Christopher Hooks is taking stock of the Republican and Democratic parties’ electoral prospects in complementary pieces. Read his take on the Republicans here.
There’s a set of clichés that serve as shorthand for the size of Texas. El Paso is halfway between Houston and Los Angeles, Harris County is more populous than 26 states, Brewster County is larger than Connecticut. With frequent use, they lose some of their power. Similar well-worn facts describe how long Democrats have been out of power in the state. Texans haven’t backed the Democratic candidate for president since 1976. Democrats haven’t won the Governor’s Mansion since 1990. They haven’t held a chamber of the Legislature since 2003.
But that shorthand doesn’t adequately describe what the Democratic party’s drought in Texas has meant for the left, nor does it illuminate what it has gifted to the Republican party. There’s a tremendous difference between a state in which one party is merely dominant and a state in which the opposition party is rendered powerless. Consider that during the Obama years, there were two parties in Texas: the GOP and the tea party. The difference is as much psychological as practical. Explaining what it would mean for Texas Democrats to take control of the Texas House, or to flip the state blue in a presidential election, or to win a statewide office, as they appear to have at least an outside chance to do this year, requires going deeper.
Here’s another way of describing it. I turned 30 in October. I was born in 1990, a month before the last Democratic governor, Ann Richards, won her only term as governor. (Another fast fact: there have been more Texas Republican presidents during my lifetime than Democratic governors of Texas.) Richards is still the patron saint of many Texas liberals, but I have no memory of her. The median age of Texans is 34, which means half of the state probably doesn’t remember her, including a huge number of the campaign personnel working for Democratic candidates this cycle. And 1990 was also the year that John Cornyn won a seat on the Texas Supreme Court, his first statewide office. It was more than a year before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” topped the charts.
Because there has been no competition from Democrats, Republican politics has moved at a glacial pace, insulated from some of the sweeping changes to conservatism nationally. When I was in fourth grade, my elementary school class took a field trip to the Texas Capitol, where I posed for a picture with the lieutenant governor, a friendly guy with a great head of hair named Rick Perry. He soon became governor. In 2003, when I was still in middle school, Perry was governor, David Dewhurst the lieutenant governor, Greg Abbott the attorney general, Jerry Patterson the land commissioner, and Cornyn a U.S. senator. When I graduated from college and came home to Texas to take up journalism, all five men were in the same offices. It was as if nothing had changed. And for the most part nothing had.
There’s a long and complicated history behind Democratic attempts to regain power since the start of the millennium—from the bumbling and expensive Tony Sanchez gubernatorial campaign in 2002 through the last concerted attempt to take the state House, from 2006 to 2010, to the obliteration of the Wendy Davis gubernatorial campaign in 2014. But the thumbnail version of the story is that in every cycle, Democrats found reason to hope this time would be different—only to be invariably crushed.
The party’s losses were tangible, measured in vote shares, dollars raised, and policies. But there are also less tangible losses. Promising young candidates would hold office for a few years and then take a job in the private sector, reckoning that they couldn’t wait around long enough for their party to be in a position to accomplish anything. Democratic activists and strategists left Texas for other states, where they rightly believed they could do more good. Consultants and organizers would come in from out of state—sometimes for the money and sometimes because they believed in the work—and more often than not they would leave once the election was over.
A kind of hollowness and futility crept into the state party, despite the best efforts of a lot of committed partisans to keep the beast rumbling along—first among them, Houston trial lawyer Steve Mostyn, who kept a big part of the Democratic coalition running with sizable checks. (His abrupt death in 2017 was keenly felt by party loyalists.) At some point in the last twenty years, the very idea of a Texas Democrat became a kind of mythos. Its heroes were from the past, untouchable—Lyndon, Ann, Molly. In the words of a popular nihilist meme, its icons were dead and its enemies were in power.
That’s not to say, of course, that there weren’t good things happening for the party. Outfits such as the Texas Organizing Project fought to register and mobilize voters, in a state where such efforts can get you investigated and your property seized by armed agents of the state. Over time they made a dent. Texas continued its slow demographic drift, adding more Hispanics and more newcomers from Los Angeles and Lagos and Lucknow. Democrats made leaps and bounds in big cities, especially Dallas and Houston. Those two cities were once key to the Republican ascendancy. Now Democrats have such a stranglehold over Dallas and Harris counties, where one in four Texans live, that the local GOP might as well shut down. But somehow, it didn’t add up. Something was missing.
