Texas Republican Pete Sessions has represented a slice of Dallas and its suburbs in the U.S. House for two decades, breezing through most of his re-election campaigns, buoyed by the support of suburban conservatives who know Sessions as a reliable pragmatist and deft political navigator who can get things done in Washington.
But since the seismic shift of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win, the political establishment has had to adapt. In Sessions' case, he’s found himself fighting hard to defend his long-held seat against an unfamiliar, well-funded challenger: civil rights attorney and former NFL linebacker Colin Allred, a Democrat from Dallas with no political experience but an endorsement from former President Barack Obama.
If Sessions defeats Allred, he will win a 12th term in Congress. He has become a leading voice since he was first elected in a differently drawn district in 1996, eventually rising to chair the powerful House Rules Committee. In 2010, as head of the Republican National Congressional Committee, Sessions led the successful GOP effort to reclaim the House majority. In 2016, he ran unopposed to keep the seat.
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His supporters praise his fiscal pragmatism and his commitment to free enterprise, citing his lengthy congressional tenure and House leadership record as important strengths.
Allred supporters speak of ideological values — civility, empathy, accountability, honor — that they fear are getting lost in the partisan division in their district, in Texas and nationwide. In Allred they see someone who shares their values and would stand up and fight for them in Washington.
Texas' 32nd District has long leaned Republican, but it's one of 25 congressional districts that in 2016 voted Republican for the U.S. House but for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in the presidential election.
Nonpartisan analysts Charlie Cook, Larry Sabato and Nathan Gonzales all consider this race a toss-up, meaning it’s anyone’s guess as to what might happen Tuesday.
This article, part 9 in a series, examines one of the key battleground races for control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 6 midterm elections. Carried by grassroots momentum, Democrats must take 23 seats from Republicans to win the balance of power. They are contending with Republicans' experience and organization, and an outspoken but polarizing president.
The 32nd District includes part of Dallas' urban center but is largely made up of sprawling, predominantly affluent Dallas County suburbs. It also includes a part of conservative-leaning Collin County.
The district’s demographics are evolving, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and it’s looking less Republican red and more purple, with Democrats mixed in — indicating it's more likely to swing politically.
"It's one of the inner-ring suburban districts where people have been moving out of the urban core, making those districts more diverse, and therefore more competitive," he said.
Allred has the advantage in fundraising, bringing in $5 million to Sessions' $4.4 million.
"Colin Allred raised more than $1 million in the most recent quarter, so it’s a fair fight. Usually, an incumbent Republican will have a lot more money than his Democrat challenger — but not so much this year," Jillson said. “It’s a very close race.”
Sessions has not faced a competitive challenger since 2004, but this year the 32nd District could see a political novice with a compelling backstory unseat the longtime congressman considered one of the House's most powerful and effective lawmakers.
Thirty-five-year-old Colin Allred has never run for an elected office, but people around Dallas might recognize his name — he played four seasons in the NFL as a linebacker for the Tennessee Titans.
Allred said he wasn't a star linebacker, but he was a hard worker. He worked hard when he played for Baylor University in Waco so he would have a chance at the NFL, where he hoped to make enough money for law school.
In a campaign video, Allred introduces himself by talking about his childhood in Dallas. His mother, a Dallas teacher, raised Allred on her own because his father wasn’t around. But, Allred said, his story "isn't about the father who wasn't there — it’s about the mom who was."
He speaks of his lifelong ties to the community and his first-hand understanding of the needs and challenges of the people he hopes to represent. He said Sessions’ D.C. ambitions have distanced him, literally and ideologically, from his Dallas constituents.
Meanwhile, Allred said he has been spending time getting to know his district by hosting weekly sit-downs — "Coffees With Colin" — and listening to people's concerns about health care, jobs, education and opportunity.
One topic that rarely comes up at his coffees, Allred said, is Trump.
"People usually don’t ask me about him, and I think it’s partly because he’s so ever-present, and they want to know what we are going to do to cut through some of this noise and to get some work done for the people of the area," Allred said.
Allred does have concerns about the Trump presidency, though. Not as much about policy, because policy can be reversed. He told the Dallas Morning News that he's more worried about “the degradation of our values" under the current administration.
After the NFL, Allred earned a law degree, eventually working in Obama's administration as counsel for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That earned Allred the endorsements of the former president and of his housing department director, fellow Texan Julian Castro.
Allred also got the endorsement of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a Democrat who’s praised Sessions’ leadership in the past. But Allred, Rawlings said, is now "the right man for America" and "the right man for Dallas."
"I have always tried to do the right thing for the city of Dallas, and it is now obvious that politically our country is headed in the wrong direction,” Rawlings said.
Sessions calls himself a Reagan Republican — he even has a life-size Ronald Reagan cardboard cutout on display in his congressional office.
