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Democrats Try to Flip the Open TX 22nd Seat "Blue"

Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni—He Aims to Take Texas’ 22nd Congressional District August 11, 2019

How good House GOPers does it feel being in the minority as well as constantly having to defend Donald’s awful tweets and actions? Based upon the five “Team Red” retirements that have occurred in just one week, from 7/24/2019-7/31/2019, these GOPers are not having a “fun time.” And these five GOP Congressmen come from generally solid “Red” districts. Already, a total of ten GOPers are “hanging up” their House hats by not running in Campaign 2020, even with their base’s “hero” Demagogue Donald on the ballot. These retirees include Michigan’s Paul Mitchell, Alabama’s Martha Roby, Utah’s Rob Bishop, and four Texans, Pete Olson, Will Hurd, Mike Conaway, and Ken Marchant. Hurd is the House GOP’s only African American Congressman and comes from an ultra-swingy R+1 Cook PVI, Partisan Voting District (See Martin, D., shareblue.com, 7/31/19, huffpost.com, O’Connor, L., 8/01/19, Kos, Samer, 8/01/19, cookpolitical.com, 4/17/17). After this spate of retirements, many GOP consultants are expressing fear about retaking the House majority in 2020. They dread even more “Team Red” retirements. One GOP House member stated, “the odds are against us retaking the majority (“The Hill,” shareblue.com).” The GOP will now be forced to spend more money on recruiting and supporting candidates in open seats where the incumbency factor is no longer in play. Money that could have been put into many swing district contests now has to shore up lots of “safer” GOP ones.

Earlier this year, before these four TX retirements, the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) opened an office in Austin to target six Lone Star seats now held by GOPers. When the DCCC opened an office in formerly “Red” CA’s Orange County (OC) before the 2018 election, a couple of OC GOP Congressmen, just like the TX ones now, announced that they were not running again. In 2018, “Team Blue” panned CA gold winning seven targeted congressional seats, including taking all of the OC. Democrats, similarly, hope to strike TX “crude” in Campaign 2020. One of those seats the Dems are aiming for is the one Cong. Pete Olson is retiring from, the TX 22nd. In 2018, Olson faced a tough fight against Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni when running for his 6th term. In 4/2019, even before Olson’s retirement announcement, Kulkarni stated he was running again in the Lone Star 22nd (Martin, shareblue.com, 7/31/19, 116th Cong. At Your Fingertips, O’Connor, L., huffpost.com, 7/25/19). Let’s hone in on this race.

As just noted, the current holder of the TX 22nd Congressional District (CD) 6th-term GOP Congressman, Pete Olson (56) will not run in 2020. The present TX 22nd CD is located in the largely suburban south-central portion of the Houston metropolitan area. The 22nd includes the majority of Fort Bend County, portions of northern Brazoria County, and a sliver of Harris County. The 22nd includes Sugar Land, Pearland, Rosenberg, Alvin, and Richmond. The Harris County area takes in part of Friendswood. Fort Bend County was fifth in the nation in job growth from 2000-2009. The 22nd is most known for the city of Sugar Land, named for its pre-Civil War sugar plantations, but now a fast growing privately planned city of over 80,000. The 22nd’s Pearland, has a 91,000 plus population. A retail sector that goes through Sugar Land’s Highway 6 bolsters that area’s diverse economy, while Pearland is a health care hub (CQ and Barone 14 Political Almanacs, mysanantonio.com, 10/30/06).

The 22nd CD has an average median household district of nearly $83,000. It is the wealthiest TX congressional district and is 93% urban. The 22nd is one of the most ethnically diverse in the U.S., quite different from when Anglo wheeler-dealer GOP House Majority Leader Tom DeLay represented it from 1985-2006. It is now just 41.78% white, 13.34% Black, 19.05% Asian, including many Indians, and 25.19% Hispanic (Barone 14 & census.gov/mycd). Sugar Land has elected a Chinese American to its City Council and an Indian American served on the board of the Chamber of Commerce (Barone 14).

Politically, Hillary was the first Democrat to carry Sugar Land’s Fort Bend County since 1964. Cong. Beto O’Rourke beat Ted Cruz in key Fort Bend County while narrowly losing the 22nd CD in 2018. Romney won the 22nd in 2012 by 25 points, but Donald, with his anti-immigrant rhetoric, won here by just 8 points in 2016, 52%-44%. Retiring Cong. Pete Olson, after usually coasting to re-election victory by an average of 31 points, won his last race in 2018 against Sri Preston Kulkarni by less than 5 points (TX 22nd CD 2010-2018 results, wiki.org/TX 22nd). Despite the diversity and this highly educated and professional district, the TX 22nd still has an R+10 PVI, Partisan Voting Index. Olson’s incumbency and name recognition certainly helped him. In turnout, the blacks and Hispanics in the area are often outvoted by the large blocs of suburban GOP voters. Some of the Asian voters in Sugar Land as well as some blacks and Hispanics in the more affluent areas of the 22nd are conservative-leaning. However, with key Fort Bend County going Democratic in 2016 and 2018 and with Democratic gains at the local level in 2018, many observers see the 22nd as highly competitive in future elections (Recent Election Results, Cook Political Report, 4/07/17, nytimes.com, 7/26/19).

