The ancient Greeks hated hubris so much they tasked their R&D departments with finding a way to put a stop to it, and what they came up with they called drama. Onstage, a fellow would say, “I am the richest and most beloved by the gods of all the men in the land. Surely tomorrow I will not be trampled by a horse.” And then, in Act III, sure enough, clip-clop. Here come the hooves.
For the better part of thirty years, Texas Democrats have dreamed of a horseless election. Since 1992, their fortunes have been in decline, and since 2002 they’ve been kept at arm’s length from control of both the Texas House and the Texas Senate, as well as from the Governor’s Mansion and any other statewide office. The party has a long history of launching failed comeback attempts, but all of them have either failed disastrously or come up short in a way that seems designed to demolish morale and crush hopes. In 2020 the Democrats had high hopes and talked a big game. And then, clip-clop, here came the hooves.
There’s no shame in losing when it’s done well—when you learn from it—and losing well has been the goal of the party for years. In 2018 the Democrats again fell short of winning any statewide office but gained a lot of ground, with the help of an attention-grabbing Senate race between Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Beto O’Rourke. The contest ended in a narrow loss that felt like a win to Democrats, and the results down-ballot gave the party paths to expand the electoral map and perhaps even take control of the state House.
Political observers across the country took notice. One of the central problems Texas Democrats have had over the years is that few believe in them. To persuade donors to give money and candidates to run, a political party needs hype. When too much hype is generated, though, it begins to amplify itself, a feedback loop physicists call the “Beto effect.” The party starts to believe its own buzz—and then drowns out anyone who doesn’t. The consequences can be deadly.
One of those consequences is mission creep, which began its pernicious spread early in 2020. At first, the party’s goals were modest: flip the nine state House seats located in districts that O’Rourke had carried in 2018 but that had been won that year by Republicans. And flip the congressional district that the moderate Republican Will Hurd was vacating, which runs from San Antonio southwest to the border and west to El Paso.
But then the target list grew, fed by all that hype, by the Twitterverse’s fervent belief that Trump-hatred would inspire the masses to rise up and vote, and by polls that seemed to show Democrats to be in good shape. First, the list expanded to twelve state House seats, then fifteen. Maybe twenty? Sure, Hurd’s seat would be nice, but wasn’t it a given in a district with a Latino majority? Five more congressional districts looked like juicy opportunities—and maybe even more. Eager chattering held that even Ron Wright and Van Taylor, in deep-red North Texas districts, might fall.
Though to most observers MJ Hegar’s campaign against longtime senator John Cornyn never appeared to get off the runway, Hegar’s people insisted she and Cornyn were neck and neck. Privately, Democrats even maintained that they were about to win seats on the conservative state Supreme Court, perhaps knocking off Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, if not winning four outright. And then there was the seat on the Railroad Commission. And the seats on the state Court of Criminal Appeals. Oh, and Joe Biden was going to win Texas. Maybe by several points!
Money from across the country poured in, rained down, inundated the state. Michael Bloomberg donated $2.6 million to the Democratic candidate for the Railroad Commission, a head-scratching investment. The left-wing Working Families party, which is most prominent in New York State, where it has long opposed Bloomberg, mobilized against candidates like Jeff Leach, an ex–tea party Republican in Collin County. It was a blitz, a bewildering barrage.
Many Democrats, in Texas and beyond, believed all the fanfare. One reason they were so wrong is that the polls were wrong. But another factor was that Democrats were quivering at the opportunity to avenge past affronts. When a party gets like that, it throws caution to the wind and shuns anyone who expresses even mild skepticism toward the party’s messaging or spending priorities.
In one typical statement, offered to paleoconservative Allen West after he was elected chair of the Republican Party of Texas last summer, Texas Democratic party spokesman Abhi Rahman vowed, “We will beat you, your shell of an organization, and your hate-filled rhetoric up and down the ballot in November.” (Cue the rumbling of hooves.)
