On a recent Zoom fundraiser with Beto O’Rourke, Democratic congressional candidate Julie Oliver was asked what the campaign was doing in the vast rural stretches of a district that extends 220 miles from Hays to Tarrant counties.
“We’re doing everything we did before the pandemic except knocking on doors and having rallies, so we’re connecting with people throughout the district,” said Oliver, an Austin lawyer and former health care executive. “Y’all that live in Austin might not be able to see what is happening in rural Texas. But that’s what’s exciting. The Democrats that have been scared to be Democrats for years and years and don’t tell their neighbors are now loud and proud. And even more than that, Republicans who have lost their party are loud and proud.”
Two years ago, Oliver came within 9 points of defeating U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin.
Williams won reelection in 2016 by nearly 21 points. In 2018, Oliver won 20,000 more votes than Kathi Thomas, the 2016 Democratic nominee, while Williams drew 18,000 fewer votes than he had two years previous.
Most of Oliver’s gains came from winning 15,500 more votes in Travis County, even as Williams’ total declined by 6,500 votes.
But, beyond Travis County, there are all or part of 12 other counties in the 25th Congressional District, and, of those, Oliver only prevailed in the small slice of Bell County by Fort Hood, and only has any chance of adding to the win column this November the western portion of Hays County that lies in the district.
The other counties are mostly rural and extraordinarily hard country for Democrats.
“I do not envision Julie Oliver being in the 20s in Hamilton County,” said Lucas Robinson, the Republican chair in the county, which provided Oliver only 509 votes in 2018, the fewest of any the districts’ counties.
That’s 15.5%, a 2% improvement from 2016.
“We are very, very, very Republican county,” said Robinson, an attorney and businessman. “And I don’t get any sense that that’s changing. In fact, it’s probably improving for Roger, this time around, simply because it’s the presidential year and people are quite fired up in my estimate for Trump.”
Two years ago, for all the fanfare of traveling to all 254 Texas counties, O’Rourke won only 25.6% of the state’s rural vote — a small improvement over Hillary Clinton’s 24.3% in those counties in 2016. Rural Texans were U.S. Sen Ted Cruz’s firewall.
In the 25th, O’Rourke and Oliver increased their share of the rural vote by a couple of points in the rural counties, but the task of building on that might be all the harder with Trump, who has bonded with rural voters like no president in memory, on the ballot.
“He has the right enemies,” said David Hopkins, a Boston College political science professor and the author of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.”
“He symbolizes and presents himself as a personification of past American greatness and promises to restore this past greatness, and I think a lot of people who live in rural America feel like the country is changing around them,” Hopkins said. “He’s sort of on the wavelength of the residents of rural America with that in a way that the Democrats are not.”
The business background of both Trump and Williams helps.
“What is every farmer and every rancher? They’re businessmen also,” Robinson said. “And if you look at the Second Amendment, if you look at life, if you look at how to handle shutdowns, things like that, yeah, there’s not much that the national Democrat Party sells that people around here buy; right now, you know, it’s just a huge disconnect. Life is different here.”
‘Down to margins’
As the decade of the last redistricting ends and another is on the horizon, the politics of gerrymandered districts like the 25th are less certain than before.
“You have these red rural areas that are losing ground to the urban areas, and you’re seeing races that we never thought would be this close,” said Eric Morrow, a political scientist at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, which lies in the northern end of the district.
The 25th is the most starkly polarized of the six districts that each carve a piece out of Austin, complicating Oliver’s task as she seeks to overtake Williams.
With growth in the district factored in, Oliver probably has to claim nearly half as many more votes than she received in 2018 to win.
“I think she’s a good candidate, and by running twice, she’s in a more advantageous position than someone who no one in the district has ever cast a ballot for,” said Josh Blank, research director the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, who lives in the 25th.
But he said, “Ultimately, Roger Williams’ task is much easier than Julie Oliver’s, because his success relies on mobilizing reliable voters, as much as he possibly can, while dinging her slightly along the way with voters who might be on the fence, of who they were going to be very few.”
