Saying that Texas Democrats had a deeply disappointing election is like saying the Sacramento Kings had a bad season. They’ve had a lot of them, so some clarification is needed. This is a pretty odd-looking one, as disasters go: judging by the numbers alone, it’s one of the best results the state party has achieved in an election since the turn of the century.
Texas Democrats’ best election in the last decade was 2018, when the party picked up two new members of Congress, twelve members of the state House, and two state senators. This year, the party retained those gains—and won an additional state Senate seat. (In the state House, they appear to have lost one seat and gained another.) Meanwhile, the presidential election in the state was closer than any since 1996—when Texan Ross Perot was splitting the ticket as a third-party candidate.
So why was it a disaster? Because the party faced a big opportunity to do more—and coming short is going to haunt state Democrats for years. Their failing to take the state House means Republicans will control the redistricting process once again and will be able to draw congressional and state legislative district lines that are hostile to Democrats and most likely will preclude the party from regaining power in the Legislature for several elections. If Democrats sue over maps slanted against them, courts packed with judges installed by the Trump administration are unlikely to come to the party’s rescue, which has been the only safety valve in the past. The only reason Democrats had a shot at the House this year is that the previous lines, drawn in 2011, had been rendered less reliable by population growth and demographic shifts; it might be another decade before those circumstances emerge again.
The sweeping losses also might scare off out-of-state donors who poured millions into Texas this cycle, convinced by local Democrats that high expectations were warranted. By July, Democratic congressional candidates in the state had raised more money than in the entire 2018 cycle, and double what they raised in the 2016. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg even gave $2.6 million to the long-shot Railroad Commission candidate Chrysta Castañeda, who lost by about ten points. Some of those donors and organizations will draw the conclusion that Texas offers a poor return on investment and will concentrate their efforts elsewhere. In 2022, the top priority for Democratic donors will be flipping U.S. Senate seats, none of which will be up here, and defending already held House seats from the typical midterm onslaught against the president’s party.
Democrats have been here before. After 2004, the party made a concerted effort to take control of the Texas House by the end of the decade. They got close, winning 74 of 150 seats in 2008. Then the tea party wave blew everything apart: In 2010 Texas Democrats won only 51 seats, and shortly thereafter the legislators in 2 of those 51 defected to the GOP. Two years later, Mitt Romney carried the state by sixteen points. By contrast, in 2020, even though the party was routed, it held its ground. The question now is whether the next election sends Democrats back to the wilderness.
What went wrong for the party? After 2018, when Democrats shocked both themselves and Texas Republicans, an easy narrative presented itself. The Trump administration would decline further in popularity and Democrats would inevitably move the ball farther down the field. This notion wasn’t just a concoction of liberals and the Lamestream Media—Republicans took it seriously and mobilized to meet the threat. In private, as was helpfully revealed by Michael Quinn Sullivan’s secret taping of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, they were worried a great deal about Trump’s down-ballot effects.
That narrative didn’t pan out. It will take some time to untangle why. A host of factors contributed, some of them within the control of Democrats and some not. Notably, this was the first election held since the Texas Legislature removed the straight-ticket option from ballots. Some Republicans worried that would hurt them—would the president’s most passionate and low-information supporters make it all the way down the ballot?—and many Democrats felt certain it would hurt them. As it turns out, Democrats were probably right: the GOP benefited from Biden voters who voted for Republicans down-ballot. (Many would have done so anyway, of course, but being required to tick a box in each race probably encouraged it.)
To that point, it seems possible that the presence of Trump on the ballot had a very different effect than the one Democrats expected and assumed. They envisioned right-leaning voters’ dissatisfaction with Trump would encourage them to vote against Republicans generally, or to not turn out. But many Texans appear to have voted for Biden and a Republican slate, or Biden and no one. One salient example of this: fewer Texans voted in the Senate race than the presidential race, but as of the current count, some 72,000 more Texans voted for Republican John Cornyn than for Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Trump’s presence on the ballot brought turnout to record levels, bringing to the polls GOP voters who participate only sporadically in elections and millions of voters who had never voted in either party’s primaries before.
Texas Democrats love recriminations almost as much as Texas Republicans love spiking the football, and there’s been a lot of both since last Tuesday. Progressive Democrats and organizers working with minority communities have assailed the party for trying too hard to court suburbanites whom the left sees as flip-floppers who’ll never consistently support the party. Meanwhile moderate Democrats have complained that progressives in Texas—and outspoken democratic socialists in the national party, such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—have alienated centrists whose support the party needs to be competitive across the state. Whether to court independents or mobilize the base is the Texas Democrat’s favorite subject of debate, because it can fill hours of argument without anyone offering the obvious answer: do both, by emphasizing issues and voters’ concerns that don’t require choosing between the two groups, such as raising the minimum wage and fighting corruption.
Other criticisms concern Democrats’ decision not to conduct physical door-knocking campaigns because of the pandemic, while Republicans went full speed ahead. In hindsight, it seems like a pretty big mistake. Personal contact with voters is important, particularly when trying to unseat incumbents, and by late summer it was clear that, if appropriate precautions and mask-wearing were observed, canvassing could be done safely. Democrats had some reason to be more worried about knocking on doors: for one, Republican voters are less concerned about the virus overall, and would probably be less irritated to see strangers on their doorstep than would prospective Democratic voters. But the decision had a cost, particularly in state House districts where Democrats were relying on digital ad buys while Republican volunteers were making in-person contacts.
Trump’s term in office has changed the demographic coalitions that make up the two parties in ways that have been difficult to predict, and it is perhaps even more difficult to project what will happen once he is out of office. The major metro areas in the state continued to shift Democratic this year—what had been the last large Republican urban county, Fort Worth’s Tarrant, went for Biden by just over one thousand votes—and the 2020 map showed Democrats sustaining their inroads in the suburbs, including the Collin County, north of Dallas, and Williamson County, north of Austin. Meanwhile, Republicans had extraordinary success in heavily Hispanic border counties that have long been Democratic strongholds, cutting into the party’s leads there. Democratic organizers in the Rio Grande Valley have lambasted the party for not doing more outreach along the border. In most of these counties Biden got more votes than Clinton won in 2016, but he and his party were overwhelmed by an extraordinary burst of support for Trump. At the moment, it’s unclear why. The Trump campaign did not expend special effort here.
The results on the border caused many observers—and quite a few Republicans—to speculate about a coming racial realignment. While that’s possible, skepticism is warranted. Texas Republicans have made much of temporary gains in South Texas, as they did in the years before 2016, only to see those gains washed out in the next election. In the absence of sustained investment and engagement by the party, this year’s results may prove to be tied to Trump in particular, rather than a newfound love of the GOP.
In 2022, one could imagine a 2010-style backlash to a Democratic president in which Republicans rally and Democrats stay home, a drop-off in Republican support caused by alienated Trump supporters staying home, and almost anything in between. Where 2018 offered an easy narrative about what might be up for grabs in 2020, this year, so far at least, offers no such narrative for 2022. So much was strange or novel about this election—and so much unclear about the future—that it would be folly to guess where we’re headed. Precisely because of that, Texas politics looks more interesting than ever.