Republicans were genuinely worried about losing control of the state House. But one thing that seemed to give them confidence was how confident the Democrats were. “They’re gonna underperform,” one Republican strategist said about Rahman’s statement. “Their peckers are just a little too hard.”
Were it not for that inflated sense of self-assurance, the Democrats might have had a better sense of the trouble ahead. This was the state’s first election without straight-ticket voting, but Democrats were counting on anti-Trump moderates in the suburbs to follow them all the way down the ballot. And because of the pandemic, Democratic candidates weren’t doing much door-knocking, even though it could have been done safely with masks and distancing. As such, many Texans were much likelier to have laid eyes on Republican candidates, who had shown no such reticence.
Meanwhile, though the Democrats’ war chests were sloshing with cash, not everyone saw a piece of it. That money saturated supposedly swing districts in a few parts of the state, while much of Texas, including the Rio Grande Valley, a crucial part of the Texas Democratic coalition, got little attention. Biden’s campaign, the largest statewide effort, never took the state seriously enough to invest.
In November, Democrats didn’t lose ground, in the aggregate. But they gained very little. They won a stray state Senate seat but made no headway in the state House or in Congress. All of the money and the hype and the time appeared to have been for nothing. And the Democrats’ failure to take the state House means that Republicans will have total control of redistricting in 2021—and with it, the ability to frame the state’s politics until the next round of redistricting, in 2031. Better luck next decade, suckers!
Worse still, after pushing the hype machine too hard this year, Democrats will have a difficult time turning it back on the next time they need it. (It will probably be a while before Bloomberg and the Working Families party team up here again. And an equally long while before this magazine once again runs an election-season cover line like “Why Texas Democrats Will Have Plenty to Celebrate.”)
Perhaps most importantly, the election results dispelled several core myths the party had held dear. The first was that, as O’Rourke said so often, Texas wasn’t a red state but a nonvoting state. The theory had been that as soon as turnout jumped high enough, Texas would start glowing a bright shade of purple. In 2020 the state had record turnout—and the result still wasn’t that good for the party. A lot of new Democrats voted, but so did a lot of new Republicans, some of them perhaps spooked by O’Rourke’s near-win in 2018 and by the Democratic party’s resurgent left wing, with its reckless talk of abolishing police departments and the oil and gas industry and private health insurance. Or maybe some of them just had a newfound love of President Trump.
More perplexing is who voted and how. In those suburban House districts, plenty of moderate Texans voted for Biden at the top and Republican candidates down-ballot, signaling that Trump turned them off but that Dems failed to win them over. In addition to making only limited gains in the suburbs, the party saw its support among Latino voters modestly recede, especially in the Valley, where a sharp uptick in support for Trump seems to have taken Democrats by surprise—a sign that something went very, very wrong at party HQ.
In other words, the Democrats lost ground with what they thought were their core constituencies, while failing to make inroads with swing voters. That’s no recipe for success, and it challenged some of the party’s assumptions about how it was going to take the state. A wave of recriminations followed, and it became clear that the party had had no real plan for South Texas and not much of a plan for the rest of the state. Who needs a plan when your destiny awaits you? When high turnout, anti-Trump sentiment, and changing demographics will carry you to victory as if on the wings of angels?
Democrats lost eight of the nine state House seats they started out gunning for—many by substantial margins—and the one they did win was offset by a loss elsewhere. They won no seats in Congress, including Will Hurd’s old district, which they thought was a lock. Even this didn’t stop the bluster. In an otherwise contrite statement made the day after the election, party chair Gilberto Hinojosa—who rose to lead the party from Cameron County, one of the border counties that swung right—roared, “Any pundit who claims Democrats lost Texas can’t see the forest for the trees.” The party would resume the fight in 2022. Clip-clop! Clip-clop!
For expressing the kind of blind confidence in the face of reality that most of us can only dream of, the Texas Democratic party is—God love ’em—our Bum Steer of the Year.
This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “For Beto and for Worse.” Subscribe today.