He frequently mentions his commitment to free enterprise and is consistently business-friendly. According to his chief-of-staff, Caroline Boothe, it was the congressman's record of fighting for "freedom and opportunity" that earned him the endorsement of the city's daily paper, The Dallas Morning News. The editorial said Sessions "better represents the principles of limited government" than his opponent.
Sessions has voted with Trump about 98 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight's analysis. He has been particularly proud of supporting the Republican-crafted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed by the president at the end of last year, which provided steep tax cuts for corporations and wealthy Americans, along with more modest reductions for middle- and low-income individuals and families.
Sessions said last year that the tax cuts, a signature achievement for Trump, turbo-charged the American economy.
"There are 9 million more jobs available in America today. We've seen the stock market rise about 40 percent since we passed the bill and, perhaps more importantly, take-home pay increased at the highest rate since the 1970s," Sessions said at a Rotary Club forum in December. "What we're seeing is economic growth across the board."
Sessions was not available for an interview, but Boothe said the congressman is known in D.C. as the "go-to guy to get things done." And, she added, he gets things done because to him it's more than "just his job — it's his responsibility, his civic duty."
The congressman received the president's endorsement via tweet — twice — and several major faces in the party have stumped or fundraised for Sessions, including Donald Trump Jr., House Majority Leader Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence, who called Sessions a "friend" who acted as a mentor to him when he was new to Congress.
Longtime Sessions supporter Susan Fountain, who’s lived in Dallas over three decades and considers herself “very politically active,” said for her this election is really about the economy and Sessions' Washington expertise.
"We have a rousing economy down here in Texas,” she said. She also cited Sessions' decades of legislative experience.
“Pete is chairman of our House Rules Committee, and he's been a congressman for 22 years — he has that much experience," Fountain said.
Most of Sessions' campaign ads stay focused on his legislative accomplishments and Texas’ healthy economy.
But in a rare attack ad, which barely mentioned his opponent, Sessions accuses House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and “the Democrats" of "jamming” voters’ TVs with negative attack ads.
"They want revenge” for his coordinating the 2010 Republican takeover of the House, Sessions alleges, speaking over a faint thwack-thwack-thwack of the arrows flying through the air behind him hitting a Pete Sessions for Congress campaign sign.
"When you stand on principle, you become a target," Sessions said.
'I Felt Like I Stepped Into a Fire Ant Pile'
Voters in Texas and across the U.S. have passionate views on health care, immigration and jobs, said Jollsin, the SMU political scientist, but no issue in these midterms is more important than Trump.
Texas voters’ opinions of Trump mirror their partisan identification, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released last week. Asked if Trump has the temperament to serve as president, cares about people like you, is trustworthy and competent and more, between 78 percent and 91 percent of Republicans said yes. But between 4 percent and 10 percent of Democrats felt the same way.
Republican Todd Gottel served for a decade as mayor of Rowlett, a conservative Dallas suburb in Sessions’ district. Gottel knew the president's rhetoric was stoking division, but he was shocked last year when he saw up close the urgency and the fury of those who oppose the administration.
Gottel was asked to stand at the podium and read voter-submitted questions into a microphone for a jam-packed public town hall Sessions hosted in a high school gymnasium in Richardson. As many as 2,000 people packed the small gym beyond capacity, with people standing in aisles and spilling out the exit doors.
Sessions began the presentation by extolling the virtues of being respectful and listening to one another. He then tried to explain why he opposed and planned to dismantle Obama's signature health care legislation, the Affordable Care Act, projecting a series of different graphs explaining how the ACA could negatively affect GDP and job growth.
Many in the audience barely let the congressman get a word out before they'd start shouting, jeering or chanting phrases like "do your job" and "this plan sucks." There was so much of it that at one point, Sessions said to the crowd, "Now I’m starting to understand why you’re so frustrated; you don’t know how to listen." The crowd roared louder.
It was a tough act for Gottel to follow.
"I felt like I stepped into a fire ant pile," he said.
Sessions has not hosted a live town hall since.
Gottel said he felt that the forum was too raucous for any nuanced discussion of real issues.
He likes Sessions and considers him a pragmatic conservative who is willing to listen and consider all sides of political issues.
There's a "huge amount of value to someone that has the level of experience and the contacts to be able to get things done" in Washington, Gottel said. "In many cases, it may take someone days [to get something done] where it takes [Sessions] a phone call."
Gottel said he's not actually the biggest Trump fan — he doesn't like "the tweets," doesn't approve of all the behavior. Still, he gives him credit for having accomplished a lot since he's been in office. He voted for him two years ago and can’t think of a reason why he wouldn’t do the same in 2020.
Rowlett resident Lauren Bingham, who identifies as a progressive but not with either party, said she is worried about raising her 5-year-old son in a culture that she sees as increasingly divisive and one in which vulnerable people are getting left behind.
