Editor’s Note: & nbspThis article was written in collaboration with the Texas Observer.
On the way into election night, Democrats were optimistic about their chances of flipping the Texas House, filling a handful of GOP congressional seats, and perhaps even casting the 38 state votes to Joe Biden.
After promising wins in 2018, the Texas Democrats had support from national leadership, well-funded candidates, and grassroots enthusiasm. They also had what they believed to be a clear path to power, centered on the purifying suburbs of the state. And there was sky high come out An early vote, including millions of new voters that the party has long insisted on, would turn the tide in Texas.
But here too the high hopes of the Democrats were decimated. Their goal of making further progress in suburban boroughs proved to be an expensive pipe dream that could ultimately sink the Democrats into a deeper hole than before.
Conquer the Texas House was the top priority for the State party and for many national-democratic-allied groups. Hoping to prevent another decade of GOP wandering, the Democrats pumped tens of millions of dollars into a massive coordinated effort that sought to wrest a lever of state government from Republicans for the first time in nearly two decades. The plan focused on the nine suburbs in which Beto O’Rourke beat Ted Cruz in 2018 and expanded support to additional districts – up to 22 in total – where O’Rourke was relatively competitive. In anticipation of success, four Democrats announced their candidacy as speakers in the past week and a half. El Paso representative Joe Moody said on election day, “Before the day is over, the Democrats will take over Texas House.”
But the GOP’s grip on the lower chamber didn’t loosen at all when the Republicans did one aggressive shock in the home track to protect their majority. While there are still some close races that have not yet been played, it is possible that Democrats could make a net profit of zero seats. Democrats could lose all but one of the nine seats O’Rourke wore in 2018, along with every other competitive state house race. The two remaining Republican State officials, Angie Chen Button and Morgan Meyer, were expected to be among the first to fall but were held with tiny clues. In Collin County, which the Democrats viewed as a major battlefield in the suburbs, Republican incumbent Matt Shaheen leads by just 1,000 votes. Meyer’s Democratic opponent conceded on Wednesday, but the other two races have not yet been played.
The only seat the Democrats won by ousting the Houston representative Sarah Davis, a relatively moderate Republican in the House of Representatives who supports abortion rights, was negated in a nearby area of Harris County where first-time Democrat Gina Calanni lost in a rematch against the GOP, which she defeated in 2018.
Moving up to a house majority required winning in tumultuous GOP districts, but no one publicly predicted that the Democrats would flop like this. Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had made Texas its biggest battlefield, targeting several congressional districts, mostly centered around Austin, Houston, and the northern Texas suburbs around Dallas. As of Wednesday morning, Republicans likely held onto all ten seats the Democrats played for.
Then there was the national election. Polls in the last few weeks of the campaign showed that Biden was going head to head with Donald Trump in Texas. But with almost all votes, Trump won the state by six percentage points. That this has been the president’s narrowest margin of maneuver since 1996 is a small consolation for the Democrats. Despite a large turnout in the city, Biden’s margins were nowhere near large enough to counter the deep red country choice.
Another worrying trend for Democrats was Biden’s dire underperformance along the Texas-Mexico border, including the Covid-19 devastated Rio Grande Valley. Local organizers have long warned that the party has neglected the region, and in those elections it mainly focused on suburbs hundreds of kilometers away. While Biden got mostly the total number of votes from previous elections, in Cameron and Hidalgo – the two urban districts in the valley – he fell about 10 points behind Clinton’s lead in 2016 when Republican votes rose. Biden did even worse in rural Starr County, where the lead swung nearly 30 points in Trump’s favor, and in Zapata County, where Trump won by a few hundred votes.
Democratic Senate candidate MJ Hegars Race against John Cornyn was another blow. Although it wasn’t expected to win, it was viewed as a competitive race. But Cornyn easily ran 10 percentage points to victory, outperforming Trump, while Hegar fell short of Biden.
One of the biggest effects of the elections is that there is a clear ceiling for Democrats in the growing suburbs. In 2018, suburban voters turned out to be allergic to Cruz, Trump, or both by casting their vote for O’Rourke and then returning to the Republican side below. It is not yet clear how Biden behaved in certain districts, but he ran outside or near O’Rourke in places like Fort Bend County, Collin countyand Tarrant County – home to many of the House’s target districts – while the Democrats continued to suffer from voting.
The Democratic election failure – and failure to live up to expectations – is a blow to the burgeoning liberal base. Now Republican dominance in the state government remains unreserved, as does the GOP’s ability to lock majorities in the next restructuring cycle for years to come.