AUSTIN, TEXAS — On a muggy Sunday, student volunteers for Joseph Kopser’s Democratic congressional campaign doggedly assembled to lay out their plan of action.
“Remember to open with a question they can’t say no to,” said Katie Hindes, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin. “Like, ‘do you believe in democracy?'”
A chorus of chuckles filled the room, along with a series of nods. Fifteen minutes later, they file out into cars and head out to their various destinations throughout Texas’ 21st congressional district, which extends from the suburbs north of San Antonio all the way into Austin, an hour and a half away.
It’s a deeply gerrymandered district, one that has been held by Republican Lamar Smith for decades. Running to replace Smith, who is retiring, is Kopser, an Iraq war veteran and a Democrat new to politics.
Kopser is up against Chip Roy, a Republican who once served as chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz (R) and who leads in the polls, albeit by an increasingly narrowing margin. Their match-up is a study in opposites: Roy is a hardline conservative in keeping with the legacy of Smith. Kopser, by contrast, is a tech entrepreneur with a background in renewable energy, who studied aerospace engineering while at West Point.
And while Roy would continue Smith’s lengthy history of support for rolling back environmental regulations and refuting climate science, Kopser has made his support for sustainability and belief in climate change a core pillar of his campaign.
“I was definitely drawn to his science background,” Vinit Shah, 17, told ThinkProgress while riding in the back of a car en route to his assigned canvassing addresses. “That’s very important to me. He believes in climate change, in science. Both [political parties] need to be better about that. I think he can bring people together across party lines.”
That’s a dramatic difference from Smith, who has actively supported President Donald Trump’s environmental regulation rollbacks, while working to limit the data available for federal science policy.
“Lamar Smith doesn’t believe in climate change, doesn’t believe in science,” said Shah, something he said is a “huge factor” when it comes to his support for candidates.
A college sophomore studying public health and history, Shah previously canvassed for Kopser during the Democratic primaries. He’s now actively supporting the candidate in the general election, but he told ThinkProgress his approach to engaging voters has changed.
“During the primaries I emphasized his progressive stances,” said Shah, nodding to Kopser’s support for a number of causes, like abortion rights and protections for LGBTQ Texans. “It’s not that I don’t do that now in the general, but I say it differently. Instead of single-payer, I say, ‘expanding health care access.’ Conservatives like access. On climate issues I don’t say ‘climate change,’ maybe, but more, ‘conservation.'”
TX-21 is an undeniably conservative district and Smith has comfortably retained power since 1987. But this election cycle has seen an unprecedented amount of support for Texas Democrats, aided by the star power of Beto O’Rourke, whose progressive run for the U.S. Senate against Cruz has mobilized and energized voters.
Students campaigning for Kopser typically caveat that Beto-mania takes center stage for young voters. “Everyone’s excited about Beto,” said Hindes.
But that doesn’t preclude investment in other candidates. Kopser, she eagerly notes, is “just the best guy. He’s always telling stories. Just so, so nice.”
Years ago, a friendly, personable scientist vocal about climate change would have been a blip on the radar in a district like TX-21. But in 2018 amid a surge of anti-Trump sentiment — even among conservative voters — Kopser’s married, father-of-three status and history of army service are enough to bring more than a few independents and moderate Republicans to the table, progressive platform or not.
Kopser’s young supporters note that knocking on doors in the district means visiting neighborhoods that are deep red and deep blue alike. And in doing so, they’ve found some surprises. “There are lots of Republicans with Beto signs,” said Shah, sounding a bit in awe.
There are a multitude of factors at play this year in TX-21. Apathy among conservative voters is merging with the district’s changing face. Young voters are moving in and the area is diversifying. Suburban Republican women, meanwhile, simply don’t like Trump, the students say, giving them an opening. And with a candidate like Kopser, they feel they’ve hit the jackpot. Now, they just have to reach as many people as possible.
That’s easier said than done, but Madison Kaigh, the campaign’s communications associate, lays out her pitch to voters plainly.
“We’re not running against Ted Cruz, we’re running against the guy who got him elected,” said Kaigh, with a nod to O’Rourke’s popularity while placing emphasis on her final point about Roy, Kopser’s opponent.
Still, there are hiccups. A competitive race hasn’t played out in the district in decades and voter lists aren’t up-to-date as a result. On their rounds, the students often find that residents have moved away. Others are apathetic.
“I don’t vote,” one man said curtly on Sunday, shutting the door.
At other intervals, there comes victory. Several residents indicated their interest in Kopser to the students as they canvassed. One long-time Republican said he plans to vote straight-ticket Democrat in November.
“Got one!” Shah yelled, before quickly moving on to the next house.