A prominent narrative going into this year’s political primaries is that a record number of women are running for office, and that their resistance is inspired by the presidency of Donald Trump. A recent Time magazine cover story, for example, focused on “bringing new energy to a Democratic Party sorely in need of fresh faces.” And as the tea party demonstrated after the 2008 election, if a political movement can leverage its initial burst of enthusiasm into a core group of political activists, it can change the direction of American political culture.
All of this has many claiming that we are now witnessing a burst of Democratic activism that will transform Texas. But this is Republican red Texas, and narratives are never simple here.
The record number of women running in Texas this year includes Republicans as well as Democrats, and most are not actually first-time candidates. Also, many of the “Pink Wave” candidates—first-time female Democratic candidates—are stacked up in primaries against one another, so even before the general election, Democratic primary voters will have cancelled some of them out.
Among the Republican women, many are religious right conservatives who oppose abortion, hardly the ideal of a progressive tsunami. For instance, Denton Republican Veronica Birkenstock is challenging the re-election of incumbent Republican congressman Michael Burgess, a fourteen-year veteran who she says has been in Washington for too long. Birkenstock loves Trump and features a photo of herself with the president on her campaign website. She backed controversial Republican Roy Moore in his unsuccessful Alabama Senate race. Her campaign motto is “Good for Texas, Bad for the Swamp.” Clearly, Birkenstock is not a “payback” candidate running against Trump.
By my count, there are 121 Democratic women and 45 Republican women running for congressional, statewide, and legislative offices in Texas this year. That includes at least 34 women who currently hold elective office and are either seeking re-election or higher office. What follows is an analysis of some of the women running in Texas races this year (and, of course, some of the men they’re running against). Sorry, but this is not a voter’s guide.
To begin, we should note that several races in the 2018 election reflect a missed opportunity for Texas Democrats in 2016. At the time, there was a failure to either recruit or support challengers to many Republican incumbents. In Congressional District 7, for example, Republican incumbent John Culberson cruised to re-election victory over Democrat James Cargas in 2016. Even as Clinton carried Culberson’s district by 3,500 votes over Trump, Culberson drew 19,000 more votes than Clinton. In no small part, that was because Culbertson outspent Cargas by $1.2 million to $68,000. That race might have turned out differently if a woman had been the Democratic nominee or if the party had financially supported Cargas.
Now Culberson’s district is among the 91 across the country that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified as a target (although Culberson’s dominance in 2016 shows that won’t be easy), and the Democratic primary to choose a challenger for Culberson has become one of the Pink Wave battlegrounds.
There are seven Democrats in the primary contest, but most of the attention is focused on the two women, Laura Moser and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. Both are first-time candidates and were featured on the Time cover. Until recently, Moser was a nonpolitical freelance writer (her husband was a videographer for President Obama). Last year, she wrote an essay for Vogue describing her transformation from housewife to candidate. Fletcher is an attorney, and as a teenager during the 1992 Republican National Convention she served as a body barricade to keep Operation Rescue from disrupting Houston abortion clinics. She has the backing of Emily’s List, a Democratic female candidate incubator.
To say Moser and Fletcher are creating excitement among women voters in the district is an understatement. (I have friends in Houston lining up for one or the other.) To get the Democratic nomination, they will have to bypass five other candidates in the Democratic primary, including millennial Alex Triantaphyllis, age 33, who founded a mentoring non-profit for refugees in Houston. Fletcher and Triantaphyllis have the most endorsements so far. And even in the best Pink Wave scenario—a runoff between Moser and Fletcher—only one will be left standing to face Culberson in the fall general election.
Another opportunity blown by Democrats in 2016 was Congressional District 32, in Dallas, which was also carried by Clinton. Republican incumbent Pete Sessions was not challenged by a Democratic opponent. This year there are seven Democrats vying to challenge Sessions, but this primary also pits two factions of the Democratic Party against one another: women against minority men.
A leading contender for the nomination is former NFL football player Colin Allred, who worked in the federal housing agency under Julian Castro and has Castro’s support. Allred is probably the most viable African-American candidate on either party’s primary ballot who is not already an incumbent. Also in the crowded District 32 field is Lillian Salerno, who served in the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Obama. And Salerno has the backing of Emily’s List.
Congressional District 23, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso, is currently held by Republican Will Hurd of Helotes. Clinton carried this district and received more votes than Hurd in 2016 (Hurd defeated Democrat Pete Gallego). The Time magazine piece features Democratic candidate Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer, as the Pink Wave women’s candidate in this race.
Ortiz Jones is a solid candidate, but she is not the only formidable woman in the Democratic primary. Judy Canales of Eagle Pass served as an aide to former district congressman Abraham Kazen, received an appointment to the U.S. Department of Agriculture office of rural business from President Bill Clinton, and under President Obama’s appointment became the first woman and Latina to head the USDA Farm Service Agency.
Ortiz Jones received the endorsement of Emily’s List, while Canales has the backing of the Bexar County Tejano Democrats and Young Tejano Democrats. However, both women face a challenge in getting past former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hulings, a law school classmate of Julian and Juaquin Castro. Hulings also was an aide to U.S. Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat. Plus, feminist actress Heather Thomas and her husband Skip Brittenham recently hosted a fundraiser for Hulings at their Santa Monica, California home.
