Houston-Area Sheriff Fights Off Democratic Challenge in Longtime Republican Stronghold

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AUSTIN, Texas — Troy Nehls, a popular sheriff and military veteran endorsed by President Trump, was elected Tuesday to represent a sprawling Houston-area suburban district, defeating Sri Preston Kulkarni, a former Foreign Service officer, who had hoped to become the first Indian-American from Texas elected to Congress.

His victory overcame a high-priority Democratic effort to end nearly four decades of Republican control of the seat in Texas’ 22nd Congressional District.

Both major parties made the district one of their top objectives in the battle for control of the House, spending a combined $5.5 million between the two candidates since mid-October, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The district includes the rapidly growing suburban sprawl stretching from the nation’s fourth-largest city and encompassing parts of Fort Bend, Brazoria and Harris Counties. The district is one of the most populous congressional districts in the country, approaching nearly one million people.

Once considered a perennial lock for Republicans, the 22nd has become increasingly moderate and ethnically diverse with a flood of well-educated new arrivals drawn to a booming economy centered on the health care industry, technology, energy and education.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political-science professor at the University of Houston, described it “as the bellwether congressional district of Texas,” emblematic of the social and political changes taking place in other parts of the state.

Mr. Kulkarni, a former Foreign Service officer and the son of an Indian immigrant, made the diverse nature of the district a crucial resource for his congressional bid, with campaign phone banks making fund-raising and voting appeals in 27 languages, including Hindi, Urdu and Malayalam. Mr. Kulkarni himself speaks six languages.

He also has an enviable credential for a Texas political candidate — Sam Houston, leader of the Texas Revolution and the first and third president of the Republic of Texas, is an ancestor on his mother’s side.

Mr. Kulkarni, who narrowly lost to Mr. Olson in 2018, prevailed in the Democratic primary in March with 53.5 percent of the vote. Bolstered by his name recognition from the 2018 race, he raked in considerably more money this time around, raising $4.8 million compared with $1.5 million for Mr. Nehls. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made his potential election in 2020 a top priority in Texas, supplying money and campaign support.

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Mr. Nehls also drew conspicuous support from Washington, most notably from Mr. Trump. In an effusive post on Twitter, the president declared that the departing sheriff “will be an incredible Congressman for the State of Texas,” praising Mr. Nehls’s strong support for law and order, the president’s border wall, the military and the Second Amendment. “Troy has my Complete and Total Endorsement,” Mr. Trump said.

The Kulkarni camp sought to convert the president’s endorsement into ammunition to capitalize on a potential backlash against Mr. Trump in the increasingly moderate and Democratic district, telling voters that Mr. Nehls was aligned with a “president who is underwater in this district.”

Perhaps mindful that a pat on the back from Mr. Trump could be a liability in the changing district, Mr. Nehls declined to acknowledge the endorsement and purged references to Mr. Trump from his website after initially declaring support for the president, The Fort Bend Herald reported.

Mr. Nehls enlisted in the Army Reserve when he was 19 and, according to his website, led troops into combat. He started his law enforcement service in 1994, serving two terms as constable for Fort Bend County before he was elected as Fort Bend County sheriff in 2012. He was re-elected in 2016.

Mr. Nehls has been a familiar presence in the district during his two terms as sheriff. He defeated his primary runoff opponent, Kathleen Wall, with 70 percent of the vote. Analysts said he was better known throughout the district than Mr. Kulkarni, despite lagging behind his rival in fund-raising. While Mr. Nehls was campaigning for a ticket to Washington, his brother, Trever Nehls, was running to succeed him as sheriff.

Troy Nehls has made law enforcement a critical component of his campaign message, playing up his efforts in successfully reducing crime throughout the sprawling district and his crisis response in preventing looting and conducting rescues after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

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The 22nd District earned national attention as the home turf for the former House majority leader, Tom DeLay, a take-no-prisoners Republican who represented the district from 1985 to 2006. The current representative, Mr. Olson, won six elections before deciding not to run in 2020 after narrowly beating Mr. Kulkarni in 2018.

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