Stuck in the Middle: Can a Conservative Democrat Win in the Heart of the Hill Country?

In the 21st Congressional District, Joseph Kopser is trying to beat a Ted Cruz acolyte by running to the middle. The question is whether anyone is there.

Joseph Kopser
Joseph Kopser Courtesy/Joseph Kopser for Congress

When Lamar Smith — the climate-change-denying chair of the U.S. House Science Committee — announced his retirement last year, the 21st Congressional seat opened up for the first time in more than 30 years. The gerrymandered district, which encompasses wealthier parts of Austin and San Antonio and stretches west into the Hill Country, has long been a Republican stronghold. Smith won re-election in 2016 by 20 percentage points, though Trump’s margin was just half of that.

While still a long shot, the district landed on Democrats’ expansive national list of seats it planned to seriously contest as the party tries to win back the House. Joseph Kopser emerged as the party’s nominee, surviving attacks from primary opponents who called him an ideological turncoat.

As an Army veteran, entrepreneur and former GOP voter, Kopser has pitched himself as something of a Republican whispererer. “If Ronald Reagan and John Lennon had a kid, I’d be their son,” he once said.

He’s running a hard-middle campaign, reviving the Democratic strategy of the mid-2000s: that centrist moderates can win in red House districts by appealing to crossover voters.

His opponent, Chip Roy, is a prototypical tea partier. Roy won a crowded GOP primary and tight runoff with help from his former boss Ted Cruz, conservative super PAC Club For Growth and the House Freedom Caucus, the right-wing insurgent bloc that Roy pledged to join if he gets elected.

Kopser’s play to the middle hasn’t stopped Roy from tarring him as a tax-hiking, single-payer supporting liberal, while Roy plays up border security theater. In return, Kopser casts Roy as a swamp creature (he was Cruz’s chief of staff in the Senate, worked for Cruz’s presidential super PAC and was once an adviser to Governor Rick Perry) and an ideologue unwilling to work together on energy and health care reform.

“You probably saw in the primary that I was lit on fire from the far left. And now I’m being lit on fire from the far right,” Kopser said at a San Antonio Chamber of Commerce debate in August. “Far-left Democrat groups want nothing to do with oil and gas companies; people on the far right want nothing to do with clean energy ideas. And there I sit, standing in the middle — willing to talk to all sides.”

The problem for Kopser is that politics has increasingly become a tribal team sport — and Republicans are working overtime to make the midterms about base issues and owning the libs. The Hill Country is growing and moderating in some ways, but the district is still a conservative stronghold.

It’s just not clear that your typical Republican voter is yearning for a Democratic candidate who’s all about meeting in the middle.

Justin Miller is the politics reporter for the Observer. He previously covered politics and policy for The American Prospect in Washington, D.C., and has also written for The Intercept, The New Republic and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter or at [email protected].

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Published at 6:22 am CST
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