Cong. Olson, the son of an Army veteran, entered the Navy on the same day as he took the TX bar exam. He served as a naval aviator. He was, like the late GOP Sen. John McCain, a Navy liaison to the U.S. Senate. Olson became a staffer for TX GOP U.S. Senator Phil Gramm. After Gramm retired, Olson was chief-of-staff to U.S. TX Senator John Cornyn. In 2008, Olson defeated the Democratic Congressman who took DeLay’s seat after DeLay resigned over corruption issues. In the House, Olson has been a rock-hard conservative (Barone 14). Olson was also a member of the Congressional Constitution Caucus, a group of Tea-Party sympathetic GOPers that tried to push the GOP leadership even further right (nytimes.com, Hernandez, 4/18/11). Cong. Olson has voted with Demagogue Donald 96.2% of the time, not at all in tune with his diverse professional district that barely re-elected him in 2018 (projects.fivethirtyeight.com).

Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni mirrors the ethnically diverse 22nd he aims to win. Kulkarni grew up in Houston, TX. His late Indian immigrant father, Venkatesh Kulkarni, was a novelist and a Rice University professor. Kulkarni’s mother, Margaret Preston, is descended from TX hero Sam Houston (kulkarniforcongress.com/about, Albanese, G., Jr., indiawest.com, houstonchronicle.com, Wallace, J., 9/10/18). Sri Preston Kulkarni graduated from Houston’s Lamar High School as well as the University of Texas and Harvard’s Kennedy School (houstonchronicle.com, 10/12/18, Dayen, D., theintercept.com, 10/17/18, blogchronicle.com, 5/01/18). Kulkarni spent more than 14 years as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. State Department. He served overseas in Iraq, Israel, Russia, Taiwan, and Jamaica. He speaks Spanish and Mandarin Chinese in addition to Hindi, Hebrew, and Russian. Kulkarni loved his State Department job, but became increasingly alarmed at the divisions he felt Trump was creating in the U.S. Demagogue Donald’s defense of the white supremacists who triggered the 8/17/2017 fatal rally in Charlottesville, VA, his mother’s hometown, was the turning point for him. Kulkarni felt he “was compelled to do something about it.” Kulkarni resigned from the Foreign Service to run for TX’s 23rd CD in 2018 (chron.com, Wallace, 9/10/18, asianage.com, 8/08/17).

According to U.S. Census data, 25% of the TX 22nd CD is foreign born, the second highest percentage in the state behind the neighboring 7th Congressional CD in Houston that Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher flipped “Blue” in 2018 (Wallace, chron.com, 116th Cong. At Your Fingertips). Kulkarni won a five-way primary by speaking in the 22nd’s various languages and emphasizing outreach to these multi-ethnic groups as a key “to bridging cultural differences.” He knew these immigrants spoke English but by speaking to them in their native tongues, he wanted to “signal to them that he cared about their community and had a connection to them (see chronicle.com, Wallace, 9/10/18).” After Kulkarni’s outreach, Asian primary turnout increased by 28% (chronicle.com).

In the general 11/2018 election, Kulkarni heavily emphasized his ethnic outreach again and his stands as a Democrat fighting for health care reform His father had died of a long illness and Kulkarni helped care for him. However, in the end, Cong. Olson won by a close 4.9% margin. He had the incumbency factor and was still running in a “Red” district. Olson pushed his Trump/MAGA followers to vote by employing the race card. He called Kulkarni a “liberal, liberal, liberal Indo-American who’s a carpetbagger (huffpost.com, O’Connor, L., 7/25/19).”

Will the second time in Campaign 2020 be the proverbial charm for Kulkarni? With Olson retiring, Kulkarni is more the incumbent than anyone else. The GOP will have to get a new challenger. Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls is thinking of running on the GOP side (chron.com, Lewis, B., 7/11/19). U.S. Army veteran and businessman Joe Walz is already trying to get the GOP nod (alvinsun.net, Rupkalvis, D., 2/05/19). Other GOPers may also run in their primary. Expect “law and order” and racist dog whistles again from “Team Red” with Donald running for re-election. Kulkarni will also not have the Dem. primary field to himself. TX attorney Nyanza Moore will challenge him as will Pearland City Councilman Derrick Reed (chronicle.com, Scherer, J., texastribune.org, Livingston, A., 7/25/19). The DCCC (the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) is targeting the 22nd hard in 2020, just as it did in 2018. If well-known Kulkarni wins his primary, turnout in the general 11/2020 election will have to be far better among Asians and Hispanics than it was in 2018. Yes, the demographic trends in the 22nd favor “Team Blue.” And yes, about 45% of the 22nd CD’s residents have college degrees, way over the 30% national average, another trend that helps Democrats (See chron.com, Wallace). However, elections are won on turnout, not encouraging statistics. The 22nd is still no Democratic “slam dunk.” Kulkarni will need to run a perfect campaign to put this district in the “Blue” column.