The 2008 election is occurring at a moment when the political pendulum in Texas could swing the other way—much as it did in 1994, when George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards as part of a nationwide Republican sweep that included takeovers of both houses of Congress. No Democrat has won a statewide race since. This election will not restore the Democrats to power here, but it will provide a yardstick for how much ground the party has recovered since the R’s won the last remaining prize that had eluded their grasp: a majority in the state House of Representatives in 2002 and, with it, the speakership. Now, just six years later, the D’s have a chance to retake a slender majority in the House and to pick up seats in the state Senate.
If it seems strange to focus on down-ballot races in a presidential election year, that’s where the action is. The winner-take-all system eliminates the suspense over whether John McCain or Barack Obama will come away with Texas’s 34 electoral votes. Republicans have dominated presidential races here ever since Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980. McCain will carry Texas. The question is, By how much? The presidential race matters because it drives, or fails to drive, turnout. All those years of Bushes on the ballot—the elder four times, the younger twice—killed the Democrats. Finally, the R’s have run out of Bushes. The 2008 election will not be a replay of 2000, or even 2004. The Democrats have a candidate who energizes the party’s electorate, while the GOP nominee would not have been the first choice of most Texas Republicans.
The key to the down-ballot races in this state is that Obama’s strength is where the votes are, in urban Texas. The two big metro areas are rich in potential swing districts in congressional and legislative races. Demographics work in the Democrats’ favor. They may not be ready to win statewide, but they proved in 2006 that they could retake a diverse urban county like Dallas. Harris County is the next target. If Obama can win 42 to 44 percent of the vote, Democrats should do no worse than consolidate their gains. If he can win 45 to 47 percent, the pendulum will have swung enough to resurrect his party.
(No) Change We Can Believe In
On the morning of November 5, the map of Texas’s 254 counties—colored red (Republican), blue (Democratic), and purple (toss-up)—should look very much like this one. It will show that the great rural expanse of Texas to the east and west of the triangle formed by Interstates 10, 35, and 45 is still solidly red but that Dallas County is reliably blue, Harris County has become purple, and Austin’s liberalism has spread to suburban counties. South of U.S. 90, the rural areas remain blue, but Republicans increasingly have targets of opportunity, such as heavily populated Cameron County. The colors on the map are dark and light variants of red and blue, but a more precise version would require many other tints to reflect the rapidity of demographic change in the suburbs, which benefits Democrats. If we used the entire spectrum, the dark reds of Collin and Fort Bend counties would be several shades lighter.
FROM THE MAP
Download a PDF of the Regional Map
It used to be said that crops determined politics here: Wheat was Republican and cotton was Democratic. Now just about everything is Republican except, on occasion, Swisher County (Tulia) (1), and that has less to do with agriculture than with the career of the late H. M. Baggarly, a crusading newspaper editor and pioneering liberal. The Panhandle will give McCain his highest percentage of any region, but the raw number will be quite small.
Bush’s slim margin over John Kerry in Dallas County (1)—fewer than 10,000 votes—was a harbinger of things to come. Two years later Chris Bell beat Rick Perry there, and the Democrats swept every contested courthouse race. The county is Democratic now, and a large black turnout for Obama in Dallas will make it more so. The demographic change that overtook the city has also infiltrated aging suburbs like Arlington. The “collar counties” that surround the urban core remain loyally Republican, but things are changing. The population of Collin County (2) is projected to grow from 491,675, in the 2000 census, to 822,204 by 2010, and the percentage represented by Hispanics, blacks, and Asians is projected to increase from 22.9 percent to 28.9 percent. It’s not as red as it once was.
This used to be the most important swing region of the state—the rural counties helped deliver Texas to Jimmy Carter in 1976—and it still elects a handful of Democratic legislators. But at the top of the ticket, it has been voting Republican since the Reagan era. Today, Harris County (1) and its almost four million residents dominate the region. Race will be a factor: It will help Obama in Harris, a formerly red county in transition to purple and possibly even blue, and hurt him in the suburban and rural counties, which are Republican anyway. The most intriguing county is Fort Bend (2), a stew of demographic change, which no longer resembles the place that sent Tom DeLay to Congress in 1984.
