When Mike Siegel made a long-shot bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, two years ago, few were watching — until he surprised political observers and came within 5 points of flipping the longtime Republican seat. Now the seat is up for election again, and national Democrats are paying attention.
Siegel’s 2018 result means the 10th Congressional District, which stretches from metro Austin to the northwest outskirts of Houston, is finally considered in play after a 2003 redistricting left it deeply gerrymandered and solidly red. Many more eyes are now on the race, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s. But for Siegel, that has translated to tougher competition.
A former lawyer for the city of Austin, Siegel is vying for the Democratic nomination along with two newcomers: labor and employment lawyer Shannon Hutcheson and physician Pritesh Gandhi, both also from Austin.
A primary runoff is likely in TX-10, but with two weeks to go until Super Tuesday, it’s still uncertain who will make the cut. Siegel and his supporters put the district “on the map” last cycle after “the state and national party had left [it] for dead,” Siegel told The Intercept in June.
“People across this district remember me for showing up when for decades Democrats hadn’t really shown up, in some of these rural communities in particular,” Siegel told The Texas Tribune. “They appreciate that we brought this race so close without a lot of outside support.”
Siegel faced even more primary opponents in 2018 but won the nomination relatively easily. He garnered more than double the votes of each of his opponents in the first round of voting and went on to win the runoff by nearly 40 percentage points.
But Siegel holds views that might raise questions about whether he’s the right candidate to flip a traditionally red district. Because he is the most progressive candidate and the only one who supports “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, his bid could be seen as a riskier choice to challenge McCaul in the historically Republican district.
Hutcheson and Gandhi have taken more moderate positions, and each is getting some national support. Hutcheson has been endorsed by EMILY's List, the influential group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. Gandhi, meanwhile, has the backing of 314 Action, which backs scientists running for office.
Fundraising in the primary has been competitive, especially between Gandhi and Hutcheson. In the fourth quarter, Gandhi and Hutcheson raised $257,000 and $216,000, respectively, while Siegel has trailed behind with $96,000. This was the first quarter Gandhi out-raised his opponents.
“We are peaking both in terms of our fundraising, we’re peaking in terms of our field organizing, and we have built a campaign that has animated the hearts and minds of people all across this district, across this state and across this country,” Gandhi said.
Siegel said he puts less stock in the fundraising “horse race” and more in his own name recognition, strong presence on the ground and coalition of support, including a long list of endorsements from local and national unions, like the AFL-CIO, climate organizations and progressive groups.
“The idea that with money alone you can win a nomination … it’s kind of a cynical approach to politics,” Siegel said. “The idea that you can just bombard voters with last-minute ads and mail pieces and convince them to vote for you.”
Hutcheson has emphasized her working-class roots and her struggles with student loan debt. She is also running on her work representing Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas and advocating for abuse survivors.
Her ascent, she said, is exemplary of the American dream.
“I am doing this for my daughters and for this next generation,” said Hutcheson, whose daughters are 16 and 20. “I think that when women have a voice and a seat at the table, things are more fair, I think things are more reasonable, I think things are more rational, and we get stuff done. And I think that’s what’s sorely needed in D.C.”
But Hutcheson has run into controversy over her legal record and past political support. While she describes herself as a "lifelong Democrat" who has long supported the party financially and otherwise, she gave four times to Republican judicial candidates over the past 17 years and voted in the 2010 GOP primary
During a candidate forum last month in Austin, Hutcheson addressed criticism of the donations, which were given in 2003, 2011, 2013 and 2015.
“The only Republicans I have ever supported are a couple of judges who were longtime friends of mine,” Hutcheson said. “I have been a lawyer, as I said, in this community for 23 years. There was a long period of time on the Court of Appeals, and still to this day on the Supreme Court, where we didn’t have Democrats and we couldn’t get them elected. And so as lawyers, it was important to make sure that the Republicans that we did get elected were good people and were good judges.”
Two of the judges, Scott Field and Patrick Keel, had Democratic challengers when Hutcheson gave to their campaigns.
Gandhi has flagged these inconsistencies on his website. Siegel, when asked for comment, brought up his work suing Gov. Greg Abbott on behalf of Austin over a 2017 bill banning “sanctuary cities” in the state.
“I think that’s a clear contrast with how Ms. Hutcheson has spent her time as a lawyer,” Siegel said.
Siegel may have his own vulnerabilities in the primary, especially as he presents himself as a labor champion. He supports ending the “misclassification of workers as ‘independent contractors,’” but Siegel’s own top staffers have been working as contractors since he announced. The use of independent contractors remains a generally frowned-upon practice because it allows campaigns to avoid paying payroll taxes and providing certain benefits.
The campaign says members of the three-person management team were given the choice of working as consultants or employees, and all chose the former. Three field organizers were brought on in November, and under a collective bargaining agreement that went into effect Jan. 1, they are making $17 per hour with reimbursements for travel and health care.
"We believe every worker deserves a living wage, and believe our compensation structure has exemplified that commitment,” Siegel campaign manager Briana Burns said in a statement.
Gandhi's top campaign staffers have all been treated as employees from the beginning.
"It is critical that the values I fight for on the campaign trail are reflected not just in theory, but in practice with how I run this organization," he said when asked for comment.
Gandhi appeared at first to be the underdog, but after out-raising both in the last quarter, he’s emerged as a dark horse. Running for his first elected position, Gandhi cites his organizing and community work as qualifications for office.
“Am I a politician? Absolutely not,” Gandhi said. “Am I a fighter, and am I an advocate? My entire life … whether it’s on choice, or gun violence, or early childhood education, or climate change, I’ve been all over the country, and all over the state, and all over the district fighting for that for well over the last decade.”
A first-generation American and a physician who serves under- and uninsured patients, Gandhi’s platform emphasizes issues of immigration, health care and climate change. Unlike Siegel, though, he hasn’t come out in support of Medicare for All or the Green New Deal.
“I’m a problem solver. I am professionally trained to solve problems. I’m not interested in getting to Washington and getting into ideological battles,” Gandhi said. “I’m interested in going to Washington and taking an evidence-based approach to how we deliver on key problems.”
Both Hutcheson and Gandhi previously supported Siegel. But Gandhi said Siegel fell short and squandered the “best opportunity in a decade” to win the district as Beto O’Rourke, at the top of the ticket, carried it by less than a point.
“Mike [Siegel] demonstrated an inability to put together the kind of campaign that can win,” Gandhi said. “What we have demonstrated in half the time — Mike has been running for now almost two years — is that we can scale a campaign that can defeat Mike McCaul.”
With $269,000 raised in the last quarter, $984,000 cash on hand and 16 years representing the district, McCaul will be difficult to unseat for any Democrat who emerges as the nominee.
“And ultimately, that’s what this is about,” Gandhi said. “Who is best suited to defeat McCaul in November and deliver this seat for Texas families all across this district?”
Disclosure: Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas 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.