In Texas’ 21st congressional district, walking from street to street, knocking on doors and asking for votes is not as straightforward as it sounds.
The district covers parts of the state’s liberal heartland in central Austin, dips down to the north-eastern suburbs of San Antonio and protracts about 200 miles west into remote and ultra-conservative cowboy country.
The district’s shape is so contorted by gerrymandering that when Mary Wilson canvasses in urban areas of Austin and San Antonio, she sometimes has to get out a map to check which side of the boundary she’s on.
But there is another dividing line, next to which Wilson stands on the left: a Democratic divide between progressives and moderates that will be closely watched on Tuesday, as Texas holds party runoff elections ahead of November’s midterms.
Democrats need to flip 23 seats to take control of the House and were it not for the way Austin is carved up, the 21st would be a likely victory rather than an intriguing outside bet.
The city is covered by six districts that extend far out into conservative strongholds, diluting the influence of Travis County, where Hillary Clinton won 66% of the vote in 2016. Austin residents comprise a minority of each district’s population; five of the six are in Republican hands.
In a year when the Democratic base is highly energised and the 21st’s Republican incumbent, Lamar Smith, is retiring, the district is a test case for whether Democratic prospects are best served by a candidate who can inspire exceptional turnout from liberals or one that could woo moderate crossover Republicans, disturbed by the party’s direction under Donald Trump.
Wilson, a minister and former math teacher, believes that the Washington establishment, in the form of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), favours her runoff rival, Joseph Kopser, a decorated army veteran and entrepreneur with endorsements from a number of party figures. The DCCC has not officially endorsed a candidate in the race.
“How did I, this lifelong Democrat, become that ‘anti-establishment’ candidate?” she asked. “Well, I became that because the DCCC decided they liked my opponent’s story, they thought somehow he can win, and lo and behold he [raised] nearly $800,000 on a primary…