National Republicans wanted George H.W. Bush’s grandson to be their candidate for a rapidly diversifying battleground House district outside Houston.
Instead, they got a full, Trump-style brawl between two conservative candidates that — on the eve of Tuesday’s primary runoff — has left the district increasingly vulnerable to a Democratic takeover in November.
After emerging from a 15-candidate March primary, Republican megadonor Kathaleen Wall and Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls found themselves locked in a nasty, race-to-the-right runoff that's left them bear-hugging the president in a suburban district that is trending to the center as Trump is losing ground.
The final weeks have brought Republicans even more headaches. Wall went nuclear, tapping her personal wealth to run millions of dollars’ worth of TV ads featuring a sex-trafficking victim and her family excoriating Nehls for failing to protect them. Nehls bested Wall by 21 points in the primary, but even Nehls' allies worry her attack ads have bloodied the GOP frontrunner.
"Kathaleen Wall couldn’t be doing more for the Democrat Party than she is now," said Mike Gibson, a former Fort Bend County GOP chair who is backing Nehls. "Because she’s going to lose. Troy is going to win, and now they’re going to have all this stuff that they can also bring up."
The district, a longtime GOP bastion which former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay drew for himself, has quickly transformed into fiercely competitive territory, the result of an explosion of immigrant communities and the growing suburban rejection of Trump. Incumbent GOP Rep. Pete Olson, who won a much closer-than-expected race in 2018, is retiring rather than run again.
Trump’s margin of victory was 17 points smaller than Mitt Romney's in 2012. And some Democratic polling suggests it has only veered further to the left in the past four years. At least one internal Democratic survey in June found former Vice President Joe Biden leading Trump among likely voters, according to a source familiar with the polling.
Democrats watched with delight as Nehls and Wall beat out several more moderate options in the first round of the primary, including Pierce Bush, who was running as a compassionate conservative in the style of his uncle, George W. Bush.
"If I’m going to be honest, Pierce Bush would have been a difficult candidate to deal with because he is a moderate," Democratic nominee Sri Kulkarni said in an interview. "He probably would have reached out to new communities. But you see what’s happened to the Republican Party here: Both candidates have just gotten more and more extreme."
The runoff contenders have to some extent mirrored the president's rhetoric on race and the surging coronavirus pandemic, potentially exacerbating tensions in Houston, a pandemic hot spot that also hosted the funeral of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May.
Among the notable moments of the four-month runoff: Wall launched a TV ad accusing China of poisoning Americans with its "Chinese virus" and called the country a "criminal enterprise masquerading as a sovereign nation." She also wrote in a late March Facebook post that the pandemic will "save more lives this week than it takes" because Texas officials ordered abortions providers to cease unnecessary procedures.
Nehls, meanwhile, denounced a mandatory mask order for Harris County, home to Houston and some of the district’s voters, as "an unprecedented overreach which looks more like a communist dictatorship than a free Republic." He boasted in late April that not one of his 800 inmates and staff were infected by the virus.
The sheriff has openly admitted that the pandemic has left his little time for fundraising. He brought in just $108,000 in the two-and-a-half months before the runoff and is banking on his high name ID in Fort Bend to carry him through. His initial runoff polling showed him with a commanding lead, but that was before Wall had turned negative.
Wall, who spent millions on a failed 2018 bid for a seat now held by Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), has infused her campaign with over $8 million so far this cycle, much of that spent on TV ads. Her latest ads feature the Litvak family, whose daughter Courtney was a sex-trafficking victim.
In one spot, Courtney’s mother said Nehls has “publicly blamed and shamed our family.” And for nearly all of the final 30 seconds, Litvak’s father rants against Nehls by screaming direct-to-camera: “And I’d love to look you in the eye and have you tell me how you can possibly sit there and not do your job and not protect my family. Because that’s what you’ve done for years.”
Nehls has not aired any TV ads and has defended himself largely in Facebook posts. He also threatened Wall with legal action in a letter dated June 25. “At no time has he told Ms. Litvak that her “being raped and abused is a lifestyle choice,” attorney Todd Graves wrote on behalf of Nehls.
In a virtual campaign event, Nehls accused Wall of “spreading lies and half-truths” because she’s losing. “I don’t really have the time or the energy — or certainly I don’t have the resources — to go out and try to combat every single attack,” he said.
Yet a Nehls campaign adviser said the sheriff never lost his commanding lead over Wall in their internal polling, despite her barrage of ads.
Still, Republicans admit he could come out of the primary damaged from the attacks and they are concerned about his ability to raise money. And while they feel Nehls has a strong local brand in Fort Bend County, Democrats plan to attack his law-enforcement record. (Nehls was fired from the Richmond, Texas, Police Department in 1998 for reasons that included the destruction of evidence.)
The district is one of roughly a half-dozen Democrats are contesting in Texas, a state where Republicans have seen their once-yawning margins narrow significantly in recent elections. The three best opportunities for Democrats to flip seats are districts where incumbent GOP members are retiring: Olson in the Houston suburbs, Rep. Kenny Marchant in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and Rep. Will Hurd’s sprawling district that spans much of West Texas.
In Houston, Nehls' team feels confident he can run ahead of any top of the ticket trends. In the 2016 sheriff's race, Nehls received votes more than Hillary Clinton did, even as she carried the county, according to his campaign.
"There’s no reason to think he won’t outperform Democrats in Fort Bend County in 2020," Nick Maddux, a Nehls campaign adviser, said in a statement.
Should Wall emerge from the runoff, she will save national Republicans millions with her ability to self-fund. But Democrats are eager to paint her as too conservative for a center-trending district.
Meanwhile, Kulkarni, a former foreign service officer, is raising money at an impressive clip — $950,000 in the second quarter — and boasts name ID from his 2018 run. He had no serious primary competition to drag him to the left and is pitching himself as a candidate who can work across the aisle.
Even some Republicans admit he will be formidable to beat.
“Sri, he’s extremely well-spoken. He is very charismatic. He’s not a dummy. He understands how the world works, having a background in the State Department, and probably he’s had no bad press against him," said Jon Camarillo, a Marine veteran who ran in the March 3 GOP primary. "I think, starting off, yeah, I do see where he’s got an advantage.”