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WASHINGTON — The contests for Texas’ 38 presidential electoral delegates and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s seat may be consuming national interest, but it's a personality-driven, political prize fight in Central Texas that has most intrigued Texas insiders and activists for most of the very strange 2020 election cycle.
That brawl is between two Austin-based political heavyweights, Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Roy and Democratic former state Sen. Wendy Davis.
One does not need to live in the 21st Congressional District to have an all-consuming interest in this race. Roy, a conservative firebrand, and Davis, a liberal icon, have almost nothing in common, but they do share two traits: Each candidate has a passionate following, and each is a highly polarized political villain to their opposition partisans.
“This is a unique race for a few reasons,” said David Wasserman, the U.S. House race analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “First, you've got two very polarizing nominees and a challenger who may have started out better-known than the incumbent. Second, you've got two fast-growing major metropolitan areas that are rapidly moving towards Democrats and potentially historic turnout.”
And while the candidates and their super PAC allies are litigating every issue on the fore in American politics — including health care, policing, Austin homelessness and taxes — the overriding point of contention between Roy and Davis is how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.
Davis has spent most of the pandemic stationed inside her Austin home.
“I have never spent so much time on the phones fundraising,” she said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “I fundraise every single day.”
Davis would only let up in order to participate in virtual campaign events. Only in recent weeks did she venture out for more face-to-face campaigning.
Roy, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has crisscrossed the district in a retail campaign blitz. He has attended high school Friday night football, meet-and-greets at restaurants, knocked on doors and, more recently, he’s attended events with his political patrons like former Gov. Rick Perry.
On Twitter, Roy fiercely argues against many restrictions intended to mitigate the spread of the virus. The argument was also central to one of his television advertisements several weeks ago.
“Some say it’s a hoax. Others say shut it down. Two extremes, both wrong,” he said. “I’m Chip Roy, and here’s some Texas common sense: We can reopen safely. Smart precautions to preserve life while actually living it.”
Davis has conceded feeling cooped up indoors. At the same time, she used that time to build a massive financial advantage over Roy.
Earlier this month, she reported raising $8.8 million this election cycle, compared with Roy’s $4.6 million.
She’s used that money to blast him on television over his COVID-19 response. In one ad, Davis is featured in a hospital while wearing a face mask and features an emergency room doctor named Ryan Allen.
“Chip Roy is an elected leader, but he’s all over town not wearing a mask in crowded indoor places, dismisses reports about the danger to children and Chip Roy continues to advise an extreme plan to infect two-thirds of the population to stop the virus,” he said. “That’s not just against modern science, it’s against human life.”
A changing Texas stage
Donors say Davis is relentless in her campaign, sometimes calling every other day asking for more money. But beyond that, Davis was never your average congressional candidate.
In her time as a state senator, she represented a Fort Worth-based district that was fiercely competitive. After a 2013 filibuster of anti-abortion legislation in the Texas Senate, Davis became a national political star with an abnormally large network and following. But a year later, her political star in Texas plummeted when she lost both the 2014 gubernatorial race and (and the votes in CD-21) to now-Gov. Greg Abbott by roughly 20 points.
She spent the next few years starting a nonprofit and was on the road for much of the 2016 election cycle campaigning for Hillary Clinton.
The Democratic nominee for CD-21 in 2018, Joseph Kopser, came within 2.6 points of defeating Roy. Frustrated with his inability to fund a robust television advertising campaign, Kopser searched for a Democratic candidate who could clear the primary field, raise the money to sustain the San Antonio and Austin media markets, and bring to the race ready-made name identification.
He settled on Davis.
“I can't imagine a better fit,” he told the Tribune.
And so this race offers Davis a shot at political redemption.
She and other Democrats say 2014 was a long time ago, and memories of the filibuster and the gubernatorial campaign have faded among many voters and donors. Instead, she is introducing herself to voters as a grandmother.
“For a lot of people who have given to our race, I don’t think even to this day — I don’t think they know that, or even if I told them that I’m not sure they would remember or are even aware that it happened,” she said of the filibuster.
The race in the district, which is home to many new residents, is expected to go down to the wire. The Austin and San Antonio suburbs have exploded since the district lines were drawn nine years ago.
That rendering intended to protect the seat’s 41-year Republican domination. The current lines were deftly gerrymandered, snaking through downtown Austin, stretching along the western side of Interstate-35, cutting into northern San Antonio and extending out west deep into the Hill Country.
Wasserman, the U.S. House race expert, anticipates “a very close race.”
“But given the rate at which Travis, Hays and Bexar are moving towards Democrats, I'd be somewhat surprised if Roy hangs on,” he said.
Marking his own path
Jenifer Sarver ran against Roy in the 18-person Republican primary field in 2018, and says she is skeptical of that train of thought.
“Everything seems so uncertain, but if I had to bet on it, I would say that Chip is going to win,” she said. “That district is still conservative.”
“He has managed to brand himself as a bit of an independent, even though being a strong supporter of Trump,” she added. “That is appealing to people.”
But in the CD-21 counties that do not touch Interstate 35, Democratic numbers fall off a cliff.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz ran up margins that often far exceeded 50 points in that part of the district. And enthusiasm for Trump is potent in these rural stretches.
In Comal County, which I-35 bisects, Trump supporters engage in a weekly ritual called “the Trump Train.” In New Braunfels every Thursday night, hundreds of Trump supporters gather, wave Trump flags and caravan through town.
As for Roy, he brings his own strengths to the race.
A protégé of some of the state's most prominent Republicans, he made a boisterous impression during his first term.
Roy's Democratic colleagues anticipated the former chief of staff to Cruz to be a pugnacious force. But unlike his former boss, Roy has cut an affable persona in the halls of the Capitol, a persona recognized by both Republicans and Democrats.
And he teamed up with a Democrat to pass a popular adjustment to a small business loan program created to mitigate the economic fallout of the pandemic.
But he remains a former Cruz staffer at heart. Legislatively, he frustrated even some fellow Republicans when he held up Hurricane Harvey aid. And two sources told the Tribune last year that Roy yelled at House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff in a closed-door hearing as tensions escalated ahead of the House impeachment inquiry of Trump.
Originally from Virginia, Roy is a lively tea party-type who professes an undying love for Texas. And Davis reemerged on the Texas political scene as the face of the Austin's Women's March in 2017, pink hat and all.
While Wasserman and Kopser say Davis may have an edge, state and national Republicans who are closely following this race say they have reason to believe momentum is with Roy.
Davis, of all people, professes to be agnostic.
“It is a tough tough district there’s no question about it,” she said. “My gut is, we’re not going to have any inkling of what’s going to happen in this race until it happens.”
Disclosure: Joseph Kopser and Jenifer Sarver have been financial supporters 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.