip the district. Trump carried it by a healthy margin — 10 percentage points — and while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added TX-21 to its target list after Smith announced his retirement, national Democrats remain more focused on three other GOP-held districts in Texas that Clinton won.
Kopser has already unleashed a series of fundraising emails treating Roy as the likely GOP nominee for the seat, seizing on his embrace of Smith, Cruz and Trump. Roy has not entirely ignored him.
Smith, for his part, expressed no worry about the political fate of his district as he left the Roy event in New Braunfels.
"This district," he said, "is not going to elect a liberal Democrat."
Disclosure: Joseph Kopser 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.
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