In Collin County, the political newcomer is betting big on Asian American voters—and Republicans who are tired of Trump.
Texas’ Third Congressional District fits neatly within the borders of Collin County. Since the 1960s, the district has been represented by conservative, white men who have served for decades at a time, often running unopposed. Sam Johnson, rated one of the most conservative lawmakers in the U.S. House in 2010, held the seat for nearly 30 years before he announced his retirement in 2018.
Few were surprised when Van Taylor, a veteran Republican politician who’d spent the previous decade in the Texas Legislature, won Johnson’s seat. What did come as a surprise was the fact that he won by only 10 points against Lorie Burch, an openly gay, pro-choice, pro-gun control Democrat who once told the Dallas Morning News that climate change was the greatest national security threat facing the United States. Burch was running something of a shoestring campaign with only $313,000; Taylor had raised well over $3 million. “I put him close,” Burch says. “He told me after the election that he’d never had to work so hard.”
In hindsight, the hairline cracks in this Republican stronghold were apparent two years ago. With a little more pressure, and support from the national Democratic Party, it’s possible that one of the state’s most conservative suburban districts could finally flip in November. The looming possibility of a second term for Donald Trump has galvanized Democratic voters: More than 63,000 voted in the March primaries, nearly doubling the Democratic turnout from the previous election year. Meanwhile the number of Republican primary voters, who didn’t have a primary to vote for in this race, remained roughly the same: 54,000.
The spike in Democratic turnout has not gone unnoticed: The Cook Political Report now predicts that the district could “lean Republican” come election day. That’s a noticeable downgrade from “solidly Republican,” the rating the district has garnered almost every previous election year. This November, Lulu Seikaly has a shot at becoming the first Democratic woman to represent the district in its history. She would also be the state’s first Arab American woman ever elected to Congress.
Seikaly’s campaign is standard Democratic fare: She supports gun control, abortion access, LGBT rights, and action on climate change. Her immigration platform contains the most specific action items, like giving DREAMers a path to citizenship. She’s running heavily on her identity as the daughter of immigrants, and it’s clear that Seikaly’s campaign is betting on turning out the district’s Asian American vote. Nearly one-fifth of the district is Asian or Arab American, a demographic that’s been a political afterthought for decades.
“It has a lot to do with the prior strategies of the Democratic Party,” says Woot Lervisit, the campaign’s former deputy manager. “Historically, the first generation of Asian Americans, they saw them as Republicans. They didn’t reach out, and they didn’t think of the second generation—the kids who were born here,” he says. “They have different politics than their parents.”
Lervisit pushed Seikaly’s campaign to tap into a network of Asian American donors, who seemed receptive to the candidate’s message almost immediately—particularly in a year when anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies have gained so much traction on the right.
Booming suburbs such as Plano, Frisco, and Allen have a high concentration of “low propensity voters” in the South Asian community particularly, says Hena Rafiq, an organizer with a South Asian American outreach organization called They See Blue.
“Conservative Asians exist,” she says, “but what I’ve seen from national polls, they still overwhelmingly vote Democrat. I think [Asian American turnout] would be overwhelmingly a win for Democrats.” Collin County Democrats have been playing the long game, Rafiq says, spending the past few years registering Asian Americans. “There is momentum to copy what we saw in Fort Bend County in 2018, and try those tactics in Collin,” she says. That year, Sri Kulkarni doubled down on Asian American voters in his run against Pete Olson, the district’s tea party Republican incumbent. His campaign phone banked and canvassed in a dozen different languages, helping to drive Asian American turnout in the primaries. He ultimately lost the race by 5 points, but he’s running again this year with a similar strategy.
But as much as Collin County’s Congressional race reflects its changing demographics and political engagement, it’s still in many ways a referendum on the Trump administration and its right-wing, increasingly white supremacist rhetoric. “There’s no such thing as a swing voter,” says Jeff Quiggle with the Plano Area Democrats Club. In other words, voters are not undecided about Trump anymore. “[The Democratic base is] angry, they’re excited, and Trump is a big reason for that.” he says.
Since his election in 2018, Van Taylor projected an image of bipartisanship—a piece in Men’s Health from January features a photo of a grinning Taylor jogging alongside his Democratic colleague, Congressman Colin Allred, who flipped nearby Congressional District 32. The Dallas Morning News glossed over his partisan voting record and dubbed him “Mr. Bipartisan” for his ability to form friendships with Democratic and Republican House members alike. But in reality, Taylor has quickly racked up a record as one of the most conservative members of the House over the last two years. According to one analysis, he’s voted inline with Trump 95 percent of the time.
Taylor has a reliably anti-abortion, anti-immigration record. Recently, he’s voted against a bill that would expand funding for childcare during the pandemic, as well as a bill that protects pregnant women’s rights in the workplace. He’s also voted against numerous immigration reform bills, stating on his Congressional website that “illegal immigration benefits no one.” In 2017, as a Texas Senator, Taylor co-authored Senate Bill 4, also known as the “show me your papers” bill, which banned sanctuary cities. The bill forced local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Taylor even voted against a House resolution which formally condemned anti-Asian racism that flared up as the coronavirus, dubbed the “Wuhan virus” and “Kung-Flu” by Trump spread across the country. Allred, Taylor’s supposed jogging buddy, was one of the bill’s cosponsors.
Taylor’s campaign did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.
Seikaly, on the other hand, offers a moderate platform that could appeal to Republican voters turned off by the party’s far-right extremism. She says she will support climate change legislation and sees the need to act fast, like most Texans. But she wouldn’t support the Green New Deal that’s so popular among young voters. Seikaly says she would advocate for affordable health care, including market-based solutions, but not Medicare For All. She criticized Taylor for refusing to support the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but hasn’t been vocal about the Black Lives Matter movement. “I view myself as a pragmatist,” she says. “I like to have goals that are attainable, that we can work across the aisle to achieve.”
For his part, Taylor’s campaign has bought ads and a website nicknaming Seikaly “Liberal Lulu.” In case the message didn’t sink in, the Ls in her name are shaped like California, where Seikaly lived and worked for a number of years.
Internal polling conducted by Seikaly’s campaign shows her in a toss-up with Taylor come November. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) added Seikaly to a fundraising program called Red to Blue, which provides candidates in swing districts with additional support and national attention. The DCCC also added Candace Valenzuela, a Democrat running in Irving, to the program. It’s a major shift from the national party, which has all but ignored suburban, North Texas districts until they seemed within reach.
“I gave up predicting politics in 2016,” says Burch, the last candidate who came within striking distance. Whether its immigrant families, or gay couples starting families in the Dallas suburbs, Burch says that people are ready for something to change in Collin County. “Is it possible? Heck yeah, I think [Seikaly] has a really good shot.”
Read more from the Observer:
Claiming Major Superfund ‘Success,’ Trump EPA Focused on Completing Cleanups, Not Climate Planning: As work stalled on hardening Superfund sites against climate-related weather extremes, budget cuts continued and a backlog of sites awaiting cleanup ballooned.
Houston, Let People Walk: When forced to choose between cars and people, the fourth-largest city in the United States has a long history of siding with the former.
One Texas-Sized Loophole is Letting Lone Star Polluters Off the Hook: Texas facilities emitted 174 million pounds of pollution above permitted limits last year.