She's been canvassing her neighborhood in support of Allred, sometimes with her son by her side, and has heard from other voters "who just don’t feel like we’re headed in the right direction, that we’ve lost the civility we used to have in politics," she said, adding, "not like it’s always been fantastic and rainbows and sunshine, but the name-calling, the family separation, the travel ban."
Bingham is involved with a local chapter of the nonpartisan Mormon Women for Ethical Government, an organization "dedicated to the ideals of decency, honor, accountability, transparency, and justice in governing."
Mormon women aren’t typically at the forefront of activism, so it was a bold move for the group to come forward, Bingham said. After the 2016 election, she said, these women "kind of started coming out of the woodwork, saying they don’t like what’s going on."
Allred's "appealing profile" will likely be problematic for House Republicans who'd gotten used to this being a very safe seat, said David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, on C-SPAN in August.
"Over time, those suburban professionals have moved away from the Republican party, because they're frankly questioning their partisan identity in the age of Trump," Wasserman said.
Despite Texas’ positive economic numbers, some voters say the Republican optimism about jobs does not reflect the reality for all, and the struggles faced by some families and lower wage-earners are being overlooked. Low unemployment rates may not reflect that temporary, contract or part-time workers don’t necessarily receive health benefits, for example.
Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the country, at 21 percent, almost double the national average of 12 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. It was also one of 17 states that declined to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, making it even more difficult for Texans in need to receive assistance.
Fifty-eight percent of Texas voters said they were either “not very” or “not at all” satisfied with the health care system in the U.S., compared to 35 percent who said they were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with it, according to the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.
Sessions has voted dozens of times against the ACA. He voted last year for the American Health Care Act, the GOP’s legislative attempt to repeal Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act — including its protections for people with pre-existing conditions — but that plan ultimately fizzled in the Senate.
Sessions last month introduced a nonbinding resolution to protect people with pre-existing conditions, but critics point out that, besides it being nonbinding, it would not limit the amount insurers could charge those patients for care. Allred criticized the proposal, calling it a pre-election Hail Mary and the “worst kind of Washington politics.”
Sessions still continues to work on his own health care plan called the World’s Greatest Health Care Plan, which has failed twice so far to get to a vote. Part of this plan includes eliminating individual and employer mandates from the ACA, which he argues stifles free enterprise.
“Mandates take away choice, and mandates do not allow an opportunity for a market to flourish,” he said during his town hall last year, adding that he would replace them with a monthly tax credit.
Julian Culpepper, a 30-year-old nurse practitioner and 32nd District constituent, is unimpressed by Sessions’ record on health care legislation.
As a health care professional, Culpepper said he looks to organizations like the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics for apolitical assessments of proposed legislation. Both were critical of the Republicans’ effort to repeal the ACA and never saw Sessions or other members of Congress come forward with "an objective analysis" in support of the bill.
"I recommend things to my patients that are based in evidence or science," Culpepper said. "To think that a congressman would be willing to throw our entire health care system into turmoil against the advice of most experts is unacceptable."
Immigration and border security is a pressing issue in Texas, which has the longest border with Mexico, at 1,254 miles, of any U.S. state.
Fountain, the Sessions supporter, supports him on immigration because he believes in "controlling our borders and knowing who is going in, and who is going out, of our country," she said.
Sessions is a border security hardliner who says he opposes illegal immigration, not immigration on the whole. He supports Trump's wall — a porous or underprotected border poses a “great danger” to the American people, he's said — despite his reservations as a fiscal pragmatist about the wall's estimated multibillion dollar price tag, he told Fox News in February 2017.
“It can’t be built in one year, or a year and a half, but it can be done,” Sessions said. “And if this is the will of the president, I guarantee you it’s the will of the American people. We want to protect what this country stands for.”
Allred says the wall would not make the border more secure.
"It's ineffective. It's a waste of money," Allred said in a late October debate with Sessions in Dallas, adding that immigration policy should be built with compassion for people who are fleeing oppression or poverty and seeking to better their lives in a country that still believes in the importance of opportunity.
Bingham, the Allred supporter, said one of the most important issues for her this election is the Trump administration’s enforcement of a zero-tolerance border policy that includes separating children from their parents after they cross the border illegally, a policy the Mormon Women for Ethical Government “unequivocally denounced."
A candidate’s stance on this issue is a good indicator of their commitment to values like civility and empathy, Bingham said.
Allred denounced the practice of family separations because it denied the families due process in court.
A spokesperson for Sessions told NBC DFW in June that the congressman “obviously does not want actual families to be separated,” though they also emphasized that most children crossing the border weren't with their families.
Trump continues to rail against immigration in the closing days of the election, an apparent effort to galvanize voters in close elections around the country. It remains to be seen whether that will win purple districts like the 32nd District, where some voters are weighing Trump's messages with the way he makes them.