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Texas Emerges As A Battleground State Ahead Of 2020 Elections

Aug 21, 2019
Originally published on August 21, 2019 11:53 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The state of Texas may be emerging as a battleground heading into the 2020 campaign. Democrats flipped two Texas House seats last November. Four Texas Republicans have recently said they are retiring next year. And NPR's Jessica Taylor travelled to one of their districts.

JESSICA TAYLOR, BYLINE: On a steamy August evening, about 60 young adults are packed into a side room of a bubble tea cafe in the Houston suburbs for the inaugural meeting of the Fort Bend County Young Democrats.

ROCKY SALIGRAM: It took us a while to get here. This was a long time coming. We're so glad for the efforts put by this team and everyone in this room - that we were able to get this club started.

(APPLAUSE)

TAYLOR: That's the group's 24-year-old president, Rocky Saligram. This gathering reflects Texas' rapidly diversifying suburbs where growth isn't just centered around Hispanics but, increasingly, Asian Americans, like Saligram.

Thirty-year-old Ali Hasanali says even in the last decade, it was laughable that Democrats could be competitive here.

ALI HASANALI: My first Democratic Party meeting, there was maybe 15 of us. I was probably the youngest person there by three decades. I was the only Asian American in the room. We didn't have enough people to run for office, let alone participate in getting people out to vote. And...

TAYLOR: Now, things are different. Last year, KP George became not only the first Democrat in nearly 25 years to win the top office in the county, but he's the first minority ever to do so. George says there's been a backlash since 2016.

KP GEORGE: President Trump coming into office, it influenced a lot of people because they all of a sudden realize, being an immigrant, your existence is the most important thing.

TAYLOR: When Cynthia Ginyard took over the Fort Bend County Democratic Party in spring of 2016, she knew the area was ripe for Democrats. They just had to reach out.

CYNTHIA GINYARD: We are every color, race, creed, religion. We make up the Democratic Party, but all of them were not always a part of or welcomed or felt welcomed to come and join.

TAYLOR: Their big target now is the 22nd Congressional District. It went for Mitt Romney by 25 points in 2012. But in 2016, Trump only carried it by eight points. A decade ago, it was about two-thirds white. Now, it's a majority minority district with large Latino, Asian and black populations.

And last month, Republican Congressman Pete Olson announced he was retiring. Former foreign service officer Sri Preston Kulkarni came within five points of ousting Olson last year.

A key part of his strategy was reaching out to immigrants - often in their native languages - after realizing that almost three-quarters of those voters had never been contacted by a Democrat or a Republican.

SRI PRESTON KULKARNI: It's a very heavily immigrant community; 1 out of every 4 people here is foreign-born.

TAYLOR: Kulkarni himself personifies the changing face of Texas. His father was an Indian immigrant. His mother is actually a descendant of Sam Houston, the first president of the Republic of Texas.

Kulkarni is running again in 2020. And if elected, Kulkarni would not only be the first Asian American to represent Texas, he'd be the first Hindu, too.

KULKARNI: The stereotype that Texans only look one way, they only have one religion, they only talk one way - like, that's from 20 or 30 years ago. Look around you. Look around at Fort Bend. Look around Houston. Look around at this state.

TAYLOR: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee opened an office in Texas targeting at least six GOP seats. Republican strategist Brian Walsh, a former aide to Texas Senator John Cornyn, is worried about diversifying areas like the 22nd district.

BRIAN WALSH: Texas exemplifies sort of a larger problem and conversation the Republican Party needs to have within itself, not just looking ahead to 2020 but beyond as well.

TAYLOR: Walsh and other Republicans are skeptical that would mean Texas flipping at the presidential level in 2020. But if they lose more congressional seats in Texas, the path back to a House majority gets even smaller. Jessica Taylor, NPR News, Sugar Land, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.