The Potential for a Purple Texas
A look at the post-Trump landscape in state politics.
On Wednesday my colleague Dave Mann argued that Texas’s newfound status as a “battleground state” is nothing more than a fluke, and he counseled Democrats that it would be unwise to be overly optimistic about whether Donald Trump’s ongoing struggles here this year are a sign that Texas is, at long last, succumbing to the inexorable demographic trends we’ve all been hearing about for years.
Needless to say, I agree with him. When I predicted back in May that Trump’s nomination could put Texas in play, my reasoning was that both Trump and Hillary Clinton have certain “Texas-specific idiosyncrasies” that might come back to haunt him—and help her, if Texas Democrats could be persuaded to compete. My pessimism on the latter point was, evidently, justified. Texas Democrats, by and large, dismissed my prediction until last week. And in an odd turn of events, I’m oddly grateful for their torpor, because it gives the lie to any efforts Trump and his supporters might make to blame the opposition for his travails in Texas.
As Dave says, though, my prediction itself is evidence that the explanation for current state polls has to do with Trump, not with broader trends in Texas that bode well for Democrats. Though some such trends do exist. As my colleague R.G. Ratcliffe noted on Monday, 1.7 million Texans have registered to vote since 2012, and 30 percent of the state’s new registered voters have Hispanic surnames. And as Robyn Ross noted, in the November issue, there are some progressives working hard to encourage registered voters to go to the polls. Even so, there are still millions of Texans eligible to vote who are not even registered to do so, and the record-setting turnout we’ve seen this week, during early voting, is being measured against our state’s historically low baseline.
With all of that said, I’m a little less curmudgeonly than Dave is about the prospects for Texas Democrats. Trump’s nomination has created a fluky situation in this year’s election. His nomination itself is, arguably, effectively a fluke. But it’s nonetheless a fact. Republican leaders need to reckon with what Trump’s ascent has revealed about their party, and what his success implies about the GOP’s future. Thus far, the evidence suggests that they won’t. If so, the fluky circumstances that have put Texas in play this year will effectively persist.
At this point, in other words, it’s fair to say that there’s not much suspense about what will happen on November 8th. All the evidence suggests that Clinton will win the presidency, and easily. Trump himself may not believe that, but his own campaign manager has acknowledged as much in public. As Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg report at Bloomberg BusinessWeek, his campaign staff is clearly prepared to keep fighting for his cause in the event of his defeat. It’s suspicious, frankly, how well-prepared Trump’s campaign is to move on from his actual campaign, which is technically not yet over. But let’s set that aside for now. The key point here is that Clinton will probably win the presidency. If so, the GOP can move on from Trump.
Republican officeholders, in Texas and elsewhere, are clearly eager to do so. Most of those who officially support the nominee, like Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz, have been notably diffident about evangelizing on his behalf. The handful who have more enthusiastically advocated for Trump, such as Dan Patrick, have been forced to do so selectively. The collective revisionism is already well underway: Republicans are acknowledging the messenger is imperfect, but insisting that the message, itself, is worthwhile. After November, then, we can expect this dynamic to persist. Most Republican leaders will never talk about Trump. Those who do will give a seriously surreal version of the events we’ve all witnessed this year.
I can understand why leaders like Abbott or Cruz would like to put Trump behind them, as if this entire presidential election was just a bad dream—and, to a certain extent, I can sympathize. But regardless of whether individual Republicans leaders have a normative responsibility to reflect on what his nomination says about their party, or to engage in the ongoing public debate about its future, they have a political imperative to do so. In 2016 the Republican Party nominated Donald Trump to lead the free world: that is a reality. He is not an imperfect messenger; he is an appalling one. And messages are, obviously, subject to interpretation. So rather than debate what Trump means when he talks about “draining the swamp,” or which groups are being implicitly accused when he yearns to “Make America Great Again,” let me refer any remaining skeptics to my post-mortem on the 2012 elections:
In Virginia and elsewhere, the moderate Republicans lost this election. The far right lost even harder. The path forward for the Republican Party lies in a return to the centre, not further regression. “But, but, but ladyparts!” sneered one conservative on Twitter as the results were coming in—the kind of comment that does not boost my confidence in the party’s ability to quickly recalibrate. On the other hand, Americans can take pride in the fact that a majority of them voted in favour of each other. Even if the Democratic Party’s policies are not always to their liking, its intention of inclusion clearly is.
I noted, in that post, that the converse can be true: “In places where the local Republicans haven’t given into their worst impulses, the voters respond accordingly.” As evidence, I cited the biggest and most important red state in the nation. Texas has remained red despite the demographic trends and social changes that would, at first glance, seem guaranteed to turn it blue. That’s in part, I explained, because its Republican leaders—such as Rick Perry, George W. Bush, John Cornyn, Greg Abbott, Joe Straus, and Ted Cruz—had resisted the basest demons of the Republican base.
Four years later, I can only cite two of those leaders as role models in this regard—Bush and Straus. It’s not a coincidence that Bush is no longer running for office, or that Straus is routinely vilified on the right for, essentially, his commitment to civility. Everyone else gets, at least, an asterisk; the same is true of Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, Sid Miller, George P. Bush, and most of the Republicans currently serving in the Lege, and at the local level. In endorsing Trump, they implicitly accepted the invective he’s hurled at millions of Americans since announcing his bid for the presidency. Many Texans will remember what we’ve witnessed in 2016, even if we, too, would like to forget.
So, though Texas is currently a battleground state due to fluky circumstances, these fluky circumstances create an opening for Democrats going forward. Trump seems to leave a trail of destruction, whether he’s turned his sights on Atlantic City or the Republican Party.
As Dave points out, twenty years of Republican hegemony means Texas Democrats would face a variety of barriers to success in the short term. They may struggle, for example, to muster statewide candidates in 2018. They may struggle to flip heavily gerrymandered districts from red to blue. That’s all true, and worth taking seriously.
And all Texans should consider that if a red state turns purple, the transition might be bumpy. Matt K. Lewis, at the Daily Caller, raised a good point recently in reference to a Congressional race in Virginia: “Thoughtful conservatives living in swing districts are much more likely to be punished by the anti-Trump backlash than are the red meat-hurling Trump supporters who live in “safe” deep-red districts.” That’s true in Texas too. The three down-ballot Republicans Trump’s most clearly putting at risk this year—United States Representative Will Hurd, and Texas representatives Ken Sheets and Rick Galindo—are vulnerable because they represent purple districts. That implies a certain degree of sanity on their part, and all three have proven to be reasonable. The fact that they’re now fighting for their political survival raises the ominous possibility that Texas’s ruling party is going to get worse before it gets better or goes away.
But I hope that, this time around, Texas Democrats take my fortune-telling seriously too. I am fairly confident that my reasoning will hold up to scrutiny, even if it takes a few election cycles for the effects to fully kick in. The Democratic Party’s revival would be good for all Texans—Republicans included. A one-party state can be successful; Texas has proven as much. But even before Trump came along, Texas politics had shown us that such a party can be taken hostage by the sliver of the electorate that votes in its primaries, and so it’s probably a good idea to have two competitive parties.