RICHARDSON — There is no more valued advocate U.S. House Democrats send to support a congressional candidate than U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat, civil rights icon and close ally of Martin Luther King Jr.
And on Saturday in the middle of early voting, Lewis chose to rally behind attorney and former NFL player Colin Allred, who is in a dogfight against longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions for this North Dallas 32nd District.
That Lewis would come here underscored just how high the stakes are for the party to win this seat — and to take down one of the most powerful Texans in Congress.
“I heard of long before I met him, heard of his great work,” Lewis said of Allred. “And I wanted to come and there were people saying you should go to Texas, and I was ready to go.”
“Everywhere we go, we’ve been mobbed,” Allred said of campaigning with his hero.
Both parties' operatives say they have reason to be optimistic about their respective candidates' chances. The early vote totals all over Texas are breaking historical precedent, and the increasing sense in places like the 32nd District is that nobody really knows whether the voters are going to come down in favor of Sessions or Allred.
Beyond Lewis, both parties have sent the cavalry to the district.
On Sunday, former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and his twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, campaigned with Allred.
Nationally prominent Republicans spent recent months descending on Dallas to raise money and campaign for Sessions. That docket has included U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani.
"The other side is absolutely determined to win back the majority, and the road, they know, to their majority comes right through Pete’s district," Pence told Dallas supporters earlier this month. "And so while they talk about a blue wave, let’s make sure the red wave starts here."
Dallas has not seen a race this heated seen since Sessions took on now-Democratic former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost in a rare member-member fight in 2004. But when Hillary Clinton carried this district over Donald Trump in 2016 — a year no Democrat even tried to mount a challenge against Sessions — everything changed.
No rank-and-file member of Congress
Sessions is arguably the most ambitious Republican House member of the Texas delegation. He ran the House GOP campaign arm during one of its most successful cycles ever in 2010. After a second tour in that job in 2012, he took over the U.S. House Rules Committee, a perch that puts him at the center of all major pieces of legislation.
In the chess game that is control for the U.S. House, most incumbents are pawns — rank-and-file members who may seem to be of great stature back home but are merely one of hundreds milling around the House chamber at each vote.
But as a chairman, Pete Sessions is no mere pawn in the Capitol Hill hierarchy.
For Lewis, this is as much about Sessions’ record as his rank and the Democratic hopes to capture the 23 seats they need for control of the U.S. House.
“It’s one seat of 23, but it would be a significant victory, not just because for the people of this district, but for the people of America who say, in effect, 'We’re going forward. We’re not going to stand still. We’re not going backward,'” Lewis said.
“[Sessions] has not been that sympathetic to some of the concerns and needs of the people of this district, of the people of our country,” Lewis added.
While door-knocking in Richardson earlier this month, Sessions acknowledged that the Democrats are after him.
“It has become the No. 1 destination for outside groups,” he told reporters. “With outside groups, when you’re the No. 1 opportunity, you realize it’s a 15-front war."
“This is where, unfortunately, the liberals have come,” he added. “They’re selling socialism, but they’re selling attacks. It’s not pleasant for my family, it’s not pleasant for my friends.”
At least twice, he’s considered running for a high-ranking conference-wide leadership post, and it is widely speculated that he continues to entertain these ambitions.
To see such a powerful Texas member who represents ancestral Republican grounds — this is the home of George W. Bush, millionaire Texas Republican donors and preppy Southern Methodist University, after all — can be surreal at times.
Except the district has diversified over the years, and Highland Park is now blanketed with Beto O’Rourke signs.
And while Sessions is a savvy lawmaker, he has a penchant for stepping off-message, as he has several times during this election season. Democrats have dogged him repeatedly over comments he made at an event over the summer where he appeared to explain away a Highland Park man's murdering his wife because "the woman was unfair." And during a rowdy March town hall, Sessions was frequently booed and shouted down by more than 2,000 angry constituents,at one point telling them, "You don’t know how to listen."
"If Dallas can do it, then we can do it"
Allred is a neophyte candidate, and it showed early on.
Other talented Democrats came out of the woodwork to run for the Democratic nomination, and he ran a lackluster fundraising operation. Also in that nomination fight, Allred tweeted support for “Medicare for All,” setting off attacks that have persisted to the current television ad wars over whether he supports a federal government takeover of health care.
Allred and his team say that tweet was intended to show support for the public option, which is a government buy-in program for health care that would compete with the private market.
But Allred turned his campaign around, clinching the nomination and then outraising the incumbent — an alarm bell in any campaign, especially given Sessions' status as a sitting committee chairman — by $500,000.
“One of the rules that I had, as somebody who had to make the team every year in the NFL, was to worry about what I can control and to block out everything else,” Allred said. “And that’s exactly how I’ve run this campaign.”
Should Allred win, there are also historical stakes. In a city with a painful racial past, Allred would join U.S. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson and Marc Veasey in making the Dallas delegation majority African-American.
That point was not lost on Lewis.
“It would be a great leap forward,” Lewis said. "People would say, 'If Dallas can do it, then we can do it.'”
"Sell the fight"
State and national Republicans have been worried about Sessions’ re-election prospects since around mid-summer. But in recent weeks, several GOP operatives interviewed for this story expressed more confidence that the political environment had stabilized.
Early voting turnout has exploded in the 32nd District, which includes parts of Dallas and Collin counties — both of which saw early voters casting ballots at three times the rate of the previous midterm in 2014.
And there is also the question of how the higher-profile U.S. Senate race between U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke could influence the race.
But amid all of these atmospherics, the sitting congressman says he is confident he can pull this race off.
“Sell the fight, tell the truth, stand behind what you believe, and I’m very capable of doing this," Sessions said.
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