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Texas House race highlights Democratic divide on party’s policy agenda

Democrats have struggled to advance some major priorities, forcing a debate over whether to push for bold policies or settle for piecemeal progress. 
Image: Greg Casar
Democratic candidate Greg Casar speaks during a "Get Out the Vote" rally on Feb. 12 in San Antonio. Brandon Bell / Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., will be in Texas this week, campaigning for attorney Jessica Cisneros in her high-profile primary race against Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar. But that won’t be Warren’s only stop. 

After headlining an early vote rally for Cisneros in San Antonio on Tuesday evening, Warren is scheduled to head to Austin, where a different fight is playing out over the future of the Democratic Party.  

On Wednesday, Warren will rally volunteers supporting former Austin City Councilmember Greg Casar, who is competing for the Democratic nod in the 35th District, a deep blue seat that stretches from Austin to San Antonio. 

Unlike the ideological battle in the neighboring 28th District, Casar and his chief primary rival, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, are both laying claim to the progressive mantle. But they diverge on tactics, encapsulating a debate among Democrats in Washington over how exactly to advance their priorities. 

Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s decision to run in the new 37th District opened up the 35th District and the eventual Democratic nominee will likely head to Congress. President Joe Biden would have won the district by 45 percentage points had the new lines been in place in 2020. 

Like other open House races in Democratic territory, the race provides an opportunity to shape the next Congress’ Democratic caucus

“The question for us wasn’t, ‘Will we send a Democrat?’” said Pedro Lira, co-director of the Texas Working Families Party, which is backing Casar. “It was instead, ‘What kind of Democrat are we sending to Congress?’”

The race could provide a clue as to the kind of tactics Democrats will embrace moving forward. Democrats have struggled to advance some of their major priorities, forcing a debate over whether to push for bold policies or settle for piecemeal progress. 

”We need elected officials that are ready to make things actually move in Washington," Casar said in an interview with NBC News. "There’s just example after example of politicians who talk a progressive game but don’t actually stand up to entrenched interests and get things done.”

“This idea that moderates and more corporate Democrats are the ones that get things done just isn’t borne out at all here in the last year in the Congress,” Casar added.

Casar, who started out as an organizer, has been at the forefront of some of the most contentious policies in Austin. He led the effort to cut the police budget and allow homeless encampments in public spaces, which Austin voters later overturned

Rodriguez, a longtime state legislator, has used the homelessness issue to attack Casar. He cited the controversy as an example of decisions that were “rushed [and] weren’t planned out.”

”A lot of it is tone,” Rodriguez said in an interview of the difference between himself and Casar, later adding, “It’s not my way or the highway every single time.”

”Greg is very passionate in his approach,” said Ed Espinoza, president of the Democratic group Progress Texas, which has not endorsed in the race. “I think Eddie’s approach is: Did passion get us what we wanted?”

The race has split Democrats in Congress. On Friday the political arm of the more moderate New Democrat Coalition backed Rodriguez, while the Congressional Progressive Caucus has endorsed Casar. 

“People who understand how to use the platform of elected office for organizing is part of how we build the progressive movement within Congress and more broadly,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the caucus co-chair, who traveled to Austin over the weekend to campaign for Casar.

She said Casar is “exactly the kind of person that will be able to hit the ground running.”

The attention from high-profile progressives including Warren, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and outside groups, including Justice Democrats, have bolstered Casar’s fundraising. His campaign has raised $743,000, while Rodriquez has raised $420,000. 

But the race could be forced into a runoff if no one wins the majority of the primary vote on March 1. Former San Antonio City Councilmember Rebecca Viagran has lagged behind in fundraising but is considered another top contender. 

Most of the votes are expected to come from Austin, where Casar and Rodriguez have bases of support. But it’s not clear where voters outside of the city will fall.

”Outside of Austin, the socialist Democratic message does not work,” said Christian Archer, a Democratic consultant based in San Antonio. 

Casar is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, although the group is no longer backing him because of his opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Of his affiliation with democratic socialists, Casar said that he is part of “a broad set of progressive organizations.”

“At my core I identify as somebody that has been a labor organizer and an immigrant rights organizer,” he said. 

Rodriguez has not attacked Casar for his socialist ties, but said: “The district is obviously a Democratic district, a progressive district. But I’m not sure that it’s a democratic socialist district.” 

“Voters are going to vote, I think, [for] who they feel is going to best represent them and actually get things done,” Rodriguez said.