Texas Democrats emerged from Tuesday’s elections as losers who failed to restore progressive politics to a Republican state, no matter their efforts to frame results otherwise. Dreams of winning a handful of congressional races and taking command of the state House of Representatives vanished at the ballot box, and in both cases the party might net zero seats. Not a single Democrat up for statewide election, from the Texas Supreme Court down to the Railroad Commission, won. And though Joe Biden earned at least 1.4 million more votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, the fantasy of his carrying the state was shattered and swept into a forty-year-old dustbin along with the hopes of every recent Democratic presidential campaign in Texas.
To fully understand the Democrats’ losses, you need to go back two years. Much of the party’s enthusiasm for this cycle, and Republicans’ ultimate rebuttal to that enthusiasm, stemmed from Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate run. O’Rourke infused his campaign with hope that progressives could once again come to rule in Texas, and $80 million promptly flowed in from all over the country. When he ultimately came within three points of defeating his opponent, Ted Cruz, the smart Democratic operatives in Washington thought Texas might be in play if that kind of money were just professionally managed.
But O’Rourke had kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest. The smart professional GOP operatives saw the same thing Democrats did. So they peeled Steve Munisteri, former chairman of the Texas Republican party, away from his new White House job. In 2010, he had put together a statewide effort to nationalize the election by making every race a referendum on President Obama, and wiped out Democrats up and down the ballot, including in local races. To achieve sweeping wins in 2020, Munisteri told me last year that Republicans needed to increase their party’s turnout. He hypothesized that 10.5 million to 11 million Texans would cast ballots in 2020—up from 9 million in 2016—and that Democrats could count on a guaranteed 4 million votes and Republicans 4.5 million. To reach the projected winning total of 5.5. million, Munisteri oversaw a $10 million voter registration effort to target unregistered Texans who live in reliably Republican areas.
Democrats and allied groups run voter registration drives every election cycle, but Munisteri’s effort was the first for the GOP in years. His operation did slick things to drive the Republican vote. When I renewed my driver’s license last winter, a young man at a pop-up tent outside the Texas Department of Public Safety asked if I wanted to sign a petition to protect my gun rights. I played along. I could sign the petition, and if I wasn’t registered to vote, they’d ask me to fill out a voter registration card. In one swoop, the GOP had the potential to harvest a name, an email address, and a voter registration of a white man over the age of sixty who is a firearm owner. The party also set up similar tents at community and church events, as well as county fairs and Trump rallies, and asked Texans their views on immigration and abortion and then whether they were registered. It turned out, on Tuesday, at least 5.8 million Texans cast ballots for Trump, against 5.2 million for Biden.
O’Rourke’s influence didn’t end with stirring up the political pros such as Munisteri. He also inflamed white rural voters who once were called yellow dog Democrats because they’d vote for such a creature, so long as it had a D by its name. Now, those voters are what I call Red Rock Republicans, solid and mostly unmovable. A drive through the roads of the Hill Country or East Texas this fall was like trip to a Trump rally. The president’s signs were on fences and equipment sheds. His flags flew from gates and oaks and pines. In Johnson City, the hometown of Lyndon Johnson, a promise that Democrats would bring chaos was scrawled in huge letters on the wall of an office building. The political sales slogan for rural Texans for years has been God, guns, and country. Republicans hit Biden by connecting him to O’Rourke’s statements during his presidential run about confiscating all AR-style rifles from their owners.
In the top 20 most populous counties in Texas, Biden won 54 percent of the vote, up from Clinton’s 50.6 percent. The other 234 counties gave 71 percent of their vote to Trump. While Republicans have made good headway since the nineties cutting into the Democratic base among Hispanic voters, especially this year in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Democrats have just ceded rural Texas to Republicans. (Trump’s gains in rural Hispanic-majority counties, in particular, were also astounding: in Zapata, along the border, he won by 5 points after Clinton had beaten him by 33.) As turnout spiked in those rural areas this year, it more than offset Democratic gains elsewhere, including in the suburbs.
Republicans have long understood the risks of losing the rural vote. When he was governor, Rick Perry once explained to me why he could not support a popular nickel increase in the gasoline tax to pay for new highways to ease growing traffic congestion. That tax would be paid by every Texan in every town, and the driving distances in West Texas would make it especially onerous to those who lived there. But most of the new highways would be built in the Dallas–Fort Worth area or Houston. Perry said he couldn’t ask rural Texans to subsidize city roads.
Liberals on Twitter and Facebook have dismissed the rural Trump vote this year as being driven purely by ignorant and racist whites. But this view flows from a prejudice of its own, and blinds many Democrats to the issues that motivate these voters beyond just race. This year, Republicans gained traction in rural Texas because of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Democrats tried to turn voters against Trump by arguing his 2017 tax bill gave its largest benefits to the wealthy and corporations. This was by and large true, but the bill also permanently eliminated the ACA’s individual health-care mandate. Texas had had the highest number of families—858,000 in 2015—that paid the tax penalty rather than buy insurance. Rural residents, in particular, incurred the fines because it was cheaper than buying insurance for routine care and many lived hours from a doctor or a hospital. For them, Trump’s tax bill made him a hero.
One other aspect of the rural vote that Democrats missed was Trump’s approval rating by issue. Democrats focused on his overall rating, which barely rose above 43 percent, or his abysmal numbers on COVID-19, which rested around 40 percent. However, on the economy, his numbers usually hovered around 50 percent. I mistakenly believed that if the election turned on the economy, Trump would win, whereas if it turned on the virus, Biden would. It turns out the economy and COVID were the same issue. The network exit polls for Texas showed that Texans were almost evenly split on the question of whether it was more important to contain the virus, even at some short-term expense to the economy, or whether we should be rebuilding the economy now, even if it hurt efforts to contain the virus. Among those who put containing the virus first, Biden had 86 percent support. Among those who put the economy first, Trump had roughly the same level of support. Democrats might have made more headway in Texas by better balancing COVID containment and economic activity, rather than making Trump’s failure to contain the virus the primary issue.
In September, when polling started to show the presidential race was a dead heat in Texas, O’Rourke became the greatest advocate for Biden to go for the gold and spend millions here. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House campaign committee poured money into the state, as did the Biden campaign and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. It did not work. Now stung by defeat, national Democrats may once again view Texas as a political wasteland not worthy of the money in future elections. That would be a shame, because competitive politics make for better governance. And Democrats have a lot of work to do to become competitive here.