The race for Texas’ 32nd Congressional district is drawing a lot of national attention, and a lot of money.
Long a safe Republican district, voters picked Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by less than two points in the 2016 presidential election.
Now, longtime Dallas Representative Pete Sessions is facing his toughest challenge in years — Democratic civil rights attorney Colin Allred, who grew up in the district.
One sign national Republicans are paying attention to this race came in the form of Vice President Mike Pence, who visited Dallas on Oct. 8 and held an event with Rep. Sessions.
“Texas and America need Pete Sessions back in a renewed Republican majority on Capitol Hill,” Pence told the crowd.
In a hotel ballroom packed with supporters the next day, Sessions laid out the stakes in this year’s election.
“This is a cultural war that we’re engaged in,” he told the crowd. “We need to stand for making America great again.”
Pete Sessions has been in Congress since 1997, representing the 32nd Congressional District since 2003, when the seat was added after redistricting. It covers most of North Dallas and some of its northeastern suburbs.
Over his career, Sessions has earned a reputation as a scrappy campaigner, a prodigious party fundraiser and a wily political tactician. He’s lauded as the architect of the 2010 Republican sweep that put the GOP in charge of the House. Now, he’s a chairman of the House Rules committee.
Over the years, Sessions fought off challenges from Democrats and other Republicans, in part by focusing on his role as a friend of the business community.
“I am the business community member of Congress,” he said in an interview last week with KERA. “I have a near perfect ranking with the Chamber of Commerce. I have received their top award every single year I’ve been in Congress.”
Sessions returns to pointedly partisan reasons for voters to pick him over his opponent, Colin Allred, a strategy on display across several Texas races.
“You get somebody that’s for Nancy Pelosi or you get a market based system, which is what I have stood for,” Sessions said.
But Allred said all too much time in Washington has left the congressman out of touch with his district. His campaign has knocked on more than 125,000 doors, by his estimation, and he thinks voters are ready for a change.
“The North Texans I’m talking to want somebody that’s focused on our local issues here, who will put something over party, who will put something over political career and political advancement," Allred told KERA after rallying campaign volunteers on a recent Saturday.
Allred grew up in Dallas, a Hillcrest High School football star who went on to play in the NFL. He worked in the Obama Administration as a civil rights lawyer before coming back to Dallas. He was the first Democrat to launch a challenge to Sessions in this election cycle, and won a tough primary and runoff in a crowded field that included several strong candidates.
Allred has focused on bread and butter issues: healthcare, education, job training and raising the minimum wage.
“People want a better life for their kids than they had,” Allred said. “They want to feel like the government is on their side, and it’s not going to see them differently based on anything: whether it’s their gender, where they come from, what they look like, who they love.”
Allred is banking on the fact that this district is changing: It’s grown more diverse, and a lot of new people have moved in, making this once solidly Republican district a battleground.
“Here in Texas we have had some of the lowest turnout, some of the lowest engagement in our political conversations, and that, I think, is changing this year,” Allred said.
Both candidates are raising big money: Each has raised more than $4 million. As the race has heated up, big money has flooded in from outside groups on the left and right. All of that has unleashed a flood of TV ads.
America First Action, a superPAC aligned with President Trump, is spending more than $2.5 million defending Sessions. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s super PAC is going even bigger with a plan to spend $2.7 million.
On the other side, the liberal House Majority PAC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plan to spend at least $2.7 million backing Allred.
Political scientist Victoria Farrar-Myers at Southern Methodist University said it takes a lot of money to run a competitive campaign in this expensive media market.
“You’re talking a lot of dollars that will need to be spent to reach a lot of voters because you can’t count on social media reaching out to the traditional population that turns out the most – 65 and above, and they may or may not be on a computer,” she said.
But huge gobs of national political cash flowing into Texas is unusual, Farrar-Myers said. Typically, money flows out from Texas to fund the fight tight races across the country.
“Because Texas has been such a strong Republican red state, the national parties didn’t have to worry about this state,” Farrar-Myers said. “Now, there’s some cause to worry.”
The Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke and a handful of suddenly competitive congressional districts are also attracting outside attention and donations.
Farrar-Myers said Democrats want to put Texas in play long-term.
“We’re seeing a dynamic changing here in Texas – especially in this race, with the changing demographics in this district – and the Democrats see this as a good time to make a good challenge.”
Regardless of who wins on Nov. 6, Farrar-Myers said the Democratic Party will try to build on the energy and infrastructure created this year. And Republicans will do everything they can to keep the state bright red.
KERA's Sam Baker moderated a public forum between Allred and Sessions on Sunday at Temple Shalom in Dallas. Read our coverage here.