For a party frequently hammered for a lack of member diversity, the GOP has high hopes for West Houston.
It is there, along the Interstate 10 corridor, that the national party has elevated two candidates who could make progress toward countering its image. Veteran Wesley Hunt and former Bellaire Mayor Cindy Siegel are pitted against each other as the top-two fundraising Republicans amid a crowded field vying to take on U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who is widely viewed as the most vulnerable Democratic House member in the state.
The area, which is both suburban and urban and home to some of the wealthiest political donors in the country, is the closest thing Texas will have to a bellwether congressional district in 2020. Across the board, Republicans point to the seat as their best shot at a Texas offensive pick up next year, and the race could do much to unwind the damage of a disastrous 2018 for Harris County Republicans.
And who Houston Republicans choose to nominate here could help make up for the loss of incumbents who were female or people of color in the last several cycles. Otherwise an all-white male U.S. House Republican delegation from Texas is plausible scenario after 2020, thanks to retirements and current primary challenges.
"The 7th is a good example of the challenge Republicans have across the country," said Nathan Gonzales, a national political analyst at Inside Elections. "Some of their best challengers are in some of the toughest districts."
Texas' 7th Congressional District was held by Republican John Culberson for nearly two decades — and for most of those years it wasn't seriously contested. Democrats targeted it in 2018 after Hillary Clinton narrowly won it two years earlier.
Fletcher was a neophyte candidate in 2018 who abruptly found herself in a nationalized ideological dogfight of a Democratic primary. She worked the Houston speaking circuit, stayed on message, earned national establishment support and eventually, handily won the runoff.
She rode the 2018 Democratic wave that fall into office, ousting Culberson. Most political observers anticipated a photo-finish in the race, but Fletcher’s margin of victory — 5 percentage points — surpassed expectations. Republican leaders are eager to select a strong candidate for 2020 who can prove the loss was a one-time fluke.
“We’ve got a good chance because we’ve got great candidates,” said Genevieve Carter, the spokeswoman for the Harris County Republican Party. “As a party, we’re only as good as our candidates We’re fortunate in that sense."
Hunt, an African American, grew up in Houston. After graduating from West Point, he served in the Iraq War. He’s had a pair of standout fundraising quarters since he announced his candidacy last spring. He has benefited financially and in credibility from the support of top national Republicans, including most of House Republican leadership, members of the Texas GOP delegation — including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — and from top donors, like Richard Weekley and John Nau III.
The latest fundraising reports will not be available until the end of the month, but Hunt raised so much money by the fall — nearly $1 million — that he is the sole candidate running television ads in the district seven weeks out from the primary, in what a Democratic source tracking media buys described as a small but steady ad campaign on cable.
"We have been very disciplined for the last nine months, and it is hard work," Hunt said of his progress. "We make sure that we are the candidate that outworks everyone."
Siegel, on the other hand, has comparatively struggled in fundraising. As of October, she raised about $330,000 and that sum included substantial self-funding. Her expected strength is her longtime network of local allies she has cultivated over the years while serving as mayor and in various other official and party roles. Her website boasts hundreds of local endorsements.
At least one local Republican operative cautioned against writing off Siegel. This person, who declined to speak on the record because of local sensitivities of picking sides, pointed out that Culberson pulled off an upset in his 2000 primary when he defeated a well-financed favored candidate of the chamber of commerce set.
"I have, of all the candidates, the most experience, the breadth and depth of experience and ties to the district," she said. "I'm the only candidate who's been an elected official."
Siegel and Hunt are not the only two Republicans in the race.
Maria Espinoza is nationally known through her work in the Remembrance Project, a nonprofit in Houston that advocates for victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. The organization was closely tied to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
She challenged Culberson in 2016, garnering 18% of the vote. This time around, she has the support of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Republican donor Foster Friess.
Laique Rehman, an oil and gas commodities trader, energy consultant Kyle Preston and Jim Noteware, a venture capitalist, round out the rest of the GOP field.
If no candidate secures a majority of the primary vote, the top two candidates will advance to a May runoff. With a field this large, it will be nearly impossible for any candidate to put the race to bed on March 3.
As for race and gender, neither Hunt nor Siegel wanted to be identified with "identity politics."
"The Republican Party has got to ... promote, support, encourage strong, Republican, conservative women to run for office nationally, as well as the state, if we are going to remain a majority party," Siegel said. "And that's not identity politics. That's fact."
She further argued she will be able to bring back independent and Republican women who turned on Culberson in 2018, specifically in Bellaire.
"To beat Lizzie Fletcher, and that's why my people asked me to run, it's going to take a conservative, Republican woman," she said. "That given, I've never believed and never said, 'Vote for me because I'm a woman.'"
Hunt expressed reluctance to bring race into the campaign.
"The good thing about being a Republican is we tend not to play identity politics, right?" he said. "That's really what the other party does and it's a very divisive issue, in my opinion."
