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Will Mike Rawlings Try to Oust Pete Sessions in 2018?

The stage appears set for a Democratic upset of one of North Texas' most ensconced Republican congressmen
By Peter Simek |

What follows is a bunch of wild speculation, so take it for what it is.

This morning I read an article that echoed a conversation I had a couple of days ago with a politically involved colleague. As Democrats turn their attention towards the 2018 mid-term elections, they will hope to ride a tide of broad-based disenchantment with the new administration. The latest polls put Trump’s approval rating somewhere between 43 and 47 percent, while congressional job approval is an abyssal 19 percent. But if Democrats hope to exploit Trump buyer’s remorse to make up ground in Congress, what Republican-held congressional seats might be up for grabs and who might be in a position to make a run for them?

Perhaps a strong Hispanic candidate could pick-off Jeb Hensarling, whose district includes Garland, Mesquite and parts of East Dallas, but that may be a stretch. Then there is Pete Sessions, whose North Dallas district is a Republican stronghold, the home of President George W. Bush, but which, nonetheless, voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election. Given how quickly Trump’s approval rate has sunk, could Democrats compete in Texas’ 32nd District if they found the right candidate?

The Texas Tribune reports that Democrats are hoping to do just that, and they have zeroed in on two districts in Texas, including Sessions’, that they believe they could be up for grabs in 2018:

Democrats on Capitol Hill say President Trump’s performance in Texas against Clinton is why they are concentrating on a state they mostly ignored in the last several cycles, save for Hurd’s district. Trump’s 9-point win over Clinton in Texas was the narrowest for a Republican presidential candidate in 20 years.

Democrats further argue that Trump underperformed in Texas’ urban areas, particularly in Dallas and Harris Counties. At least one Democratic operative close to leadership who was not authorized to speak on the record called the president a potential “albatross around their neck.”

Multiple interviews with House Democratic sources have yet to scare up any possible recruits in the two districts.

Which leads to the next question: could Democrats scare up a candidate who could even mount a respectable challenge to Pete Sessions, who has been in office since 1997? I floated two possibilities past my better-informed colleague: Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. Jenkins, I was told, isn’t interested in running for higher office. Rawlings, on the other hand, may be a different story.

Dallas mayors have a habit of leaving office before the end of their terms to run for bigger jobs, and the timing of the 2018 election is right for Rawlings. As long as he can sort out the Dallas Police and Fire Pension fiasco, get the bond package put together, acclimate the city to a new city manager, and maybe advance one or two of his pet projects (Fair Park or the Trinity), he can leave early and claim a successful tenure with regards to growing the southern Dallas tax base, improving downtown, and being a friend to business and growth.

Perhaps more importantly, Rawlings has presented well on the national stage in two separate crises, the Ebola scare and last summer’s police shooting, which is rather unprecedented for a Dallas mayor. He’s also a Democrat with deep business and political ties in North Dallas, someone who could run as a level-headed, business-friendly moderate, which is what Democrats would need if they have any hope of flipping Sessions’ district.

Rawlings’ critics have mostly focused on his penchant for thinking too regionally at the expense of the city of Dallas, and for too often holding water for the business establishment, particular with regards with privatization of city services and property (c.f. Fair Park). But not only are these criticisms that will make him a strong candidate in northern Dallas County (with a dab of Collin County), they reflect a way of thinking about policy that might actually make Rawlings a better congressman than he is a mayor. And while Rawlings was criticized early in his term for not wanting to get his hands dirty with the messy business of politicking around the horseshoe, he has shown himself more recently to be able to build coalitions and strike compromises.

In other words, unlike last summer, when a presumptive Hillary Clinton victory suggested that Rawlings’ political hopes lay more in appointments than in shocking upsets in Republican strongholds, the political landscape looks rather different post-Trump. Fiscally conservative, socially liberal North Dallasites may be willing to support a moderate Democrat like Rawlings who could provide some friction to the goings on in Washington.

There is, of course, another office up for grabs in 2018: Ted Cruz’s senate seat. But Texas mayors haven’t played well in state-wide races in recent history. If someone local is going to upset Cruz in 2018, I’d put my money on an independent or libertarian blitz by Mark Cuban, who has been positioning himself, in the media and on Twitter, at least, as an outspoken billionaire antidote to Trump. But again, wild speculation.

That said, could Rawlings win a congressional race in a deeply Republican district? Maybe.

Should Rawlings run? Definitely.


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