Chip Roy (left) and Wendy Davis. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In a race for U.S. House District 21 still close enough to be considered a toss-up, Republican Chip Roy and Democrat Wendy Davis faced off in a televised debate Tuesday.

During the event, hosted by WOAI-TV, Davis, a former Texas state senator known for her 11-hour filibuster in 2013 of a bill to restrict abortion rights, focused on her personal background. A former single teenage mother who rose to political prominence in Fort Worth, Davis ran for Texas governor in 2014 but lost handily to current Gov. Greg Abbott.

But in the race for the U.S. House seat targeted by Democratic leaders for its potential to flip, Davis has as of this summer vastly outraised Roy, who was first elected in 2018 to the seat held by Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith for 32 years.

Roy during the debate focused in part on his support for small businesses, citing passage of his legislation allowing businesses that qualified for loan forgiveness under coronavirus relief measures also to defer payroll taxes.

Despite the lopsided funding, polls show the race virtually neck-and-neck. The most recent, released Sept. 3 by Democratic-affiliated pollsters Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, had Davis beating Roy by only 1 percentage point, well within the poll’s margin of error of 5 percentage points.

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As of June 30, the Davis campaign brought in $4.5 million, according to the latest available federal election data. Roy, a former federal prosecutor who became a top aide to prominent officials like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, had raised $2.6 million.

This week, Roy called for Paxton to resign after top AG’s office staff accused Paxton of criminal wrongdoing as part of Paxton’s relationship with Austin investor Nate Paul. For more than five years, Paxton also has awaited trial on felony securities fraud charges.

But during the debate, Davis called Paxton Roy’s “buddy” as part of an exchange about Roy’s calls to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.

“My opponent has been an architect of trying to decimate” the ACA, Davis said. “And with that, millions of people across this country, in the middle of a pandemic, will lose their health care.”

As he seeks to distance himself from Paxton, Roy also is working to tie his opponent to controversial figures on the left. These include U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who Roy mentioned multiple times in the debate, though he also claimed Davis “stands with BLM [Black Lives Matter] and Antifa.”

“Wendy Davis will be a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats and a radical leftist agenda,” Roy said.

In an ad last month featuring San Antonio law enforcement members, Roy pointed to a September KXAN-TV interview in which Davis did not express opposition to an Austin City Council vote to reduce police funding by $150 million.

In response, Davis said she doesn’t support defunding the police, but that she does “believe that we can have reform without that.” Davis also called herself a gun owner in response to Roys claims that Davis “wants to take away your Second Amendment rights to defend yourself.”

The candidates also faced questions from News 4 San Antonio anchor Randy Beamer and Fox San Antonio anchor Ryan Wolf about Texas’ border with Mexico. Twice during the debate, Roy claimed without evidence that drug cartels have “operational control of the border.”

“It’s long since past time for us to stop demagoguing on this issue and to once and for all pass comprehensive immigration reform,” Davis said in response, calling for paths to citizenship for people with temporary protected status and recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

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Both candidates seemed most aligned on the subject of Austin traffic. Davis complained of long drive times when asked about public transit, adding that she supports light rail. Roy gave a shout-out to Evil MoPac, an account satirizing a frequently congested Austin expressway, calling it one of his favorite Twitter follows.

In addition to much of San Antonio’s North Side, District 21 includes a significant portion of southern and western Austin in Travis County, along with Bandera, Blanco, Gillespie, Kendall, Kerr, and Real counties, most of Comal County, and a wide swath of Hays County.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.