Houston area right-wing rockstar U.S. House Rep. Dan Crenshaw is running for a second term in Congress this year, but Democratic lawyer and former Beto O’Rourke advisor Sima Ladjevardian hopes that attacks on Crenshaw’s COVID-19 response will dim his spotlight enough to help her pull off an underdog upset.
It’s no secret that Crenshaw is one of the biggest Republican success stories in the Trump era. His social media posts where he snarkily attempts to debunk liberal policy positions routinely go viral with conservatives across the country, which has helped him build a reputation as a sort of anti-Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Crenshaw’s online savvy and military credentials — he was a Navy SEAL who served in Afghanistan, where he earned a Purple Heart but lost his right eye thanks to an improvised explosive device blast — have propelled him to the forefront of the national GOP since he was elected to represent Texas House District 2 back in the 2018 midterms.
Crenshaw told Politico’s John McCormack last year that he wants to “make conservatism cool and exciting again.” One of his latest attempts to do so is a glitzy online ad with over a million YouTube views and counting, where Crenshaw paints himself as the Captain America-esque leader of a cadre of Texan Republicans running for Congress, like a Marvel superhero movie about limited government and free-market economics.
Crenshaw got his first taste of the national spotlight when he parlayed a cheap joke about his eyepatch from Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson into an appearance on the show just after he’d won his first race in 2018. He got some jabs in at Davidson’s expense, and used his airtime to paint himself as a middle ground between progressive Democrats and loud-mouthed conservative agitators like Trump.
While Crenshaw promised he was the kind of Republican who wouldn’t just blindly support Trump (he’s criticized the President for mocking John McCain and for trying to pull troops out of Syria), an analysis from the politicos over at FiveThirtyEight found that the freshman congressman has voted in accordance with the president’s wishes 93.9 percent of the time so far.
Trump has enthusiastically retweeted Crenshaw’s defense of the president’s coronavirus response, and Crenshaw was the only Texan chosen to speak at this year’s national Republican convention.
Crenshaw has over a million followers on Twitter, 2.1 million on Instagram and has more than 700,000 fans on Facebook. He’s also a fundraising powerhouse; Crenshaw has leveraged his national profile into a whopping $16 million-plus fundraising haul for this election. Even after spending over $12 million already, Crenshaw still had more than $3.5 million in cash on hand as of October 14. Even though her candidacy is supported by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Ladjevardian had only raised just over $3 million as of September 30, when her campaign reported having $729,282 in available cash.
“I think the rest of the country wants to look more like Texas than California,” Crenshaw wrote in a statement to the Houston Press when asked about his national appeal.
“We have less regulations, lower taxes, and more prosperity. I have fiercely advocated for that governing strategy and clearly it is a message that resonates not only here in Texas but across the country,” he wrote.
There aren’t any publicly available polls on the Crenshaw-Ladjevardian race, probably because the big polling outfits don’t want to spend money on a race that most political observers think Crenshaw is set to win easily. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has the contest pegged for a “Likely Republican” victory, as does a forecast from famed University of Virginia professor and political prognosticator Larry Sabato.
The 2nd District covers a squirrely chunk of Harris County that starts around Montrose and includes parts of the Heights before swinging around northeast to rope in Kingwood, Humble and Spring. It’s the only Harris County district that went for Trump in 2016 — he beat out Hillary Clinton there by 9 percent. Crenshaw won his seat by seven points, and Sen. Ted Cruz narrowly beat out O’Rourke in the district in that year’s Senate race.
“Beto lost this district by 3,000 votes. That’s one point, and we’ve had 60,000 new registrants in the district in the past two years… it’s one of the fastest growing districts in America. It’s also one of the most gerrymandered,” said Dan Gottlieb, the Ladjevardian campaign’s communications director. “Everything is rigged against us to win here, and we’re just giving him everything he can handle.”
“This district is 40 percent minority and very young, very educated, and the dynamics have just completely changed [since 2018],” Ladjevardian said during an interview at a digital Texas Tribune event.
A Houston lawyer and a well-known fundraiser for Democrats, Ladjevardian was O’Rourke’s finance chair and a senior adviser to his campaign back in 2018. Ladjevardian came to the United States as a child when her family fled their home of Tehran during the Iranian Revolution.
She’s a breast cancer survivor who was inspired to run against Crenshaw in part due to her own experience with the healthcare system — during her illness, she was shocked to learn a single pill to treat her radiation-induced nausea cost $1,000 without insurance. Ladjevardian wants to protect and enhance the Affordable Care Act, while Crenshaw is a frequent Obamacare critic. She also supports stricter background checks for gun buyers, and while she’s in a favor of an assault weapon ban, she doesn’t agree with her old boss O’Rourke on his stance that those high-octane weapons should be confiscated from civilians through a buyback program.
Ladjevardian’s camp thinks its best shot at pulling off a longshot victory is hitting Crenshaw hard on COVID-19. One of her ads currently blanketing Houston area airwaves features a clip from a video Crenshaw posted online back in March where he claimed that face masks don’t help slow COVID-19’s spread, followed by a litany of local doctors calling him reckless.
Crenshaw has repeatedly claimed that remark was taken out of context; days before he made the comment, the U.S. Surgeon General had publicly downplayed the need for everyday Americans to wear facemasks. When asked about his response to the coronavirus crisis, Crenshaw is quick to point out that two months later his team bought 50,000 face masks and distributed them to constituents.
“If he had stopped in March, that’s a different situation. It’s the fact that it continued,” said Gottlieb.
He referenced Crenshaw’s criticism of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo for her first attempt at a mask order in April that came with potential fines of $1,000. Before her order was shut down by Gov. Greg Abbott, Crenshaw said enforcing it would “lead to unjust tyranny.”
Crenshaw’s also taken flak for attending several largely mask-free fundraisers during the pandemic, whereas Ladjevardian has mostly stayed home and settled for digital fundraisers and having volunteers leave campaign material on voters’ doorsteps.
“He thinks his base is going to vote for him whether he wears a mask or not, but [given] the behavior people like this are modeling, who have mega bases of followers, it doesn’t surprise me that we’re back where we are,” Gottlieb said.
Despite rising coronavirus hospitalizations across the state and the more than 17,000 Texans who lost their lives due to COVID-19, Crenshaw thinks the business closures designed to keep Texans home during the crisis weren’t worth the hit to the state economy in the end.
“Americans have to be trusted to take precautions, reopen safely, and get their kids back in school,” Crenshaw said in a statement. “It is extremely clear — with the benefit of hindsight — that the extended lockdowns had far greater costs than benefits.”
Crenshaw wants to focus on how he’s helped pass bipartisan bills on flood relief, fighting human trafficking and protecting Texas energy jobs in the campaign’s final days. He also touts “providing personalized health care, lowering drug costs, and protecting people with pre-existing conditions” as issues he wants to highlight leading up to Election Day.
Whether or not Ladjevardian will be successful in keeping the spotlight on COVID-19 remains to be seen, but it’s likely the only way she’d be able to pull off a David-style victory against a conservative, flag-waving Goliath in Crenshaw.
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