It’s no secret that the Texas Democratic Party has been the state GOP’s wimpy little cousin for decades now. Despite the party’s best efforts, Democrats haven’t been able to break through to enough Texas voters to get a real seat at the table to put up anything resembling a real fight against right-wing policies pushed by Republicans, let alone make substantial progress on progressive issues like radically expanding healthcare and making it easier to vote.
This could be the election that changes that equation. For the first time in ages, the Democrats have a real shot at taking control of one of the biggest levers of state government: the Texas House of Representatives. And as earth-shattering as a Joe Biden upset victory in Texas would feel, the impact of a blue state House could be even greater for the future of Texan politics.
Since there’s virtually no chance Republicans lose control of the state Senate based on which seats are up for grabs this go-around and the fact that Gov. Greg Abbott isn’t up for reelection until 2022, taking the state House is the only feasible way Democrats could substantially increase their power in Austin this year and prevent Abbott and his Republican allies from having free rein to dictate policy priorities for the upcoming legislative session in 2021.
After picking up 12 seats in the 2018 election thanks to the enthusiasm Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate campaign stirred up and a suburban revolt against President Donald Trump at the ballot box, the makeup of the state House swung to 67 Democrats and 83 Republicans.
That means the Dems only need to pick up an additional nine seats this year to have a majority and the ability to install a Democratic Speaker of the House, who would have the power to choose which bills get a House vote. Houston Democratic state Rep. Senfronia Thompson was the first lawmaker to announce that she’ll be seeking the House Speakership, and she’s already been endorsed by Harris County’s Democratic state delegation.
How likely is it that the Democrats can pull off their goal of a state House takeover?
“I’ve been saying between one-third and two-fifths… somewhere in the high thirties [percentage-wise],” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor.
Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but it’s a hell of a lot better an outlook than Democrats have had in quite a while, and when you think about how long Dems haven’t held a shred of real institutional clout in Austin, it’s clear why political observers are taking the possibility of a blue state House seriously.
“Obviously, symbolically, it would be a massive change for Texas. It’s been [nearly] 20 years since Democrats have had control of a chamber, and it would be seemingly revolutionary in what has become ruby-red Texas,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist and state politics expert at the University of Houston.
Democrats haven’t controlled either the Texas Senate or House since 2002, when they lost the House in that year’s midterm elections. The last time Dems ran the state Senate was back in 1996, and there hasn’t been a Democrat in the governor’s mansion since Ann Richards’s last year in office in 1994, when George W. Bush sent her packing.
Rottinghaus said that youth voter turnout and the rising number of Latinos eligible to vote in Texas are both reasons that Democrats feel better about their chances to take the state House in 2020 than they have in years.
“There’s been a 55 percent increase in voters under the age of 25 turning out early, so the numbers for younger voters are increasing, and they’re voting in bigger percentages, which gives Democrats an edge. Some of that, too, is that the future of Texas is Latino, and we are seeing a rising number of Latino voters, which will in fits and starts shape Texas into a more Democratic version of itself,” he said.
In Harris County alone, a Houston Public Media analysis found that the number of eligible Latino voters skyrocketed by 56.5 percent between 2009 and 2018. Texan Latinos have traditionally voted for Democrats more often than Republicans, they are projected to be the largest demographic group in Texas by 2022 according to the U.S. Census.
A huge reason Democrats are praying they can take over the Texas House in 2020 of all years is because next year’s Texas Legislature will be able to redraw all of Texas’s U.S. Congress and state legislative districts. If Dems control the state House, they’d have an official role in that process, and could propose redrawing some of the squirrely-looking Republican-created districts into configurations that would give Dems a better chance at picking up more seats in the future, or at least prevent Republicans from skewing things even more in their favor.
That said, Democrats won’t be able to control the redistricting process even if they run the state House. If the Texas House and Senate can’t agree on a redistricting plan — which is likely if different parties control each chamber — “then it’ll go to the courts to be able to try to resolve the difference to get a more neutral sort of combination of those two plans,” Jones said.
There’s less of a chance Democrats would be able to influence state Legislature redistricting if they take the state House — if the state Senate and House can’t agree on new maps for those districts, then the state’s legislative redistricting board gets to decide. If Democrats are running the Texas House, their Speaker would be one of five members on that board, and the rest would all be Republicans: Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, General Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush and state Comptroller Glenn Hegar.
For laws to be passed in Texas, they have to be approved by a majority in both chambers of the Legislature. So while a Democratic state House probably wouldn’t be able to get enough Republicans in the state Senate on board with policies like rolling back Texas’s burdensome abortion restrictions, they could have some success in less divisive issues that are still Democratic priorities, Rottinghaus said, like increasing funding for public education.
A Democrat-led state House could also block some of the policies passed by the Republican-led state Senate, and preventing your opponents from making headway on their goals is the next best thing if you can’t get everything you want accomplished.
In mid-October, the national Democratic super PAC Forward Majority committed to pour a whopping total of $12 million into blue state House campaigns across Texas. The group initially only invested $6.2 million back in September, but clearly smelled blood in the water when it saw Texans turning out in record-breaking numbers to vote early and how Trump’s scattershot, science-denying coronavirus response has made him less popular than ever in the Lone Star State.
Forward Majority’s cash-injection has targeted local Republican state representatives Sarah Davis in West University, Sam Harless in Spring and Gary Gates in Richmond. They’re also firing shots at the Republicans running to fill the seats of retiring GOP state Reps Dwayne Bohac of west Houston and Rick Miller of Sugar Land.
The local Democrats best positioned to flip current red seats are Ann Johnson in her race against Davis and Akilah Bacy in her campaign against Lacey Hull in their fight to fill Bohac’s seat, according to Jones. After that, Jones gave Republican Jacey Jetton a slight edge over his rival Democrat Sarah DeMerchant in the contest for Miller’s seat in Sugar Land’s District 26. Jones believes that Gates’ seat in Richmond’s District 28 will likely stay red, and that Harless will probably prevail over his Democratic challenger Natali Hurtado.
Democrats have Trump’s divisive rhetoric and inept coronavirus response to thank for a lot of their momentum in this year’s down ballot races, Rottinghaus said, but he also credits the work progressive PAC Battleground Texas started back in 2014 to invest in advanced voter targeting techniques and bigger ground operations for laying the groundwork for this year’s potential state House takeover.
“After the 2014 election when Battleground Texas came and they tried to use updated techniques and tools to change Texas, the Republicans scoffed at them because it didn’t seem like it was going to be successful,” Rottinghaus said. “But the Democrats were putting hay in the barn for the day where they knew that the demographic change would meet political opportunity, and that’s certainly happening in 2020.”
Even if winning the state House doesn’t mean Democrats will be able to drastically shift Texas to the left in one fell swoop, Rottinghaus thinks it would still give a much-needed shot in the arm to disillusioned Democrats in Texas, and would help set the party up for future success by showing national party leaders and potential candidates that investing in Texas is a worthwhile endeavor.
“It would be a sizable symbolic victory even if it didn’t produce any practical policy change,” Rottinghaus said. “So at the start, it means that there’s going to be more people nationwide believing Democrats can win in Texas, so that’s going to mean more money and stronger candidates.”
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