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Democrats Are Turning Dallas Into A Midterm Battleground For The Texas House

Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune
Supporters of Democrat Julie Johnson look at the Texas House District 115 map before going out to canvas the area on August 18, 2018.

CARROLLTON — Julie Johnson squinted at a map on her iPhone before walking up to the next house on her list.

“Are you registered to vote?” Johnson, a Democratic state House candidate, asked a Hispanic woman standing in her driveway one morning in August. The woman wasn’t, she responded, but her mother was.

“Well, we wanna make sure she votes in November,” Johnson said. “I’m running against Matt Rinaldi — he’s the guy who called ICE on all the protesters.”

Johnson is among several Democratic candidates in Dallas hoping national and statewide talk of a blue wave will trickle down to several local state House races. A mix of Democratic enthusiasm this cycle, along with a litany of well-funded candidates, has created a hotbed of competitive state House races around Texas’ third largest city. While some of these districts have drawn contentious matchups before, the fact that most handily went to Hillary Clinton in 2016 has only heightened the stakes.

State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, a hardline conservative from Irving, has had perhaps the biggest target on his back since last year, when protesters descended on the Texas Capitol over the state’s new “sanctuary cities” law. Rinaldi said he called federal immigration authorities on the protesters, which angered some Hispanic House members. An argument on the House floor escalated to accusations of death threats and shoving, some of which was captured on a video that drew national attention.

Rinaldi says that the incident hasn’t gotten much play in his district.

“I think it’s come up once or twice,” he said over a breakfast sandwich at a McDonald’s in Farmers Branch almost two weeks after Johnson had mentioned the ICE incident to a constituent. Rinaldi, who was getting ready to deliver yard signs to supporters that morning, maintained he wasn’t the aggressor in that incident.

“People know me — they know I’m not like that,” he said, “and, to be honest, the comments I have gotten were positive and supportive.”

Rinaldi, a lawyer, first won the seat in House District 115 in 2014 after he ousted Bennett Ratliff, a Coppell Republican, in their party’s primary by just 92 votes. The district is nestled northwest of Dallas; it stretches from Coppell to Addison and cuts through Farmers Branch down to Irving. The latest census estimates show that roughly 28 percent of the district’s nearly 187,000 residents are Hispanic — a community with traditionally low voter turnout that both Rinaldi and Johnson are trying to tap into.

A number of Hispanic Republicans in the district are motivated by the issue of immigration, Rinaldi said as he delivered yard signs to supporters after his breakfast sandwich. One of those supporters was Domingo, a man originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, who said he has lived in the district for years. One of Domingo’s main concerns, he told Rinaldi as the two stood outside his home, was the number of undocumented immigrants using public government services. Afterward, as Rinaldi drove to the next house on his list, he said similar conversations with constituents “happen enough to where it’s notable.”

Credit Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune
State Rep. Matt Rinaldi speaks with a supporter while delivering yard signs in the Farmers Branch area of Texas House District 115 on Aug. 29, 2018.

Johnson, who’s also a lawyer, is trying to cast herself as the candidate that will “be an advocate for all of our community.” She also regularly mentions the fact she’s a mother of two adopted immigrant sons.

“I understand what it means to have your children come into this country and not speak English,” she said that morning in August at her campaign headquarters, where an “Immigrants Make America Great” poster was plastered to one of the walls. Volunteers and a number of local Latino elected officials had joined her there before kicking off another round of canvassing the district.

Johnson refers to Rinaldi — a member of the Texas House Freedom Caucus, a hardline conservative group — as “one of the most hateful members” of the Texas Legislature – and someone who directly harms the district’s Latino community.

“The district is almost 30 percent Latino — and they don’t vote,” Johnson said. “We need to change that.”

Credit Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune
Julie Johnson knocked on doors and spoke to residents in a neighborhood near Don Showman Park on Aug. 18, 2018 to ask for support for her race for Texas House District 115.

'Trump is not running'

While immigration is an unavoidable issue in Rinaldi’s race, there are other things on the minds of voters around North Texas. Candidates in several competitive state House races in the region said they are hearing the most about rising property taxes, health care coverage and education.

Along with Rinaldi, other state House Republicans in Dallas facing notable challenges from Democrats include Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie, Angie Chen Button of Richardson and Linda Koop and Morgan Meyer, both of Dallas.

But former Dallas County GOP Chair Wade Emmert said Democrats may be overestimating the impact bad headlines out of Washington will have on these races lower on the ballot.

“People understand that Trump is not running to be a House representative,” he said. “They want to trust the person that’s running. And I don’t know if voters are going to vote for a Democrat to carry the mantle in previously Republican districts.”

A number of these state House districts widely considered in play were also part of a cluster of closely watched races in 2016 — including seats held by Anderson and Koop, who both managed to hold on.

