Will Flood-Stricken Republicans Vote Against A Texas Incumbent?

By Tiffany Stecker

Last summer’s Hurricane Harvey caused at least $125 billion in damage, second in history only to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. This year, one House lawmaker may pay a political price for the disaster.

Residents who were flooded out of their homes when Harvey pummeled East Texas could vent their frustrations at the ballot next week in Texas’ 7th Congressional District Republican primary. The challenger to the GOP incumbent, Rep. John Culberson, is seizing onto what he calls Congress’s modest hurricane aid package to malign his opponent.

Edward Ziegler, a business owner and oil and gas industry consultant who is challenging Culberson in the March 6 primary, has been critical of Culberson’s handling of Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath.

“Both on the prevention side and on the recovery side now, Congressman Culberson has just not done a good job,” Ziegler told Bloomberg Environment. “Houston, when they get their share, is only going to get, maybe 15, 20 percent of what the losses were.”

Ziegler’s shots at Culberson’s actions before and after Hurricane Harvey may not get him far in the primaries. A political novice, he has raised less than one-fifth of Culberson’s $1.15 million in campaign contributions. The Houston Chronicle also knocked down his critique of Culberson’s work to help his constituents after the storm in their endorsement of the incumbent.

“I would be extremely surprised if he gets even 45 percent of the vote, but stranger things have happened,” Bob Stein, a professor of political science at Rice University who is following the race, told Bloomberg Environment.

But Ziegler’s talking points on the campaign trail indicate a growing anti-incumbent sentiment within the district that could benefit Democrats in the general election. In his research, Stein found a significant overlap between the areas of Houston where Republicans voted against Culberson in the 2016 primary and the areas that flooded.

Tipping Point?

Hurricane Harvey may be a tipping point for those Republicans already frustrated with Culberson, leading to either fewer GOP voters in the general election this fall, or more flood-stricken Republicans voting for a Democrat.

“A third of the people who flooded in 2017 never flooded before,” said Stein, who has worked with Ziegler’s daughter in Rice’s political science department and advised her on her father’s campaign. “And they are all in these Republican areas of the district.”

Culberson’s campaign disputes the idea that the candidate is vulnerable in the district’s flood-prone areas. Cam Savage, a political consultant with Limestone Strategies working on the campaign, said that early voting turnout in favor of the congressman appears to be strong in areas of the 7th district that flooded.

“What we’ve seen is that those are some of our strongest precincts,” Savage told Bloomberg Environment.

Heavy Floods During Hurricane

Congress passed a $90 billion disaster aid package Feb. 9 to help states recover from the severe storms and wildfires from last year— nearly six months after Harvey hit. The package is far more generous than what the White House initially proposed for disaster relief, an increase for which Culberson takes partial credit. The congressman also included a provision that allowed flood victims to obtain aid from multiple sources at once, which normally would not be allowed under a ban on duplication of benefits.

But Ziegler doesn’t think the package was enough. He believes more federal funding should go to Army Corps of Engineers flood control projects to prevent future floods. He adds that Culberson was ineffective as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee in pressuring the Corps to do more to improve the flood-control system around Houston.

The 7th District covers a substantial portion of areas most heavily flooded during the hurricane. This includes the subdivisions near the Addick and Barker reservoirs, where the Corps intentionally released 8,000 cubic feet of water per second over several hours into the surrounding community.

Culberson recently called on the Justice Department to investigate the Corps’ communications with the community on the potential for the reservoirs to flood suburban neighborhoods. He was one of four Houston-area congressmen to push the Corps for more information on their actions.

Culberson—a conservative nine-term congressman who is a member of the Tea Party caucus—faces a tough re-election. The race is rated either a toss-up or with a slight Republican advantage, according to three Washington-based political sites that analyze congressional races.

The wealthy suburban Houston district narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and a November 2017 poll from the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling found Culberson had a 31 percent approval rating.

“The Democrats are pouring a record amount of money into my district, and I’m doing all that I need to do to register, identify and turn out every Republican voter in District 7,” Culberson told the Dallas Morning News in February.

In the 2016 primary, Culberson faced Republicans James Lloyd and Maria Espinoza and won by 57 percent—the third-lowest winning margin for an incumbent Texas Republican in that election.

Seven Democrats are vying for Culberson’s seat next week, with nonprofit executive Alexander Triantaphyllis and corporate attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher leading the pack in fundraising. Freelance journalist Laura Moser is also a top fundraiser, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently criticized her for being a “Washington insider.”

‘A Lot of Discontent’

The federal government’s slow response to providing aid for hurricane victims has left a lasting impression on Houstonians, according to Sherri Greenberg, a former Democratic Texas lawmaker who now teaches at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

“I think there is a lot of discontent regarding the reaction and how things have or have not moved,” she told Bloomberg Environment.

Statewide, satisfaction with the federal response to the Hurricane is declining. A Feb. 22 poll from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune found 48 percent of Texas voters approve of the federal government’s response to the hurricane, down from 57 percent in October.

Another Houston-area Republican, Rep. Pete Olson, is facing three challengers in next week’s primary. And in the neighboring 2nd Congressional District, where GOP Rep. Ted Poe is retiring, two Republicans have made hurricane recovery a campaign talking point: businessman David Balat and state Rep. Kevin Roberts, according to Texas media reports.

But the county’s rapid population growth and increasingly diverse demography—in particular, a growing Latino population—will likely play more in Democrats’ favor than anger over lost property from Hurricane Harvey.

“There are some factors here that were not in the mix previously,” Greenberg said.

—With assistance from Dean Scott and Jack Fitzpatrick (Bloomberg Government).