For Fort Bend County residents, it can feel as if Kathaleen Wall is everywhere. The Sugar Land Republican candidate, running to represent Texas’s Twenty-second Congressional District in the U.S. House, has spent $6.5 million, a Texas record, of her tech money on the race, according to the Houston Chronicle. Her campaign placards blanket street corners across Fort Bend County. Her ads—blaming China for spreading the coronavirus and calling her opponent in the runoff, Sheriff Troy Nehls, an enabler of sex trafficking—play day and night on local broadcast stations and cable news. But the candidate herself has almost entirely disappeared from view.
Unlike Nehls, who has raised about $476,000, made frequent public appearances, and held several events in recent weeks, Wall has nothing listed under the “events” tab on her website. Her social media is devoid of any reference to recent or upcoming appearances. And she has turned her Twitter profile private: beyond a bio describing herself as a “pro-life Texas conservative,” any other content requires approval to view. It’s a bizarre strategy for someone who is facing an uphill battle. In March’s GOP primary, despite spending nearly twelve times as much as her opponent, Wall finished with 19 percent of the vote to Nehls’s 41 percent. Even if she overcomes that gap, the general election against Sri Preston Kulkarni in November is expected to be highly competitive as Democrats try to flip the district for just the second time in four decades.
Wall’s Facebook page includes a series of choreographed photos of her in recent months, mostly alongside local business owners and first responders. Most recently, she posted a photo of herself wearing a Texas flag mask at a Fourth of July parade, giving the camera a thumbs-up. Many of her other posts are devoted to castigating Joe Biden for “neglecting the country,” being controlled by a “left-wing mob,” and, according to a June 23 post, “remain[ing] in hiding” during the campaign.
This is a strange line of attack for Wall to take. Critics, including her opponent, regularly accuse Wall of attempting to purchase a congressional seat without bothering to earn it. In her first bid for office in 2018, to represent the Second Congressional District, also near Houston, she spent $6 million of her own money in a losing effort. There are, of course, other potential explanations for her paucity of in-person campaigning. The coronavirus has limited many candidate’s public appearances. And perhaps Wall is falling prey to a mistake often made by self-funded candidates: thinking that TV appearances and street-corner signs can substitute for the sweaty, tiring work of listening to voters, asking for their support, and building an organization that will get them out to vote.
“Candidates have a tendency to want to be on TV when there’s a lot of money in the budget,” Ryan Brown, a Democratic strategist from Houston who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said. “Because there’s money in the bank account, they forget to do some of the less expensive things that win you campaigns, like knocking on people’s doors.”
Hoping to see Wall in action, interacting with voters or hosting an event, we reached out directly to her campaign. Asked about upcoming events, a staffer promised to get back to us, but never did. When we posed a similar question to a Fort Bend County GOP official, she too promised to touch base with Wall’s campaign before getting back to us.
“I haven’t really heard from Kathaleen,” the official admitted.
During her recent visits to popular polling locations in heavily Republican voting areas, Cynthia Ginyard, chairwoman of Fort Bend County’s Democratic Party, said she has twice run into Sheriff Nehls, wearing a handkerchief for a mask, taking photos with voters. But, Ginyard said, she has yet to run into Wall or any canvassers working on her behalf, which struck her as a bit strange. “It’s unusual because she’s got a sign on every sidewalk in this county,” Ginyard said. “The place is flooded.”
From her vantage point on the other side of the aisle, Ginyard said she was surprised by how relentlessly Wall has attacked Nehls on television. A few weeks after securing a runoff, Wall released a startling political ad that accused China of “poisoning” the United States with the coronavirus, which seemed to be a central point of her campaign along with championing the president’s border wall and fighting illegal immigration. But in recent weeks, much of Wall’s campaign has zeroed in on questions about Nehl’s commitment to combatting sex trafficking. In a one-minute ad that debuted late last month, Courtney Litvak, a sex-trafficking survivor, appears beside her parents as they admonish the lawman for allegedly not taking the issue seriously. The explosive ad, which has the tenor of a confrontational Maury Povich episode, drew a strong rebuke from Nehls, who labeled it “disgusting.”
“It’s despicable and shameful Kathaleen Wall would stoop to such a new low in a desperate attempt to buy our seat in Congress,” he wrote on Facebook. “To suggest I don’t care about victims of sex trafficking or the safety of our communities is absurd.”
The ad has aired repeatedly. While the candidate’s whereabouts might be unknown, Ginyard said one thing remains a certainty. “That woman is spending mucho bucks! I’ve never seen local commercials being run that often!”