Lots of brush, lots of cattle, and not many people. Only in El Paso, which is true blue, and a few sparsely populated rural counties are there Democratic votes. Val Verde (Del Rio) (1) is one of the few counties west of I-35 where more than 10,000 votes are cast in a presidential year and the two parties are competitive (Bush won comfortably here in 2004, but Chris Bell edged Rick Perry in 2006).
Uncertainties abound. Will race be a problem for Obama? Will Rick Noriega’s presence on the ballot help the top of the ticket? Will Hillary or Bill Clinton campaign in Texas? Will McCain’s moderate views on immigration attract wayward Democrats? Or will the Republicans’ anti-immigrant fervor rub off on him? More likely, the voting will follow traditional patterns: Rural counties will return substantial Democratic margins, and so will Hidalgo (1), Webb (2), and Maverick (3) counties, but McCain will do well in Bexar (4), Cameron (5), and Nueces (6)—the latter because divisive congressman Solomon Ortiz causes some Corpus Christi Democrats to vote with the R’s.
Austin is the blueberry in the cherry pie, and it’s ground zero for Obama-mania. The University of Texas (and, down the road, Texas State) has a large student body with thousands of potential voters. While it’s true that the region becomes more conservative the farther you get from Austin, the high cost of living in Travis County (1) has driven middle-class families into suburban Bastrop (2), Hays (3), and Williamson (4) counties in search of affordable housing, and they’ve taken their Austin values with them.
The (Down-Ballot) Race Card
Both parties have to be nervous about what might happen below the presidential level. Republicans know that their brand has been tarnished, nationally and in Texas. The R’s were stunned to lose five legislative seats and the Dallas County courthouse in 2006. Another debacle would signal a trend. For the Democrats, the stakes are even higher. Their base, moribund for so long, has huge expectations that are hard to meet in a state still dominated by Republicans. If the D’s stumble on Election Day, all the momentum achieved over the past two years could be lost. A bad performance would probably carry over to 2010, when the major state offices are up for grabs. A resurgence by the R’s would give them control of redistricting in 2011—and we know what they can do with that.
If Obama can’t win Texas, it’s hard to see how other statewide Democratic candidates can. They would have to attract Republican votes. That might be possible for Rick Noriega if he can exploit John Cornyn’s hard-line stand on immigration among conservative Hispanics, but he hasn’t shown much campaign savvy so far, and he’s nowhere when it comes to money and name ID. He will be further stymied if a rift develops between Obama and Texas Hispanics, who largely supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary; a black-brown split would be devastating for the D’s. As for the Supreme Court races, Republicans Phil Johnson and Dale Wainwright are odds-on favorites to be reelected, even in a year in which the court has been besmirched by headline-making ethics flaps and controversial rulings.
The State Board of Education
David Bradley, a four-term Republican incumbent who represents Southeast Texas, including part of Harris County, is one of the leaders of the hard-right board majority that has been so controversial of late. Republicans have a 10–5 advantage on the board, but a Laura Ewing victory could tip the governing balance to a coalition of D’s and moderate R’s. Can Obama’s strength in the Houston area and in Jefferson County offset the traditional Republican edge in the rest of the region?
The East Texas WD-40’s
“WD-40” is Capitol-speak for white Democrats of middle age who generally represent Republican-leaning districts. In a normal year, Mark Homer, Jim McReynolds, and Chuck Hopson would be favored, but Obama may be a load to carry in East Texas.
These races don’t necessarily involve Hispanics, but Hispanic turnout will be an important and uncertain factor. Democrats Joe Moody, Juan Garcia, and Ciro Rodriguez all have to worry whether the Hispanics who backed Clinton in the primary will be motivated to turn out to support the candidate they voted against. Both Garcia and Moody are running in traditionally Republican districts (Moody in El Paso, Garcia in Corpus Christi) and need a big Democratic showing.
The Battle for Harris County
This is the big prize for the D’s: an opportunity to stake their claim to Harris County, whose population exceeds that of 24 states. A big turnout for Obama is what they need to win these races. The highest profile among them will be Nick Lampson versus Pete Olson, as the Democrats try to hold on to the congressional seat once occupied by Tom DeLay. Michael Skelly, a wind-power zillionaire, has some business support against his hard-right opponent, John Culberson. Two state Senate races will be closely watched; the rivals to succeed Kyle Janek will probably be Chris Bell (D) and Austen Furse (R), Janek’s handpicked choice. Joe Jaworski, a grandson of the late Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski, is well funded against Republican Mike Jackson, but the district leans Republican. Hubert Vo, who defeated powerful Republican Talmadge Heflin in 2004, finds himself on the defensive against Greg Meyers’ slumlord charges.
