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How Rep. Culberson’s Seat Went From GOP Stronghold To ‘Toss Up’

Congressman John Culberson is running for a tenth term representing Texas 7th Congressional District. Changing demographics, the #MeToo movement, and Harvey may give the Democrats their best chance in decades to capture the West Houston seat

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, left, listens as Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Culberson's purchase of stock in a little-known Australian biotech firm earlier this year has come under scrutiny and appears to be a likely issue as the Houston Republican seeks a 10th term next year.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP
U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, left, listens as Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Texas' 7th Congressional District in West Houston has been in Republican hands for five decades, ever since George H.W. Bush won the seat in 1966. Congressman John Culberson has held the seat for 17 years. But analysts at The Cook Political Report now say the district is a "toss up." That means Culberson may be the most vulnerable incumbent in the state.

There are four big reasons why. The first is that, "the district demographics have shifted considerably over the last ten years and certainly even since the last election," according to Tony Essalih, a principal at Cornerstone Government Affairs.

Essalih worked for Culberson for a decade, including five years as the congressman's chief of staff. He said urban districts like the 7th have been attracting a lot of new residents.

"The movers into those districts are coming from other major cities in the U.S. that are more traditionally left-leaning cities like New York, Chicago, L.A., D.C., Boston, and they're coming down for good job opportunities, but they're not coming as card-carrying Republicans," said Essalih. At the same time, the district's Latino population is growing, and older Anglo voters are dying.

Despite these shifts, Culberson still won reelection in 2016 by a dozen points. But the district went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Now, Trump is president, which brings us to our second point.

"Historically, if you look at midterm elections for the party in power, the president's party usually loses 30-plus seats in the House," said Essalih.

The third reason Culberson could be vulnerable: "Women are very angry. They're angry at institutions, at men in general. They're just angry," said Nancy Sims, a political analyst at Pierpont Communications and lecturer at the University of Houston.

Sims said Clinton's defeat and the #MeToo movement are motivating more women to vote in 2018 – and run for office. "If one of the women candidates were to win the Democratic nomination, that's going to make it tougher for Culberson."

Three of the seven Democratic candidates in the district are women. Two of them – attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and progressive activist Laura Moser – have each raised well over $500,000. Among the other candidates, non-profit executive Alex Triantaphyllis has raised more than $900,000, just short of Culberson's own total. "And I would say that Dr. Jason Westin is also worth watching," said Sims. "He's not raised as much money, but he's self-funded a pretty aggressive campaign."

With such a crowded field, the Democratic primary will likely go to a May runoff. If the eventual nominee wants to beat Culberson in November, they'll still need to win over disaffected Republicans. Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University, said that will be expensive.

"It might take as much as $1.5 million to $2 million to really go after crossover Republican voters," he said. Stein thinks calling the race a toss up is a bit of an exaggeration, and that there are plenty of long-time 7th District Republicans who will never vote Democratic.

But there's one last factor that could tip the balance against Culberson: Harvey. The 7th overlaps the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, which flooded surrounding neighborhoods during and after the storm. Culberson has been working from his seat on the House Appropriations Committee to get disaster relief money to his constituents. But for many, that money isn't coming nearly fast enough.

"I don't think many of even his primary voters know that John Culberson's a subcommittee chairman on the Appropriations Committee," said Stein. "They know he's an incumbent. They know he's a Republican. And they know that Republicans control the White House, the Congress, House, and Senate. They expect something to be done."

Two years ago, Culberson faced two primary challengers who, combined, captured more than a third of the Republican vote. Stein said virtually all of those who voted against Culberson live in areas that suffered heavy flooding.


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