This story originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
Six years ago, Collin County was so solidly Republican that many of its representatives in Austin and Washington didn’t even draw Democratic opponents. Now three of them find themselves in their most competitive November races yet.
It is one sign of how quickly the political environment has shifted in the suburban county north of Dallas, which is now an emerging battleground important to understanding Texas in 2020. Unlike some suburban counties in 2018, Collin did not flip in statewide results — but a once-overwhelming GOP advantage continued to narrow and next week’s election could be the tipping point.
“It’s just changed,” said Sharon Hirsch, the Democrat challenging state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano. “It’s no surprise — it’s growing, it’s becoming more diverse, we have a highly educated population. They’re focused on basic issues like great schools and safe communities and health care. They’re not focused on the fringe-right issues, and that’s where our representation is right now, and I think it’s fixin’ to change.”
Shaheen is not the only Republican lawmaker fighting for reelection in Collin County. There is also state Rep. Jeff Leach and U.S. Rep. Van Taylor, whose race has become the source of growing Democratic optimism more recently. His district, which encompasses most of the county, is the most highly educated in the country still represented by a Republican.
While Republicans may disagree with Democrats on exactly how competitive the county has become, they do not dispute the trendline and say they are not getting caught sleeping.
“There’s no question that outside liberal groups are targeting this area … [and] want to change it, but look, I continue to take it really seriously,” Taylor said in an interview Thursday. “People understand that we have a very special county and it was built with Republican leadership and Republican principles, and we’re fortunate to live in it.”
A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable that Collin County would be politically competitive. The 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, won the county by 32 percentage points. In 2016, though, Donald Trump carried the county by roughly half that margin — 17 points — and two years later, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz won it by just 6 points.
Neither Shaheen, Leach nor Taylor’s predecessor, Sam Johnson, faced Democratic opponents in 2014.
Early voting turnout has affirmed Collin’s status as a top county to watch. Collin County was among the first Texas counties this week to exceed its 2016 turnout, and 62% of its voters had already voted as of Wednesday. The statewide turnout rate was 51% at the same time.
Even more notable: Collin County has had the second highest participation rate in the state among voters who have not previously voted in a primary or general election there, according to Derek Ryan, a Republican data strategist. The county’s rate is 34.3%, while the statewide rate is 21.5%.
Joel Montfort, a Democratic consultant in North Texas, said the county has seen about 70,000 new voters so far in early voting, and nearly half are 40 years old or younger.
“That to me is the big thing that sticks out,” Montfort said, and it is the “million-dollar question: Which way are they gonna fall?”
While Leach and Shaheen have long been considered top targets in Democrats’ drive to flip the state House, Taylor’s U.S. House race has come into focus as a pickup opportunity more recently. He was among the three latest additions that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made to its Texas target list in late August, and about a month later, the DCCC added his challenger, Lulu Seikaly, to its Red to Blue program for top challengers. While the DCCC’s independent expenditure arm is not spending in the race — an investment reserved for the most competitive contests — the committee has done a coordinated TV ad buy with Seikaly’s campaign in a signal that it considers her to have a real shot.
Seikaly outraised Taylor in the third quarter of 2020 and the first 14 days of October, though he entered the second half of the month with a 3-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage.
On Wednesday, the top political handicapper Inside Elections changed its rating of the race in favor of Democrats, from “Likely Republican” to “Lean Republican.”
National Republicans are scoffing at the late Democratic hype around the 3rd District. The executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Parker Poling, declared Monday that the district “won’t flip.”
In any case, Trump looms large in the district’s political transformation. A recent poll from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee found Trump losing the district by 11 points — a 25-point swing away from his 2016 margin. Republicans involved in the contest say their polling does not show as dramatic of a swing but concede the presidential race will at least be close in the district.
Seikaly, a Plano lawyer, would be Texas’ first Arab American congresswoman.
“I think people are just tired of the lack of leadership and the chaos,” Seikaly said in an interview Thursday, addressing Trump’s standing in the district. “That’s the word I hear a lot — ‘How can we get rid of the chaos?’”
In a sign of how much Democrats believe Trump has become a liability in the district, they are working to explicitly tie Taylor to the president. Seikaly’s TV ads yolk Taylor to Trump and accuse both of not taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously, which she noted is an issue of “science and facts” that especially resonates in such a well-educated district. One of her commercials even invokes Trump’s suggestion earlier this year that people could inject themselves with disinfectants to fight the virus, showing a man in his garage reacting with disbelief after watching the president’s comment on TV.
Seikaly suggested the accusations in the commercials are more about Taylor’s close alignment with Trump than anything Taylor has personally done or said regarding the pandemic. “He’s Trump’s puppet,” Seikaly said.
Taylor shrugged off the push to link him to Trump’s pandemic handling, noting the coronavirus relief he has worked on in Congress and his office’s under-the-radar efforts to help secure unemployment benefits for constituents, for example, even though unemployment insurance is a state responsibility.
“Collin County voters are smart,” Taylor said. “They see and know my record.”
On TV, Taylor’s campaign is branding Seikaly as “Liberal Lulu Seikaly” and highlighting a Dallas Morning News headline that called him “Mr. Bipartisan.” Seikaly argued her views are more in line with the district’s, saying she is “not a far-left progressive” and likening her ideology to that of “Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.”
State House races
Leach and Shaheen have had targets on their backs for much longer. Shaheen eked out a reelection win two years ago by less than a point — against Hirsch — and Leach’s margin was 2 points, while Beto O’Rourke carried both of their districts.
Leach’s race in particular has become a blockbuster battle, one of the main attractions in Texas Republicans’ broader campaign to tie Democrats to the “defund the police” movement. Leach has been airing a TV spot that calls his Democratic opponent, Lorenzo Sanchez, an “anti-police zealot” based on comments he made at a June campaign event agreeing with disarming police and multiple Facebook posts by a campaign staffer. Sanchez has since said "it would be foolish to de-arm cops" and that he does not support defunding the police.
But in a reflection of how the county remains GOP-dominated in many ways, the sheriff, Jim Skinner, and all four constables — all Republicans — issued a statement criticizing Sanchez as a “danger to the citizens of Collin County” and law enforcement there.
At the same time, Democrats also see opportunity in injecting the president into the Texas House races in Collin County. A recent TV ad from Sanchez calls Leach an “extreme right-wing Trump Republican.” Leach shot back that Sanchez was in “pure panic and meltdown mode.”
On Thursday, Leach said in an interview he “felt very confident that if we get our voters to the polls, I believe we’re gonna win.” Like Taylor, Leach attributed the increasing political excitement around the county to Democratic spending from outside the district.
“What’s happening in Collin County is what’s happening all across the country,” Leach said. “It’s not unique in that respect.”
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