Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) has held his House seat for Texas' 32nd Congressional District, which encompasses parts of Dallas and its suburbs, for two decades. It's a seat has seemed so solidly red that Democrats didn't even bother to field a challenger against Sessions in last November.
But his comfortably conservative landscape is now facing a potential shakeup: Democrats think the scene is set for a progressive wave to break over Texas' deep-red 32nd District — and candidates have already started throwing their hats into the ring for the 2018 midterm elections. And, so far, the Democratic candidates aren't Blue Dogs, from the conservative wing of the party, or even moderates, but rather staunch progressives.
So far, two natives of the district with solid liberal bona fides have declared their candidacies. Colin Allred, a lawyer and former Obama administration official declared less than two weeks ago and Ed Meier, a former Clinton campaign staffer, threw his hat into the ring on Wednesday.
"There's so much grassroots energy right now across the 32nd district," Meier, who currently heads a Dallas-based education nonprofit, said in an interview. "It's so encouraging and so inspiring. We've really got to figure out how to grow that energy and motivate people to vote."
In the Democrats' fight to take back the House of Representatives, the party is taking on a nationwide strategy, but especially focusing on trying to win the 23 Republican-held seats in congressional districts where Hillary Clinton beat Trump in November. Many of those seats are held by moderate Republicans who were wary of associating with Trump during the 2016 election, and will likely be at pains to endorse his agenda in 2018.
Even among these GOP-held districts, however, Texas' 32nd is special. Despite having no downticket Democrat, Clinton won won by about 2 points. And Sessions has been among those Republicans facing mounting pressure from angry constituents at town halls. In March, he got into a testy exchange with a crowd of angry constituents at a town hall. "You don't know how to listen," he scolded his constituents. The candidates see these factors as an invitation to run liberal campaigns to upend Sessions.
Meier, the son of medical missionaries, was born in the district but raised in Nigeria where he says he learned the values of public service and the "universality of dignity and human rights." Despite the district's conservative history, Meier is unafraid to run as a progressive. "I fight for progressive values and the progressive things that I believe in," he said. "I'm proud to be a progressive."
Meier's decision to own the title of progressive starkly contrasts with recent comments by the Democrat in a similar suburban red-state congressional race in Georgia's much-watched sixth congressional district election, which is headed for a run-off in June. In that race, the Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff declined to call himself a "progressive."
Meier's proud progressivism, however, may have more to do with the fact that he's likely to face some stiff competition in the Democratic primary for the House seat.
Allred, a lawyer who worked as special assistant to the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Secretary Julian Castro, announced he was running with a sleek ad that got coverage in national media — in Sports Illustrated, to be be precise. Allred spent five years in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans.
Allred, like Meier, identifies as a progressive without any reservation.
"Absolutely, I'm a progressive, Allred said in an interview. "I have spent my life overcoming obstacles and extending a helping hand to folks coming after me, and my legal career fighting to give a voice to folks who don't have one. I want to take my life experiences and work ethic to Washington to fight for an economy that works for everyone in our district, to provide access to quality healthcare to all of our people, and to stand up for my neighbors' civil rights and civil liberties."
Allred has already released a campaign ad that makes a direct appeal to and galvanize the a liberal constituency, touting his work as an attorney "defending civil rights and voting rights across Texas" and "protecting affordable housing" at HUD.
More than 10 months remain until the Democratic primary, and more than a year and a half until the 2018 midterm elections. But Republicans can't be pleased with two liberals' entry into a race in the district where former President George W. Bush lives and that voted overwhelmingly for both John McCain and Mitt Romney — but that Clinton won by a slimmer margin but with an even larger portion of the total vote.
It's too early to predict how the primary race in Texas' 32nd Congressional District is going to shake out. Local news sources predict a crowded primary field, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already pledged to make Sessions one of its top targets, meaning it could wade into the early primary debate (last cycle the DCCC pledged to stay out of primary races though they have made endorsements in the past).
For now, though, the race appears to be shaping up as another key test for the resistance to Trump. If Meier or Allred succeed in channeling progressive grassroots energy into a serious challenge against one of the president's staunchest congressional allies, it could open up the path for a bolder electoral strategy in other places where Democrats typically don't even put up a fight.