Ultimately, Pink Wave candidate Ortiz Jones may find it difficult to capture the nomination, even if Time already has anointed her the fresh face “who is challenging Republican Represesntative Will Hurd.”
Congressional District 31 covers Williamson and Bell Counties and has two women candidates running in the Democratic primary. Both women have impressive resumes. Christine Eady Mann is a physician. M.J. Hegar is a former U.S. Air Force helicopter pilot who was shot down in Aghanistan while on a rescue mission, earning her a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor. Hegar’s book about her experiences–Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front–is under development by TriStar Pictures with Angelina Jolie tentatively slated to play Hegar.
All other things being equal, either would have a real chance of winning in most districts. All things are not equal, though, in this heavily Republican district. Clinton only received 40 percent of the vote here in 2016, and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis nabbed a mere 36 percent in 2014. It would take a miracle for a Democrat to win here. Adding to the basic math, if moderate newcomer Republican Cynthia Flores survives a hard right onslaught in her primary race for the Texas House, Flores will give refuge to Republican women who might otherwise cross party lines to vote for either Mann or Hegar. The state House seat Flores is seeking represents about a quarter of the population of Carter’s congressional district.
Turning to the state Legislature, there’s state House District 45, where Erin Zwiener is the star of Time‘s Pink Wave story. In reality, for Zwiener to fulfill the Pink Wave narrative, she will first have to knock off a woman opponent in the primary who has been fighting the religious right in Texas politics for almost a decade.
Zwiener, 32, grew up in the Austin area, but she moved to Montana for college and then to Arizona for graduate school. When she became a three-time Jeopardy winner in 2012, she was living in Abiquiu, New Mexico. After almost fourteen years away, Zwiener moved to Driftwood with her husband, in 2016, and became politically motivated the following year.
Zwiener’s primary opponent is long-time Texas State University professor Rebecca Bell-Metereau, 68, who has run three unsuccessful races against State Board of Education member Ken Mercer (Mercer has fought for creationism to be taught in public schools). House District 45 is Republican leaning, but it is not impossible for a Democrat to win, especially if there is a blowback against Trump. Zwiener is working hard to win the Democratic nomination. And for the Democratic Party to make a comeback in Texas, it will require a new generation of political activists to put themselves on the line. There are no gimmies in politics, so Bell-Metereau will have to earn the nomination against her younger opponent.
But there are also three first-time women candidates running for the GOP nomination in the same district. They are attorney Amy Akers, oil company owner and Christian conservative Amber Pearce, and State Republican Executive Committee member Naomi Narvaiz. Akers has no campaign website. On her website, Pearce declares she was motivated to run because she is “frustrated with the quality of education, property taxes, and the lack of conservative women in Austin.” Narvaiz, meanwhile, has a well-documented history as a conservative activist. As a member of a San Marcos school district advisory committee last year, she created a controversy by tweeting, “All dreamers should be deported.” She also questioned why San Marcos High School had a club for “homosexual kids! Is this what we sent our kids to school for?” (Texas Values, a conservative lobby group, supported Narvaiz on the grounds that her religious freedom was under attack.)
Because of District 45’s Republican tilt and Narvaiz’s political network, at the moment she has to be considered the frontrunner to win this seat in the Texas House. However, this is exactly the kind of race where political transformation can begin in Texas. Republicans did not just suddenly explode into political power. Between the early 1960s and mid-1990s, they ran candidates in one hopeless race after another, until a few finally started winning. Then more started winning. If a Trump backlash occurs, it would make the race competitive. The district is largely rural with an urban population and a college campus (Texas State). House District 45 has the potential to become a bellwether for the future of Texas politics.
Another Republican primary race that challenges all conventional political wisdom is that of Texas Senate District 25. Incumbent Donna Campbell will have to try to fend off Shannon K. McClendon in this Central Texas district.
Campbell was named one of Texas Monthly‘s worst legislators in 2015. She has called the public school system a “monstrosity,” and last year supported the bathroom bill to limit gender access to public restrooms. By many standards, McClendon is a traditional Republican—an appointee of former Governor Rick Perry and a firearm and property rights advocate—but she also openly proclaims that she and her wife, Cathy Webking, have been together for 19 years and live on a ranchette with a German Shepherd named Stella. “While Donna Campbell wants the government to intrude on our bedrooms, our bathrooms and our boardrooms, I want to concentrate on our classrooms,” McClendon says in a campaign video. “No more so-called conservatives. Elect the real deal.”
McClendon not only is a first-time woman candidate running as a Republican, she also is among a record 49 openly gay, lesbian, and transgender people who are on the ballot this year. If you watch McClendon’s campaign video, you will see someone who gives meaning to the saying, “Texas Women Shoot Their Own Snakes.”
At best, I have only scratched the surface here, but perhaps the most telling thing about this year’s elections is that women will remain under-represented in our government. Out of 243 elected legislative, statewide, and congressional offices in Texas, just 47 are currently held by women. It remains an uphill climb for a woman to win in Texas, but it’s not impossible. As the late Governor Ann Richards was fond of saying almost three decades ago, “People ask all the time, will Texans vote for a woman? Well, my Mama didn’t call me Bubba!”