Two Democrats are fighting for the chance to take Texas congressman Michael McCaul's seat in November. And the most important issue in the race is the COVID-19 pandemic.
Texas' 10th Congressional District, which stretches from Houston to Austin, was solidly Republican for more than a decade. But in 2018, incumbent Rep. McCaul had the closest race of his career.
In 2018, Mike Siegel lost to McCaul by fewer than five percentage points. In the progressive Democrat's second run for the seat, he's focusing on Medicare for All.
"I think it's fair to analogize this COVID-19 pandemic to a war, and definitely in terms of lives lost but also impact on the economy," Siegel said, arguing that government intervention is critical at this moment. "And to me the example of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in terms of building this New Deal, the Works Progress Administration, using the power of the federal purse to basically put people to work, create new jobs and new industries and bring the country out of an economic crisis."
Siegel's Democratic primary runoff opponent, Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, is generally viewed as the moderate in the race. Gandhi favors universal health care as well — if a more incremental approach, informed largely by his work in an Austin-based community health center.
"Unequivocally, health is a human right. And that's how I view that. I've viewed it from that perspective and that lens my entire life. It is an inherent right available to all children and all adults in every part of our world," Gandhi said.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face eight-term Republican incumbent Michael McCaul.
On health care, McCaul has repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. His main focus this election is foreign affairs – specifically his work as head of the House GOP's China Task Force. McCaul says he holds Beijing responsible for the spread of coronavirus from a local threat to a global pandemic.
"I think it's important to be focused on what Congress needs to do right now to help the American people. It's also a time to provide oversight on the response efforts themselves. But it's also important to look at the cause. How did this happen, and how can we stop it from ever happening again?" McCaul said.
The 10th Congressional district is anchored by large metro areas on each side, with a wide swath of rural counties in between.
"It's just going to come down to really that more rural area in between Austin and Houston to see who wins that, and the suburbs, who wins that battle," said Billy Monroe, who teaches political science at Prairie View A&M University. "And whoever wins that is going to win the election."
Monroe said that middle area is still majority male and white, giving McCaul the edge.
Right now, the runoff is too close to call, according to Victoria DiFrancesco Soto, of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin.
But she points to the primary's first round, where the combined moderate vote – including defeated moderate Shannon Hutcheson – outweighed that of progressive Mike Siegel. Siegel took 44% of the vote, while Gandhi got 33% and Hutcheson drew in the 20s, she said.
Soto argued that, even in rural areas, some Republicans are on the fence due to dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott's handling of the pandemic.
Most political observers, though, still rank the race as leaning or likely Republican. If the Democratic candidate does pull off an upset in November, it'll be a sign Texas politics have dramatically shifted.
"The Republican Party that Texas knew and supported has changed, and I think that that's also moving the moderate Republicans and the independents and even some of those swing moderate Democrats into more of that Democratic category," DiFrancesco Soto said.