Democrats, on the other hand, are “trying to become competitive by mobilizing groups of voters who are defined by their low propensity in most cases to vote. If you are a voter of low socio-economic status, working multiple jobs, and in need of health care, the Democrats definitely would be very attractive to you, but voting is not your No. 1 priority.”
Oliver cannot overlook any opportunity.
“We’re at a place in America where every election is a base election, every election is about mobilizing your core partisans, if not for you, at the very least, against the other guy,” Blank said. “And as we get closer or more competitive in any place, and Texas is an example of that, ultimately, it does come down to margins.”
That means trying to reduce the magnitude of Williams’ advantage even in places like Hamilton County, while assiduously courting and increasing the ranks of the more than 72,000 new voters in the 25th since the last election, and synchronizing efforts with overlapping state legislative campaigns that are more invigorated than in the past.
“It is a very diverse district, but I’ve got one message and my message is the same in Austin as it is in Bosque or Hamilton,” Williams, who has represented the district since 2013, told the American-Statesman.
“We talk about lower taxes, less government, cut spending, defend borders, listen to your generals, understand the 10th Amendment, hang with Israel and keep our streets and communities safe,” Williams said.
“President Trump is going to win Texas, and President Trump is going to win my district,” Williams said. “We’re running really hard no matter what. We don’t take anything for granted. Any time you put your name on the ballot, you better run hard because bad things can happen.”
If he and Trump are seen as kindred spirits, that’s fine with Williams.
“Look at our bios,” Williams said. “We’re both business people.”
“I employ hundreds of people. He employs thousands of people. We both meet a payroll. We both draw on a line of credit. We both negotiate deals,” said Williams, who inherited his father’s North Texas car dealership. “I’ve been in business 50 years. He’s been in business about the same amount of time. It’s a family-owned business. I have a family-owned business. His daughters and family work in the business. My daughters and family work in the business.”
Williams said there is no need to debate Oliver — who supports a progressive agenda, including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — because, he said, they don’t agree on anything and voters should have no trouble choosing.
A star baseball player at Texas Christian University who played several years in the Atlanta Braves farm system, Williams is an affable politician in the Rick Perry tradition.
But he also has been center stage in two of the most telling events about the current state of the American political environment.
He was injured — only learning later that he had caught some shrapnel — when a gunman, an acolyte of Bernie Sanders apparently distraught at Trump’s election, opened fire in June 2017 on a practice in Alexandria, Va., of the House Republican baseball squad, seriously wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.
“Look I’m a happy guy, I’m not a mad person,” Williams said Friday. “I was wounded at the baseball practice. That’s a life-changer. I remember saying to myself when that was over that I’m not surprised because we’re so divided.”
In July, Williams was alongside colleague Ted Yoho, a Florida Republican, on the Capitol steps, when U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said Yoho assailed her with obscene language — an account overheard and reported by a reporter for The Hill — while Williams stood silent.
Williams has said he didn’t hear the exchange, and he declined further comment Friday.
But Ocasio-Cortez tweeted at the time: “Gotta love Republican courage from Rep @RogerWilliamsTX: when he undeniably sees another man engaged in virulent harassment of a young woman, just pretend you never saw it in the most cartoonish manner possible and keep pushing.”
‘A different story’
Oliver reported raising $250,000 in August, more than she had raised in the second quarter of the year.
Last weekend, as the campaign relaunched its door-to-door literature drops — with several events mostly in and around Austin, Oliver, on the lawn of a Central Austin supporter, recalled how the temper in rural communities has changed since her first run.
“I can tell you in 2018 the level of engagement of Democrats in more rural counties was where they might do a little restaurant event with each other and they didn’t want to talk too loud,” Oliver said. When she block-walked in Marble Falls at homes deemed potentially friendly, “they were so nervous about their neighbors finding out they were Democrats.”
“Now you come to 2020, and it’s such a different story. They’re leading Black Lives Matter protests in Marble Falls, Hillsboro, Glen Rose,” Oliver said. “So yeah, things are very different, and, yes, it does matter going out there and being a Democrat and being proud of it.”
