In a gerrymandered district that leans Republican, Democratic candidates are clashing over the best strategy to win without compromising progressive values.
At a recent Democratic candidate forum in Bandera, congressional hopefuls in south-central Texas’ 21st District were asked about border security. Joseph Kopser, a tech entrepreneur and Iraq War veteran, surprised some attendees with his answer.
“It is not just a wall,” he told members of the Ranchers and Landowners Association of Texas, as The Intercept first reported. “It’s a combination of fence line, it’s a combination of zones, but it’s also new combinations of technology. … I want to secure our borders because when I spent my time in Iraq, when we were fighting al-Qaida, the border between Iraq and Iran was not secure and those fighters came over from Iran and that didn’t do us any good in that fight. Nor do I want to allow anyone across our border without us knowing who they are. Next question?”
A man in the audience replied, “Are you sure you’re on the right ticket?”
“I’m on the American ticket,” Kopser responded.
The question was illustrative of a deep divide that has emerged in the Democratic primary in the 21st Congressional District. On issues such as immigration, health care and education, should candidates in this longtime Republican stronghold — which stretches north of San Antonio through parts of Austin — double down on progressive policies and move further left? Or moderate in an attempt to attract independents and Republicans? The choice is a reflection of the party’s internal battle over its future in the Trump era, and who voters pick in District 21 may hold clues for strategies that could propel Democrats in traditionally red districts.
The four Democratic candidates in the primary race — Kopser, Derrick Crowe, Elliott McFadden and Mary Wilson — are running in a heavily gerrymandered district that includes 10 Hill Country counties and runs along Interstate 35 from San Antonio’s northeastern suburbs to southwest Austin. Trump won the district by a 10-point margin in 2016, and the seat has been held for 30 years by retiring GOP Congressman Lamar Smith. Despite chairing the U.S. House science committee, Smith doesn’t accept that climate change is caused by humans and is perhaps best known for accusing scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of falsifying data. In November, Smith announced he was stepping down, changing the dynamics of the race. Instead of the challengers targeting a longtime incumbent who was rarely seen in the district and held extreme anti-science views, the race is now a free-for-all.
Still, Democrats see a sliver of hope. The seat is on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of “battlefield districts,” and Trump’s win in 2016 was much narrower than those in previous election cycles. Recently, the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes elections, changed its rating of the district from “Solidly Republican” to “Likely Republican,” citing the “rapidly moderating” suburbs of San Antonio and Austin and the whopping 18 candidates running in the Republican primary.
But a sharp fissure has developed in the four-way Democratic race as candidates try to prove that they are best positioned to beat a Republican in November. There are two options: Double down on Bernie-style progressive policies — a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for all and free college education, for example — in hopes of riling Democrats in the district to turn out and vote, or reach across the aisle with a more centrist platform. It’s a question Texas Democrats have been grappling with for years, often unsuccessfully. One of the most prominent examples came during Wendy Davis’ 2014 gubernatorial campaign, when Davis said that she supported open carry. The bizarre flip-flop, which she later said “haunts” her, appeased neither Democrats nor Republicans and contributed to her crushing defeat.
The Democratic candidates in the 21st Congressional District have varying approaches, as was apparent at another recent forum in Boerne. When asked how he plans to structure his campaign to win in the general election, Crowe, a Democratic Socialists of America member who has a background in environmental activism and worked for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, launched into a speech about building a Democratic base that helps win this election, but also builds infrastructure for the party in the long term.
“If you’re not going to build a party that can win this district this year, when are you going to do it?” he asked. “If you don’t think there are enough Democrats to win, your job is to make new Democrats before voter registration ends.”
While Elliott McFadden, a former executive director of the Travis County Democratic Party, and Mary Wilson, a mathematics teacher and pastor at a Baptist church, echoed Crowe’s sentiments, Kopser’s strategy is the diametric opposite.
“I understand Republicans probably better than most of you,” Kopser told the crowd. “We need them in this election.”
Crowe and Kopser, who appear to have the most momentum in the Democratic primary based on their online following, fundraising and endorsements, are on opposite ends of the liberal spectrum.
Kopser touts the endorsement of longtime Austin progressives state Senator Kirk Watson and state Representative Donna Howard. He has raised the most of the four candidates — $680,000 — but has had a hard time shaking off accusations that he’s a Republican who made a calculated decision to run in the Democratic primary. His opponents have labeled him a Republican-lite, establishment candidate and question whether he can be trusted to stand up for progressive policies.
Kopser’s positions have shifted further left in response. For example, last May Kopser advocated for more jobs training rather than raising the minimum wage, which he said would result in low-wage workers being replaced by automation. Now, however, he supports a $15 minimum wage.
Kopser also sits on the board of the Texas Association of Business, a conservative business lobby group that has long been aligned with Republican politics in the state but that has been recently cast away by far-right politicos like Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. But the most divisive point of contention is whether Kopser’s strategy can win him the seat in November.
“Either he is in alignment with progressive issues or he is more to the center and can grab a bunch of Republican votes,” Crowe told the Observer. “Those two things are two very different arguments that he often makes back-to-back and they don’t match at all.”
It’s unclear whether Crowe has a better shot at flipping the seat. While he has endorsements from a number of progressive groups and enthusiastic grassroots support, he has only raised $120,000 so far — about a sixth of Kopser’s campaign fund. And while the district may have Democrats who are looking for an exciting and solidly progressive candidate, Crowe still faces a daunting Republican majority.
“There aren’t enough Democrats to win it,” said Colin Strother, a Democratic campaign operative who lives in the district but is not involved in the race. “That’s just a mathematical reality.” Strother said that a “common sense” candidate has a higher likelihood of winning in November. That’s where Kopser may have an advantage.
“You cannot only be a champion for progressive values, but you can also be open enough to sit and talk to Republicans and independents,” Kopser told the Observer. “If you can’t do that you really should question why. You’re not really wanting to be a representative of the whole district and I want to be a representative of the whole district.”