In-Depth

Once Solidly Republican, Texas’ 22nd Congressional District Is Now A Toss-Up

Fifteen Republicans and five Democrats are fighting for their party’s nominations to succeed Rep. Pete Olson.

[Map of Texas’ 22nd congressional district. Credit: Davis Land/Houston Public Media]

Texas’ 22nd congressional district brackets Houston from Fort Bend County to southeast Harris County. For decades, voters from Katy and Sugar Land to Pearland and Webster preferred Republicans when they picked their member of Congress — often by a two-to-one margin. But in 2018, Congressman Pete Olson won reelection by just five percentage points. Now, Olson is retiring, and the race to replace him is as competitive as it gets.

The Republican field

This March, Republican primary voters will have their pick of 15 men and women to take Pete Olson’s place. That all but guarantees the top two vote-getters will go to a runoff election in May. Right now, though, the top candidate to watch is probably Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls.

“If you look at the makeup of Congressional District 22, 70% of the votes come out of Fort Bend County,” Nehls said. “About 20%, 22% come out of Brazoria, and then there’s about 9% out of Friendswood [in Harris County].” 

Nehls is the only Fort Bend County officeholder among the candidates, which he believes gives him an organizational edge. Ask Nehls what he thinks is the most important issue in the campaign, and he doesn’t hesitate.

“What I see is Washington’s unwillingness to help the people in this district. The broken immigration laws is a prime example,” he said. 

Nehls is running on a pledge to crack down on illegal immigration, which he blames for human trafficking, drug trafficking and much of the violent crime in the district. That’s despite multiple studies that show illegal immigration doesn’t increase violent crime. Nehls says Congress needs to secure the southern border.

“And now President Trump is trying to do it on his own by building that border wall, which I support that border wall. I truly do. A big beautiful wall,” Nehls said. “But we want beautiful gates on it, because this isn’t about legal immigration. This is about illegal immigration.”

Kathaleen Wall, a major Republican donor and former candidate for Texas’ 2nd Congressional District who is now also running for TX-22, has taken a similar position. As she states in her ad, “I’ll protect the sovereignty of our country by building a wall.”

Immigration is far from the only issue for the field. Former Brazoria County Court judge Greg Hill is primarily concerned with flood infrastructure and transportation.

“The district itself,” Hill said, “and really for the most part the region too, we have issues as it relates to flooding…and quite frankly that’s the reason why I think it’s important to have a U.S. congressman that works to bring money home to the district on those sorts of issues.”

Flooding’s also a top concern for Pierce Bush, grandson of President George H.W. Bush and nephew of President George W. Bush. But even he’s finding it hard to avoid immigration as an issue. The younger Bush is CEO of the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters Lone Star. 

“It’s clear we have a broken immigration system,” Pierce Bush said. “I have seen in my experience leading the nation’s largest one-to-one mentoring agency here in this [community], I have seen families torn apart by the violence and the evil of drugs and drug cartels that are exploiting our porous southern border. We have to stop that.”

Other candidates seeking the Republican nomination include Jon Camarillo, Douglas Haggard, Aaron Hermes, Matt Hinton, Dan Mathews, Diana Miller, Brandon T. Penko, Shandon Phan, Bangar Reddy, Howard Steele and Joe Walz.

This is a district largely crafted by and for former Congressman Tom DeLay. One might expect a hardline stance to be a must here. But Craig Goodman of the University of Houston-Victoria said what works in the March primary might no longer guarantee a win in November.

“You’ve seen a dramatic decrease, for example, you know, in the Republican vote share in the district more generally,” Goodman said.

The district is now a lot more diverse than it used to be. More than a quarter of the population is Hispanic. Nearly a fifth of the population is Asian. And many of those residents are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

“The Republican candidates are going to tie themselves to President Trump and try to ride his coattails, but I think this is a district where that could be a very dangerous game if you want to win,” Goodman said. “I think this is one of those districts that is maybe kind of a carbon copy of what we’ve seen in other suburban districts around the state and around the country – that districts that are more diverse are becoming more open to Democratic candidates.”

The Democratic field

Five Democrats are vying for the chance to flip the district. Leading the pack is Sri Preston Kulkarni, a former diplomat who ran but lost against Olson in 2018.

“Fort Bend County is the second-most diverse county in the entire country, and we had to go to a lot of communities where nobody had really talked to them. So for example in the Asian community, 72% of them had never been talked to by a Republican or a Democrat,” Kulkarni said.

Kulkarni is fluent in Hindi and Mandarin Chinese, as well as Spanish, which gives him an advantage in reaching out to the district’s large immigrant population. He also has a big fundraising lead over his Democratic rivals. As for his top issue, it’s personal.

“We go to community after community where their number one issue is healthcare,” Kulkarni said. “Everybody, you know, no matter what your background is, somebody has a story just like mine, my family’s story, where my dad got cancer when I was 18, and when he died when I was 19, we were on the point of bankruptcy.”

Aside from healthcare, Kulkarni is focused on flood control and gun control. The latter could be a difficult sell in a district that’s long been a Republican stronghold. But he’s convinced that momentum is on his side.

“It was our effort, it was actually the effort of grassroots volunteers which pushed Pete Olson into dropping out of the race,” Kulkarni said. 

In an e-mail, Congressman Olson’s office denied this was the case, saying the only reason Olson was retiring was family.

Not everyone agrees Kulkarni’s 2018 showing makes him the best Democratic standard bearer this time.

“I believe unfortunately in the last cycle the Democrats had a very strong chance of winning, but the ball was dropped,” said Nyanza Davis Moore, an attorney and one of Kulkarni’s opponents.

Moore is also heavily focused on healthcare. She recently lost both her sister and her father, and she’s furious at Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But she said she feels Kulkarni lost in part because he didn’t spend enough time in Brazoria County – which is majority-minority, like Fort Bend County, but more Republican.

“I never got a knock on my door, not one time, from anybody in the Democratic Party on that side, and I live in Pearland. I never got a sign in my yard. No one ever called me…And if you’re not touching the people in my area…then you’re not going to win,” Moore said. 

Derrick Reed is a former Pearland city council member and another of Kulkarni’s Democratic rivals. He too sees healthcare as the pivotal issue for the district.

“The one thing that I’ve continuously heard from every person that I’ve spoken with the main concern is healthcare,” Reed said. “That’s the main thing, from a business owner’s perspective, from just a layperson’s perspective, they want access to better, more-affordable healthcare.”

Other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination include Chris Fernandez and Carmine Petrillo III.

If there’s one other thing Reed, Moore and Kulkarni all agree on, it’s that the district’s diversity provides the Democrats’ best chance to turn the 22nd blue this year.

“This was historically the district that Tom DeLay did his best to gerrymander, you know, back in the early 2000s. And the dynamics of the district have changed. The demographics of the district have changed,” Reed said. 

All that said, GOP voters are sure to turn out in force to vote in November when the race for president tops the ballot. Most analysts view the congressional race as one of the tightest in Texas.

Updated January 15, 2019: This piece was updated with a statement from Pete Olson’s campaign on why he decided not to seek reelection. 

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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