Texas Democrats came into the 2020 election cycle with sky-high hopes of kicking ass and taking names. They talked a big game for months about sending Republican Sen. John Cornyn packing, getting the first win for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1976 and retaking the Texas House of Representatives to gain control of a Lege chamber for the first time since 2002.
The party’s brass swore all three goals were achievable if enough voters turned out, and turn out they did: Texas beat its total 2016 election vote total before early voting was even over. But Trump still carried the day in Texas (albeit by a smaller margin than he did last time around), and Cornyn walloped his Democratic challenger MJ Hegar.
Most surprisingly, Democrats completely face-planted on taking over the state House, ensuring that Gov. Greg Abbott and his Republican allies will once again have control over all branches of state government during next year’s legislative session.
Texas Dems only needed to take nine seats in the state House to wrest control from Republicans, and the party was publicly bullish about its chances given how the blue wave Beto O’Rourke ushered in with his challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz helped turn 12 seats blue back in 2018.
Democrats were able to flip only one vulnerable Republican state House seat blue in all of Texas — Democrat Ann Johnson prevailed over incumbent moderate Republican state Rep. Sarah Davis in West University — but that win was offset by Republican former state Rep. Mike Schofield’s victory over incumbent Democratic state Rep. Gina Calanni in Katy.
Across the rest of Texas, Dems were unable to flip a single one of the other allegedly vulnerable seats they targeted (as long as Dallas area state Rep. Angie Chen Button holds on to her narrow lead over her Democratic challenger as expected), despite the staggering amount of money that Democrats poured into these races and plenty of liberal chest-thumping that a state House takeover was in the cards.
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones wasn’t shocked that Dems didn’t secure a state House majority (he put the odds of them pulling it off in the mid thirties percentage-wise last week), but he was surprised that once the dust settles, Democrats will likely have spent a ton of money to not pick up a single seat.
“A lot of hullabaloo, over $100 million spent, and we’re right where we were before,” said Jones.
University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus didn’t expect such a poor showing from state Dems either.
“I was surprised,” Rottinghaus said. “The demographics on the ground, an incumbent president who’s not popular and tens of millions of dollars rolling into Texas should have moved at least one district, and that’s a real problem for Democrats.”
Trump performed three points worse in Texas overall this year than he did in 2016, which means that some of the white suburban voters in places like Tarrant County and Collin County in North Texas definitely voted for Biden at the top of the ballot but chose to support Republicans in state House races that Democrats targeted. Rottinghaus thinks that’s due in part to Republicans benefiting from those voters’ fond memories of the 2019 state legislative session and popular policy wins like increasing school funding.
He also believes down-ballot Republicans’ focus on getting the economy up and running instead of promising more COVID-19 restrictions resonated with those suburban voters (despite the fact that the pandemic has definitely gotten worse in Texas over the past month), even for those who weren’t too fond of Trump.
“Looking at the numbers, he did not run as strong as many down-ballot Republicans, so that I think is a signal that the Republican brand is still sellable, even if the Trump brand is not,” Rottinghaus said.
Jones pointed out that Republicans also came into 2020 knowing they’d need to campaign hard and spend loads of cash to keep Democrats from taking more state House seats, as opposed to 2018 when they were caught off-guard by Democrats’ success in state legislative races.
“This time around, Republicans were ready,” Jones said. “Every action generates a reaction, and the reaction of Republicans this time was raising money, mobilizing and preparing for battle, as opposed to sitting on their hands and just sort of assuming they’re going to win, which was the case back in 2018.”
On the mobilizing front, Rottinghaus also suspects that Republican willingness to still do traditional voter outreach activities like door-knocking and block-walking despite the raging pandemic may have also given down-ballot conservative candidates an edge over their Democratic rivals, most of whom shifted to more virtual campaigns out of concern for public health.
With Republicans in control of all the levers of Texas government going into a redistricting year, the GOP will almost certainly tweak the lines of both national and state legislative districts to make it harder for Democrats to pick up more seats in the future. That means Democrats likely won’t have a better shot to gain a foothold in the state government’s power structure than they did this year for quite some time.
If Dems are going to have a chance to win enough races to have a real seat at the governing table, they won’t be able to count on mostly white suburbs to get them there, Rottinghaus said.
“The battle in the suburbs is always going to be tricky. They’re never going to get the numbers that they want because there’s always going be a kind of conservative wall they’re going to hit, but they can definitely expand the electorate in other ways,” said Rottinghaus.
That means prioritizing outreach to Latino voters, which Rottinghaus called “the biggest failing in this cycle for Democrats, period,” as evidenced by Biden’s lackluster performance among Texas Latinos compared to Hillary Clinton.
Even given all these headwinds Texan Democrats are facing after such an embarrassing showing, Rottinghaus said he’d tell the party a five out of 10 on the panic-scale is where he’d rank things.
“They’re not halfway to the barn yet. They are still investing in opportunities and building infrastructure, establishing a bench, making sure they have good funding. Those are all parts of building a party,” he said. He then brought up how it took the then-out-of-power Texas GOP 30 years to win another statewide race after the party’s first big Lone Star success story in the modern era, when Republican John Tower won the special election to fill Lyndon Johnson’s Senate seat in 1961.
“This, in keeping with history, is a long game for Texas Democrats,” Rottinghaus said.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.