Despite increasing attention and fundraising milestones for his leading opponent, Sri Preston Kulkarni, incumbent U.S. Rep. Pete Olson told Community Impact Newspaper that he is confident the Texas 22nd Congressional district will send him back to Washington, D.C., for a sixth term in November.
“We’re working hard to make sure the district stays true to its roots, which is conservative … this has been our strength,” Olson said. “We have diversity and prosperity.”
Olson has reasons to be confident: He has already won five terms, has raised $1.38 million, economic indicators are showing record-low unemployment, and forecasters project a solidly Republican win.
However, the rapid growth within the district and demographic shifts are making this an interesting race to watch, said Brandon Rottinghaus, an assistant political science professor at the University of Houston and co-host of Party Politics, a talk show on Houston Public Radio.
“This could be a peek into how the Democrats will recruit and back candidates in the future, especially in areas with increasing diversity, and look to harness that diversity,” Rottinghaus said.
With early voting starting on Oct. 22, Kulkarni, Olson and Kellen Sweny, an upstart independent candidate—one of only eight in the state—are entering the final weeks of their campaigns.
Forces at work
Despite favorable demographic shifts, the data-driven political analysis site FiveThirtyEight estimates Olson has an 80 percent chance of winning in one model, which has no local polling informing its projections and relies on comparisons to similar districts and other factors.
However, there are indications the race is competitive. In the last three months, Kulkarni’s campaign said it raised $575,000, putting him over $1 million total—with none from corporations or political action committees. Olson’s campaign raised almost $320,000 for the same period, according to Federal Election Commission filings, with more than half of his overall fundraising coming from PACs and corporations.
“Money won’t buy you a seat, but it will help a good candidate run a better campaign,” Rottinghaus said. “Especially with the ground-level local campaign that Kulkarni is running.”
While the district has been dominated by Republican voters for years, as it has grown, Democrats have been closing the gaps. For example, voters in Fort Bend County, which comprises the bulk of the 22nd Congressional district, favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.
The Hispanic and Asian population has been growing throughout the district, and they have tended to lean Democrat in recent years, Rottinghaus said. Another demographic shift is that older voters, who typically lean right, are gradually being displaced by younger families moving into suburbs.
“Younger voters also tend to vote Democratic,” he said.
Kulkarni, a former diplomat with command over several languages, has been able to spend the year knocking on doors—he has worn out three pairs of shoes, he said—to get in front of as many different people as possible.
“Ours is the fastest-growing district in the country, the second-most diverse, but not all of those communities are being reached,” Kulkarni said. “So our strategy has not changed much from Day 1—getting all of our communities out to vote. If more people vote, Democrats win. The reason this has been a safe district for Republicans is, people have not been engaged.”
Between those efforts and other trends statewide, voter registration is up across the district. Compared to the previous midterm cycle in 2014, Fort Bend County has 18.77 percent more voters signed up with around 432,000, and Brazoria County has 13 percent more voters with over 207,000.
Olson told Community Impact Newspaper that if Republicans control the House, their focus will be making the tax law that passed in 2017 permanent.
“The tax cut made a real difference to real people,” he said. “That law does not care about, ‘Hey, what race are you, where do you go to church?’ ”
Another focus for Olson, who serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, is continuing to build on what he calls an “American renaissance” in oil and gas production and exports. He said this effort could mean potentially huge economic gains as well as gaining influence over producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia.
On national issues, Kulkarni said he remains committed to focusing on health care and education, and looking for gains in other economic indicators, such as wage growth.
“We have to be careful in saying the economy is doing better. If you look at wages and inflation, it’s not keeping up,” Kulkarni said. “And if you elect Democrats, the economy isn’t going to go bad. But what you will have is a check on the executive—we have to have fundamental values in place.”
As midterms already tend to be viewed as reactions to presidential performance, it remains to be seen how voters in the 22nd district will lean on Nov. 6. Each of the candidates who spoke with Community Impact Newspaper acknowledged that partisan division frustrates voters and lawmakers alike.
“We need to dispel the notion that everything is a tribal fight. People are tired of that,” Kulkarni said. He said his desire to run came out of a series of informal group called “Breaking Bread” that tackled issues across party lines. Out of that group, three are running for office, including one Republican. He said he would take this idea with him to Congress to build relationships.
Olson agreed that the tenor of politics has shifted — disagreements between parties were once respected and debates were respectable battles of ideas.
“Now it’s, ‘I hate you,’ well, ‘I hate you more,'” he said. “Come on guys, we all love America.”
The reaction to the 2016 elections left people angry and bitterly divided, said Kellen Sweny, a Pearland resident, which prompted her to file an independent campaign. She was able to get the 500 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot in a matter of weeks this summer.
“People are fed up. They are excited for us—they are honest with their opinions about my chances of being successful, and that’s OK—most people just want a better system,” Sweny said. “If we keep voting the same way, we’ll keep getting the same outcome.”
Learn more about the candidates for the Texas 22nd Congressional district here.