One district from that group went from red to blue in 2016 — and it’s now in a different category this cycle: It could flip back in the Republicans’ favor. State Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, unseated Republican Kenneth Sheets in a close election in 2016. This year, her re-election bid is complicated by her arrest in 2017 for driving while intoxicated. Neave is facing a challenge from Republican Deanna Maria Metzger, who aligns with the more right-wing faction of her party.

Credit The Texas Tribune

Aside from impressive fundraising hauls and a surge of Dallas-area candidates, Democrats argue that the blue wave they expect this election cycle gives them a competitive advantage they didn’t have two years ago. But in Gov. Greg Abbott, Republicans have a popular incumbent at the top of their ticket with a $40 million war chest that could be employed to boost Republican turnout statewide.

Dallas Republicans, though, say they’re not taking anything for granted. After all, the region has gotten tougher for the party politically since the once reliably Republican Dallas County flipped blue in 2006. “We understand that there is a challenge,” Karen Watson, the vice chair of the Dallas County Republican Party, said. “We were comfortable in Texas just being red. Now we’re like, ‘Okay — if you wanna fight, bring it, and we will match you.'”

Dallas Democrats, meanwhile, are hopeful that excitement around two races in particular — U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke's bid against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Colin Allred’s campaign to unseat U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas — may help candidates in these local races. Frustration with the current occupant of the Oval Office, party leaders say, is also expected to boost Democratic turnout.

“Mr. Trump has done the Democrats a huge favor,” said Carol Donovan, chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party. She also mentioned a couple of candidates that she said have an advantage this cycle because they’ve run for the seat before — including Democrat Terry Meza, who’s again challenging Anderson, the Grand Prairie Republican, in House District 105.

Meza, who lost to Anderson by just 64 votes in 2016, said her campaign is “building on a foundation we started” last time. Anderson dismissed such a notion. “We certainly don’t see it on the ground,” he told the Tribune earlier this month.

Open seats

There are also two open state House seat races in the Dallas area currently held by Republicans that Democrats see as potential pick-ups. With no incumbent to rally against, both races have so far been relatively civil.

In House District 114, Lisa Luby Ryan faces Democrat John Turner. Ryan, who has support from hardline conservative groups such as Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life, ousted Republican incumbent Jason Villalba of Dallas in the March primaries. Villalba, who has represented the district since 2013, aligns with the more centrist faction of the party and has been critical of Ryan since she defeated him in March. Villalba said he thinks the district’s changing demographics, along with Ryan’s more conservative politics, could cause HD-114 to flip in Democrats’ favor this year.

“The district is clearly a centrist, chamber-of-commerce district,” he said. “Ryan does not represent that wing of the Republican Party. And I think she is at a disadvantage going into the election against someone like Turner.”

Turner, the son of former U.S. Rep. Jim Turner, D-Crockett, has picked up support from the influential Texas Association of Realtors. And, in August, he released a letter of support from the Dallas business community — which included some Republicans. Villalba said earlier this month he doesn’t plan to endorse in the race.

In nearby House District 113, Democrat Rhetta Bowers and Republican Jonathan Boos are vying for the seat state Rep. Cindy Burkett represents. (Burkett, a Sunnyvale Republican, didn’t seek re-election and instead had an unsuccessful bid for the state Senate). Both Bowers and Boos ran previously for the seat in 2016; Bowers, who has support from groups such as Planned Parenthood and Moms Demand Action, which advocates for stricter gun control laws, says her campaign has drawn in some of the district’s disgruntled Republicans. Boos, meanwhile, has endorsements from the same conservative groups that endorsed Ryan in HD-114.

Back in Rinaldi’s district, the Republican incumbent said he recognizes Democratic enthusiasm this election cycle — but that people here, for the most part, are happy with how Texas is doing.

“People pay attention to the issues,” Rinaldi said as he finished his McDonald’s breakfast sandwich. “And I don’t think people want to become more like California or the Northeast, where they’re seeing an exodus of people and economic growth retracting.”

Johnson, Rinaldi’s opponent, described the optimism in her party this year as “a community awakening” of people realizing their vote can make a difference.

“What we know is that Texans share some common values,” Johnson said as she walked to the next address on her list of homes to canvass. “Everyone wants us to be responsible with our money. We also want to live in a world that’s free of discrimination — where everyone gets an equal shot.”

Still, Election Day is roughly two months away, Emmert, the former GOP chairman, noted.

“Who knows what the future has in store between now and November?” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

Cassandra Pollock is an engagement reporter for The Texas Tribune, which she joined in June 2017 after a stint as a fellow during the 85th Texas Legislature. She graduated in 2017 from The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism. Cassi has previously reported for The Daily Texan, the university’s official student newspaper, and The Washington Examiner in Washington, D.C.