But, Casey Pack said, it still takes some courage to be loud about being a Democrat in places like his hometown of Stephenville, where he organized the first student Democratic club, which didn’t survive his high school graduation.
“There’s a culture and a belief that if you were identified as a Democrat publicly, it would negatively affect your business, your relationships with people, and you don’t want that to happen,” Pack said. And, without Democratic elected officials or even candidates, there is little to entice or justify interest.
A freshman University of Texas government student living in Jester West Residence Hall, Pack remains a precinct chair in the half of Stephenville’s Erath County located in the 25th. But, despite moving 150 miles, he remains in the same congressional district and his new precinct offers far richer prospecting opportunities.
Meanwhile back in Stephenville, Dayja Palma, a social work student at Tarleton State University, hosted a literature pickup that got off to a slow start last Sunday when the only person to arrive for the 8 a.m. start was a criminal justice professor at the university, who, newly arrived from Illinois, said she didn’t have to worry about disapproving looks.
Palma said she has sold her mother on Oliver.
“A couple of years ago, I showed her Julie’s video talking about her life story, of being a teen mom and being poor. And that was our life too,” Palma said. “My mom really has seen herself in Julie and that Julie really cares about us regular, working-class poor.”
Palma is from Glen Rose, about 30 miles east, where she also organizes for Oliver alongside Bob Miller, the county Democratic Party chair.
“She was raised in a small town like Glen Rose,” Miller said of Oliver, who grew up in Ovilla, in North Texas. “I can appreciate that she’s a small-town girl that got a good education and became a lawyer.”
When Palma in June organized a Black Lives Matter rally at the courthouse square in Glen Rose that drew about 80 supporters, Oliver came and spoke with personal remarks that lasted less than two minutes.
“I’m Julie Oliver. I just want to tell you a story about two brothers. One brother looks just like me and another brother looks a little bit like me and a little bit darker skin, and I can tell you that as the sister of a black brother he is treated very, very differently than my white brother,” Oliver said.
She recounted that while she never worried that her white brother, who was always in and out of trouble, “would lose his life” at the hands of police, she is “terrified” for her other brother because of the color of his skin.
“I’m here to say that all lives matter when Black lives matter,” she said.
‘Becoming an inner city’
In late August, Williams called into the KBEY 103.9 FM Radio Picayune studio in Burnet to talk about his legislation to save, amid the pandemic, live music venues that are so vital to Austin’s identity.
But that was not what made headlines.
“When you begin to lose a city, it’s hard to get it back, and the problem is Austin is becoming an inner city,” Williams said. “And you know what I mean by that is where people stay outside the city. They don’t come in, just like they don’t go into Chicago, they don’t go into New York, they don’t go into Portland. And I think it’s a shame that Austin is heading toward being an inner-city-type environment.”
Williams, whose district includes a quadrant of downtown Austin including the Capitol, as well as neighborhoods to the east, north and west of downtown, said Friday that he does not consider those remarks provocative.
He has criticized the Austin City Council’s move to reduce funding for the Police Department and sent a fundraising appeal based on his support of law enforcement.
“We’re in Austin a lot; our office is down there,” he said. “We do represent our constituents that live there, and I believe that, regardless of party persuasion, they want their communities to be safe. And right now, it’s hard to disagree that Austin is not as safe as it used to be.”
That view is shared by some in the rural parts of the district.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would want to live in Austin, especially with what I’ve watched in the last three years of the decline of the downtown,” said Cat Parks, the recently elected vice chair of the Texas Republican Party, who preceded Lucas Robinson as chair in Hamilton County, where she lives.
Parks said Oliver’s political mistake was showing up at a Beto O’Rourke rally in Hamilton on Aug. 29, 2018.
“It was a huge event for Hamilton,” said Amanda Thompson, who chairs the Hamilton County Democratic party. They stopped counting attendees at the Hen House Cafe at 225. Anyone could ask anything.
And it turned out that while Oliver’s 509 votes were the fewest she received in any of her 13 counties, it was two more than O’Rourke got.
As for 2020, Thompson said, “We’ve registered another six Democrats in Hamilton County in the last week, which is a lot for Hamilton.”