This is all to say that any sort of big Democratic win this year—be it control of the state House, or Biden locking down Texas’s 38 electoral votes, or a suite of congressional wins, as polling suggests could easily happen—will have long-lasting, salubrious effects for the party. It is particularly symbolic that the state House is up for grabs. The Democrats’ loss of the lower chamber of the Lege in 2002 was what gave Republicans complete control over state government—and allowed them, led by Tom DeLay, to redistrict Texas in the middle of the decade and further cement their one-party rule. If Democrats have begun a long march back to relevancy, it is fitting that it starts with the House.
But the practical effects of a Democratic wave may be quite limited. If Biden wins Texas, he will likely have secured a landslide elsewhere already—and only time will tell if the state is up for grabs when someone named Trump is not on the ballot. On the off chance that a Democrat wins a seat or two on the Texas Supreme Court or the Railroad Commission, it would be a shocking development, but the party would still have a minority position in both institutions.
Even control of the state House could have limited impact. Democrats would still face a Republican Senate and a Republican governor, so nothing would pass without the GOP’s approval. They’d have a veto over Republican initiatives, of course, and they could use the House to signal to Texans what they would do if they had more power—such as expanding Medicaid. But the end result might be that the Legislature does nothing at all—which would, to be sure, be a welcome change to many Texans.
The influence a Democratic Speaker would have over redistricting would be somewhat circumscribed, too. For example, if the Legislature fails to pass new maps for the state House and state Senate for any reason, a five-member panel—including the Speaker, lieutenant governor, and attorney general—will draw the maps themselves. The Democrats will have only one of the five seats, and any maps will be decided by the Republican majority.
In a sense, Texas Democrats have to go double or nothing after this election. If they elect some statewide candidates in 2022—a governor and lieutenant governor—they would be able to secure some of their gains from the Trump years. That’s going to be very difficult to do, not least because President Biden’s first midterm would probably provide them less fertile ground. (See: 1994, 2010.) If Republicans are able to come back strong in 2022—and present a slightly more moderate version of themselves going forward—they might be able to pretend none of this ever happened. If the road from 2018 looked promising for Democrats, the road from 2020 looks fraught.
It also can’t be overstated how much this year is about Trump. He helped build a winning coalition for Texas Democrats, but it’s much different than the one they had in mind. Instead of relying on the burgeoning political power of Hispanic voters, the 2020 Democratic electorate is premised on a lot of traditionally Republican-leaning suburban voters, who may prove difficult to retain in the future, especially as the Democratic party’s left and center wings battle each other for the fruits of victory.
Nor have Texas Democrats made the best possible use of the gifts Trump has given them. With hindsight, 2018 offered the chance to beat Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, under Beto O’Rourke’s ticket, but the party’s best candidates didn’t run. Then Beto and Julián Castro ran for president, joining a Democratic field in which they struggled to establish their left credentials and damaged their brands in Texas. Meanwhile the 2020 U.S. Senate race against John Cornyn fell to a second-time candidate who has never held elected office.
Nonetheless, if Texas Democrats are able to score just one big win on November 3, it could yield its own virtuous cycle. More ambitious young folks would be inspired to run for office, and more talented organizers would see a reason to come home from California and Colorado. The national party and donors might finally make the state a priority. It’s difficult to overstate how much that would mean. And waiting in the wings are prospects for higher office, not named Castro, the likes of which the party hasn’t seen in a while. First among them is Lina Hidalgo, the 29-year-old judge of Harris County, who is perhaps the most interesting elected official in the country.
Republicans sense this. Perhaps some expect to rule the state forever, but historically speaking, one-party rule for so long is unusual, and the smarter ones expect it to break eventually. Bravado aside, it has been a goal of Republicans in the Legislature for years to tie the hands of future potentially Democratic governments, and they’ve had some marked successes. That explains the apocalyptic language employed by some, such as GOP party chair Allen West, in what seems on paper to be an election in which Republicans stand to lose little except control of one chamber of the Legislature, and perhaps only temporarily. West’s book accompanying his run to lead the Texas GOP was titled Hold Texas, Hold the Nation: Victory or Death. (Watch this space for more on West.) They understand the benefits that one-party status has conferred on them, and the penalties it has inflicted on the opposition, and they understand that once lost, it’s not easy to get back.
Editor’s note: The story has been edited slightly for clarity.