A neurologist. A real estate agent. A retiree. A lawyer.
Democrats are lining up for the chance to take on two Republican state representatives in Collin County, a traditionally conservative stronghold emerging as a battleground in 2020.
The seats — held by Plano Republican Reps. Jeff Leach and Matt Shaheen — are top targets for Democrats seeking to seize control of the Texas House for the first time in decades.
“We are in the middle of a fundamental realignment in parties and politics with [President Donald] Trump heading the Republican party,” said Collin County Democratic Party Chairman Mike Rawlins.
“How that is going to play out long term is anybody’s guess,” he said. “But it’s driving a lot of country club and chamber of commerce Republicans … [to vote] Democratic or now self identify Democratic.”
The race for House District 66 — which covers West Plano — features Sharon Hirsch, a retiree who came within 400 votes of besting Shaheen in 2018, and Aimee Garza Lopez, a neurologist and political newcomer.
The women split on several issues — from guns to marijuana policy — with Hirsch generally taking a more progressive stance than Lopez, who casts herself as a moderate.
In neighboring House District 67, which stretches from Plano to Allen, four Democrats are vying to take on Leach. The candidates agree on most issues, including expanding Medicaid and requiring background checks for private gun sales between strangers. Where they differ is in the way they pitch themselves to voters.
Attorney Rocio Gosewehr Hernandez and real estate agent Lorenzo Sanchez are emphasizing their roots in the district, while attorney Tom Adair and former legislative staffer Anthony Lo tout their experience.
The crowded primaries come as Collin County has experienced explosive growth in the number of registered voters — over 45% in the past decade. The area is also becoming more racially diverse.
Both the Texas House districts are trending purple, meaning the winners will need to pick up some support from voters on both sides of the aisle, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
“Just mobilizing your base isn’t likely to be enough. You have to have some crossover appeal,” Jones said.
The primary is March 3, and early voting starts Feb. 18.
House District 66
Hirsch, a former office manager in Plano ISD who volunteers for Democratic causes in the district, said her deep ties to the community and experience running last election cycle give her momentum in 2020.
“I was convinced pretty quickly we could build on that progress, we would get more support this go round and we would prevail,” said Hirsch, who moved to the district in 1996 with her husband, an educator, and her four children. “For me it’s the stronger connection to the community is what really sets me apart, a stronger connection to the party.”
Lopez, a neurologist who runs her own practice, said she represents the demographics of the district and understands voters’ concerns as a working mother of two who owns a business.
“It’s a changing district, but it’s still a pretty conservative district,” said Lopez, who grew up in San Antonio and moved to the Dallas area in 2007. “As a moderate Democrat, I can appeal to moderate Republicans and independents. And I think that allows me to speak about bipartisanship, about crossing party lines and being able to make the compromises we need.”
Hirsch, 64, has raised over three times what Lopez, 45, has. Lopez, however, has loaned her campaign over $100,000.
While both women offer support for expanding Medicaid and prioritize public education, they split over where to find funding, how to address gun violence and whether to loosen marijuana laws.
On funding schools in Texas, Hirsch said the state can find money by closing tax loopholes, such as one that makes it easier for big companies to contest their property appraisals and taxes. Lopez is proposing to expand affordable living facilities for aging Texans, so that housing stock shifts to younger owners who pay more in property taxes since they don’t receive exemptions given to seniors.
In addressing gun violence, Lopez supports requiring background checks for private gun sales between strangers, a proposal floated last summer by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Hirsch would go further, requiring background checks for private gun purchases between strangers, online and at gun shows, she said. She also would consider so-called red flag laws, which allow law enforcement to remove firearms from people a judge has deemed dangerous.
On marijuana, Hirsch supports legalizing the drug and taxing its sale to create a new state revenue stream. Lopez does not favor legalizing marijuana or decriminalizing small amounts of the drug at the state level. She would support expansion of the state’s medicinal cannabis program only to cover conditions where research has shown the drug is beneficial.
House District 67
None of the four Democrats running in House District 67 has held elected office, but all have volunteered for Democratic candidates.
Adair, an attorney, said experience is what sets him apart. Before attending the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, he worked as a legislative aide to Republican U.S. Congressman Tom Petri of Wisconsin.
“I have always been pretty passionate about people, public policy and making a difference,” said Adair, 43. “I think given my experience working on Capitol Hill, in particular, I have some unique experiences and unique perspective.”
Hernandez, an attorney, said she has an understanding of community problems based on life experience. She and her husband graduated from high school in the district and now she represents people with catastrophic injuries in civil litigation.
“In my line of work I deal with people’s medical bills everyday. The health care crisis is personal to my practice,” said Hernanez, 37. “I am a homeowner, I have children, my oldest is in public school in Plano. I understand issues affecting the community.”
Lo said his leadership skills and varied experiences make him stand out. A former teacher, Lo worked for Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate campaign and for Carrollton Rep. Michelle Beckley last legislative session.
“With these combined experiences I have a good teacher sense for education needs. I have economic sense from my business background,” said Lo, 28. “I am the type of person politics needs right now. I am not a zealot for any political party; I am concerned about community values.”
Sanchez, a real estate agent who was raised in Plano, touts his deep roots in the district and a robust campaign organization. Sanchez has organized over 100 volunteers who are knocking on doors in the district each week urging them to get out to vote.
“I have built the organization to beat the current incumbent. I am the best messenger for the Democratic platform,” said Sanchez, 34. “We are really motivating people to get involved, to register to vote … getting them excited [about] how if we come together we can change politics in our area and hold more politicians accountable.”