Congressional District 10
Republicans are already an endangered species in Austin, but Michael McCaul faces an especially tough race. Larry Joe Doherty, a former nationally syndicated TV judge, is a political novice, but all local voters care about is the D after his name. The district stretches eastward through several rural counties and into Harris County, but the Austin part usually outvotes the Houston part—and should do so by a significant margin with Obama (who smoked Clinton in the Democratic primary here) at the top of the ticket. If McCaul manages to hold on, it won’t be by much.
Dallas and Tarrant counties have become major battlegrounds in the fight for control at the Capitol; as is the case throughout metro Texas, a big Obama turnout is key to victory. At least half a dozen other seats in the House are in play here, in addition to a Senate seat. Republicans hold a 20–11 majority in the Senate, and it has been a while since a Democrat has defeated an incumbent R. Wendy Davis was a popular Fort Worth city council member, but Kim Brimer is leading in early polls. Dan Barrett is the most vulnerable Democrat in the House: He won a special election over Mark Shelton last December in a Republican district.
These races represent the future of Texas politics: demographic change in districts on the urban fringes. The Bryan Daniel–Diana Maldonado and Donnie Dippel–Tim Kleinschmidt races take place in districts that touch Obama-friendly Travis County. Drive north into Williamson County or east into Bastrop County and you encounter new middle-class subdivisions. These areas are now up for grabs. The Bill Zedler–Chris Turner, Allen Vaught–Bill Keffer, and Tony Goolsby–Carol Kent races are in districts that are experiencing a different kind of shift, as long-established suburbs pass into middle age and renters replace homeowners. Vaught beat Keffer in the Democratic sweep of Dallas County in 2006; the rematch should be equally close, but Obama will help.
FROM THE MAP
State representative Allen Vaught (D) vs. Bill Keffer (R)
State representative Tony Goolsby (R) vs. Carol Kent (D)
Donnie Dippel (D) vs. Tim Kleinschmidt (R) to succeed retiring state representative Robby Cook (D)
State representative Bill Zedler (R) vs. Chris Turner (D)
Bryan Daniel (R) vs. Diana Maldonado (D) to succeed retiring state representative Mike Krusee (R)
State senator Kim Brimer (R) vs. Wendy Davis (D)
State representative Dan Barrett (D) vs. Mark Shelton (R)
Congressional District 10
U.S. representative Michael McCaul (R) vs. Larry Joe Doherty (D)
Dee Margo (R) vs. Joe Moody (D) for the seat currently occupied by defeated state representative Pat Haggerty (R)
U.S. representative Ciro Rodriguez (D) vs. Lyle Larson (R)
The East Texas WD-40’s
State representative Juan Garcia (D) vs. Todd Hunter (R)
State representative Mark Homer (D) vs. Kirby Hollingsworth (R)
State representative Chuck Hopson (D) vs. Brian Walker (R)
State representative Jim McReynolds (D) vs. Van Brookshire (R)
The Battle For Harris County
U.S. representative Nick Lampson (D) vs. Pete Olson (R)
U.S. representative John Culberson (R) vs. Michael Skelly (D)
State senator Mike Jackson (R) vs. Joe Jaworski (D)
Special election to fill the seat of retiring state senator Kyle Janek (R)
Ken Legler (R) vs. Joel Redmond (D) to succeed retiring state representative Robert Talton (R)
State representative Hubert Vo (D) vs. Greg Meyers (R)
County judge Ed Emmett (R) vs. David Mincberg (D)
District attorney, sheriff, and many judicial races
The State Board Of Education
David Bradley (R) vs. Laura Ewing (D)
U.S. senator John Cornyn (R) vs. Rick Noriega (D)
Supreme Court justice Phil Johnson (R) vs. Linda Yañez (D)
Supreme Court justice Dale Wainwright (R) vs. Sam Houston (D)