China at the ballot box: Insights from the Texas 22 congressional race

By Annie Chen
Undergraduate Research Assistant, China Studies Program

When American voters head to the polls for a congressional election, “China” is usually not the foremost issue on their minds — yet the politics surrounding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the deterioration of bilateral relations seem to have recently boosted the issue’s importance for House of Representative candidates. While sitting members of Congress have already placed significant negative emphasis on China, Texas’ 22nd district primaries and race provide an intriguing close-up of how China has functioned as a voting issue in recent House elections.

A close examination of the campaigns in TX-22 reveals that China has been an important issue in the minds of congressional candidates this year. Earlier in the Republican primary runoff race, candidate Kathaleen Wall ran an advertisement that directly blamed China for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, claiming that the “Chinese virus” has “poisoned our people.”[1] In the ad, Wall went on to promote cutting “trade, aid and support to China” along with various other claims that highlight her anti-China stance.[2] The advertisement highlights how the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has raised the salience of China as an issue in U.S. congressional races. Democrats denounced the ad’s language, and TX-22’s Democratic nominee Sri Preston Kulkarni has released a statement deeming such “irresponsible, race-baiting comments” as “unacceptable and dangerous” to the district’s large Asian American and Pacific Islander community.[3]

On the other hand, the candidates’ various depictions of China do not seem to decisively affect the opinions of the voters or the outcome of the primaries. Despite her controversial anti-China ad and other outreach efforts, Wall ended up conceding the Republican primary race to her opponent Sheriff Troy Nehls, who is running mainly on a platform of curbing illegal immigration.[4] Wall received 30% of the vote in the July 15 runoff election against Nehls.[5] At the national-level as well, the observation that typical American congressional voters are far more concerned about issues other than China remains largely accurate. A recent poll from Politico puts “China” in last place in terms of importance to registered American voters.[6] Polling data from the Pew Research Center shows similar results, with voters placing far more emphasis on the economy and health care compared to foreign policy concerns.[7]

The events of the Texas 22 congressional race thus far serve as a microstudy of the role of China as an issue in congressional elections. While current Congress members are increasing their negative rhetoric toward China, voters continue to place other issues at the top of their priority lists. This does not mean China’s importance as an election issue should be dismissed. Far from it, since senatorial candidates – including those with aspirations to run for president in the future, as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida did in the Republican Party presidential primaries in 2016 – are always more focused on international relations, given the Senate’s constitutional prominence in such affairs. China also continues to register as “a potent symbol” of American problems in the minds of many voters, and thus will very likely play a role in how Americans vote for presidential candidates.[8] TX-22’s Republican primary and inter-party competition over Wall’s anti-China ad demonstrates the potential that China has as a voting issue in future House elections. Although most voters still do not see China as one of their primary issues, the increased emphasis that congressional candidates have begun to place on China are enough to suggest its importance as a notable peripheral issue with the potential of growing in salience down the road.