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Could Dallas Suburbs, Longtime GOP Strongholds, Turn Blue?


The Dallas suburbs have long been Republican strongholds, but Democrats hope that is changing. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried a congressional district near Dallas that GOP nominees have won easily in the past. A big reason for that was dislike of Donald Trump by moderate Republican women. NPR's Don Gonyea is in Dallas this week. He's focusing on that district, where there has been a Republican congressman serving for 11 terms.

Hi there, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

GREENE: All right, so this is the district of Congressman Pete Sessions, who's been there for quite some time. Tell us about this district. What's it like?

GONYEA: Exactly. So it extends north, and then it kind of goes to the east of Dallas and then snakes down a little bit south. It's not rural Texas. That's important to understand. It is dominated by suburbs, some of those suburbs very wealthy. It's been home to old-school, establishment, pro-business Republicans. George W. Bush lives here, in fact. And that describes Sessions, too. He's a conservative. He's chairman of the Rules Committee. But these are also the very kind of Republicans who have been least happy with Donald Trump.

GREENE: OK, so Pete Sessions is hoping to get another term. If Democrats hope to capitalize on some of this energy they've been seeing and some of the anti-Trump emotions, who do they have as a candidate?

GONYEA: Well, there was a lively Democratic primary, and the top two in that race are now in a runoff set for May. I caught up with both of them at an event at a big suburban Dallas church Sunday night. So let's start with Colin Allred. He is a 34-year-old civil rights attorney, a former player in the NFL. He's African-American. He was by far the top finisher in the primary. He spoke to how the GOP is now, as he puts it, the Trump Republican Party.

COLIN ALLRED: Well, he is the head of the party now. And I think a lot of people who are long-term members of the Republican Party feel like they've been left behind by it. This is not the party that they were a part of when George W. Bush was its leader here when he was talking about compassionate conservatism, and when he was running here in Texas and extending in-state tuition to undocumented kids. That would never happen now.

GONYEA: The other Democrat still in it - in the runoff - is attorney and entrepreneur Lillian Salerno. Here she is.

LILLIAN SALERNO: What you're seeing is just a lot of people are saying, I don't feel like I'm being represented, and maybe I've always voted Republican, but that Republican doesn't represent my value. And now we have this strange moment in history where the residents here are just fed up.

GONYEA: But David, I also talked to some of those voters who were actually part of this shift we saw in this district in presidential voting in 2016. Let's meet two of them - lifelong Republicans who both voted for Hillary Clinton. First up is Donna Zinke Cowman. She's 54, a lawyer who left practice to raise her family. She focused on Trump's competence and how he actually governs. And even though she has voted for Congressman Pete Sessions many times in the past, she says, no more because he hasn't stood up to Trump.

DONNA ZINKE COWMAN: It's been all of this dogmatic, we still want to build the wall, we, you know, are doing the executive orders to get rid of the Muslims, we're - you know, crazy, crazy things that are dangerous. And Pete Sessions has done nothing to stand up to that.

GONYEA: Now to the suburb of University Park - 39-year-old Laura Tyson (ph) is a business owner. She's married with two young kids. She's from a conservative Republican family but says she can't support a party that would nominate Donald Trump. Now she's working to get a Democrat elected to Congress from here. And she actually got emotional talking about all of this, including about that famous recording from 2016 where Trump can be heard making vulgar comments about grabbing women.

LAURA TYSON: I have never gotten emotional about that before, but I'm - I have my own Me Too story, and almost every woman I know has one. And I told mine when that "Access Hollywood" tape came out to say, this happens; this is real, and these are not the men you should have leading our country.

GONYEA: And David, one more thing - let's be clear. These voices are not the majority of Republicans in the district. But there are a lot of them, and still, Democrats need enough of them to turn not just on Trump, but on their longtime congressman, as well.

GREENE: Yeah, because they're not running just against the president, they're running against a veteran Republican congressman. So what new ideas are Democrats bringing here, you know, besides this opposition to the president?

GONYEA: Well, you know, they're talking about a lot other than Donald Trump. This week, I heard them talking about immigration, and trade, and gun violence and health care - all of those things. But they do need to tap into this discontent over Trump. And they do need some of these crossover voters if they do hope to win. Even so, it might still take a big Democratic wave for this district to flip.

GREENE: NPR's Don Gonyea in Dallas. Don, thanks.

GONYEA: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.