He said the feedback from the voters is they will not factor those issues when they go to the polls.
"I understand diversity is needed in our party, but what I've also discovered is people just want a really good candidate, regardless of how you look, regardless of your gender and people don't vote for somebody because of the way they look, or they don't vote for somebody just because they're a woman," he said. "They respond to someone's values, and I think that's a big part of the reason why I've been successful."
Both Hunt and Siegel earned last summer the “Young Gun” designation from the House Republican campaign arm, a signal of preferred candidates to national GOP donors. And both candidates avoided attacking each other in interviews.
Still, there is tension.
Siegel seized in recent days on comments Hunt made in a public forum conceding that the last time he voted in a presidential primary was in 2008, when he cast his ballot on the Democratic side. He explained both in the forum and to The Texas Tribune that the move was part of "Operation Chaos," a Rush Limbaugh-led campaign for Republicans to upend the Democratic presidential nomination fight that year.
In recent days, the Hunt camp returned fire, framing Siegel as “a career politician” in a Facebook ad.
And Siegel is clearly frustrated that national forces lined up behind Hunt, including the man who would most likely be her leader if she makes it to Congress: U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
"I don't like it. Quite frankly, I think it's a slap in the face of every grassroots activist," Siegel said. "For decades, I have gone to Republican women's events, and I have heard Republican elected officials who are men say they got there because Republican women are the boots on the ground, and I have the most experience with business, Republican credentials and just being a local leader."
"Where does a California congressman think that he can put his finger on the scale and tell CD-7 how they should vote?" she said, recounting her daughter's reaction to her explaining McCarthy's involvement in the race.
Either way, both candidates at this point in the primary are far more eager to criticize Fletcher than fellow Republicans. Both went after Fletcher's December vote to impeach Trump and are telegraphing that they will try make oil and gas and Fletcher's vote for Nancy Pelosi as House speaker central fronts in the general election campaign against her.
"She's got a voting record now. ... She hasn't been independent, she voted for impeachment," Siegel said.
"People are tired of Lizzie Fletcher," said Hunt, a sentiment with which Siegel concurred. They also indicated they will try to get to the right of her on energy issues, a potent point given the oil and gas industry is Houston's economic driver.
But while Fletcher is vulnerable, she is far from doomed.
Since she’s taken office, some Houston Republicans — old school, Bush-acolyte types — concede she’s an on-the-ground presence and a force to be reckoned with for whoever the Republicans nominate.
That assessment is, in part, thanks to her fundraising. She is the top Democratic fundraiser in the Texas delegation and only lags behind Crenshaw among U.S. House members from Texas. And while the Republican primary is expected to drag on into a runoff in May, Fletcher can watch from the sidelines while banking her money for the coming general election television ad wars.
Because of those factors, non-partisan campaign handicappers at Inside Elections rate the 7th Congressional District as “Lean Democratic.”
“She is formidable, as evidenced by nobody on the Democratic side running against her,” said Jason Westin, a rival from her 2018 primary fight who has donated to her campaign this time around. “She’s done an excellent job … and I think she’s been checking boxes and basically doing what she said she was going to do, which is what got her elected over an incumbent the first time.”
And there’s an urgency in GOP circles that if they are to defeat Fletcher, it must be this cycle. Incumbents are traditionally at their weakest during their first term.
But also, the next cycle will take place after redistricting. Even if Republicans hold the map-drawing power in the state Legislature, it will be difficult to shore up the 7th District into their favor this time around. Any attempt to draw nearby Republican voters into the district could risk destabilizing the other Republican-held districts in the Houston metropolitan area.
In the here and now, members of both parties privately acknowledge that for all the fundraising, campaigning and strategizing, the 7th Congressional district is likely to be the Texas seat most susceptible to national winds.
After all, it is Trump who is most credited with pushing this district into the Democratic column. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried the district by 21 percentage points. But in 2016, Trump lost the district by one percentage point, giving Democrats the impetus to compete in West Houston.
How impeachment plays — and whether it is even is on voters' minds next fall — in Houston and nationally is one of the biggest unknowns of the 2020 cycle. Similarly, local Democrats anxiously await their presidential nominee, with some anxiety that an ad campaign tying their candidates to a would-be presidential standard-bearer who has endorsed the Green New Deal could do serious damage to Harris County Democrats, Fletcher included.
At the root of this race, though, is a bigger question about the political state of Texas.
This district, possibly more than any other in the state, has served as the heart of modern Texas Republicanism. Cruz is a constituent and past Congressional occupants include the late President George H.W. Bush and retired House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer. When Culberson won his first race in 2000, it was by a 50 percentage point margin.
The question about the district — and Texas — is, was 2018 a Beto O'Rourke-induced anomaly or an indicator of how quickly the ground is moving toward the Democratic Party?
"This election will give us another data point as to whether the suburbs are truly moving away from Republicans or if 2018 was an aberration," said Gonzales, the political analyst.