Texas is headed for a high-stakes battle over control of its state House, with the party that prevails getting a once-in-a-decade chance to help redraw congressional districts.
Democrats have made inroads in Texas in recent years, flipping 12 state House seats in 2018, the same year former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) came within three points of defeating Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in his Senate race.
Their recent successes were aided by demographic changes as an influx of outsiders from liberal states moved into urban and suburban centers, while Texas has also seen a mushrooming number of residents of color.
The battle for the state House comes in the midst of a presidential election year where both sides are expected to fight aggressively for Texas as part of a group of red states being put into play by Democrats. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign last week said it views Texas, Arizona and Georgia as battleground states they intend to contest and win.
Winning the state House would provide Democrats with a leading role in shaping redistricting as the once-in-a-decade census gets underway. Republicans have held the state House since 2002 and Democrats must flip a net 9 seats to gain a majority.
It’s an outcome that Democrats maintain is within their grasp, but it’s unlikely to be easy as Republicans prepare to spend big to defend the chamber.
“The Texas House is a huge priority for us,” said Jessica Post, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), which coordinates the Democratic Party’s efforts at the statehouse level. “We know that Texas Republicans won’t give up anything easily and they’re going to fight like hell to claw their final pieces of power in the state as the state is changing beneath their feet.”
The party is focusing its chances on 25 GOP-held districts across urban, suburban and rural areas, but its top nine targets are ones currently represented by Republicans at the legislative level that were won by O'Rourke in 2018. They are clustered in and around major cities like Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.
Among the nine districts are the 108th legislative district, a once GOP stronghold in Dallas that O’Rourke won by 15 points in 2018. Republican Morgan Meyer, who represents the legislative district, narrowly won reelection in 2018 by just over 200 votes and is facing a rematch against Democrat Joanna Cattachach, a teacher.
The targeted nine also includes the 134th state district in Houston, considered one of the most affluents in Texas. Despite regularly voting for Democrats in statewide elections, including for O’Rourke by a 20-point margin, it has been represented by Sarah Davis, a pro-life Republican considered to be one of the most moderate GOP lawmakers in Texas.
After first winning election during the Tea Party wave of 2010, Davis’s margin over her Democratic opponent narrowed in 2018 to six points, and Democrats have been targeting her heavily. She will face off against Democrat Ann Johnson, whose resume includes experience as a prosecutor, teacher and small business owner.
The decennial redistricting is adding impetus to the fight for the state House, even as a delay in the census over the coronavirus pandemic could prevent the legislature from completing its redistricting when it’s in session next year. Both the Texas House and Senate are involved in crafting the map, which would have to be signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott (R).
The DLCC has already donated nearly $200,000 to the fight for the state House, with more on the way, and is doubling down on its voter registration efforts, which have registered over 1 million Texans under the age of 25 since 2016. It is also ramping up training in association with the state Democratic Party and is expanding its digital programs given the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus.
Democrats plan to tie state Republicans to President Trump, highlighting issues like his immigration policies as well as the administration's scattershot response to the coronavirus.
“[T]he radical positions the GOP has taken have really proven to be repulsive to the voters in the suburban swing districts, and that on top of the demographic change, opens a path for the majority,” said Manny Garcia, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.
But it won’t be an easy task.
Talk of Texas going purple has been around for years but has yet to become a reality, and Republicans are confident they can retake districts they lost in 2018 and hold on to vulnerable ones.
The Texas Republican Party boosted their financial prowess after reaching an agreement with WinRed to allow state-level candidates to raise money from the GOP online fundraising platform.
The party is also providing more resources on voter reachout to candidates, with the “the best voter data platform we’ve ever had," according to Texas Republican Party Chairman James Dickey.
The Texas GOP can also point to electoral wins of its own — a January special election in the 28th state House district near Houston that was considered a bellwether for how Democrats could fare in suburban districts ended up being a 16-point rout by Republican Gary Gates.
“House District 28 was the first chance for them to prove that they had the ability to” win suburban areas, Dickey said. “And we executed exactly our plan for November, which is efficiently coordinated, well-supported activities of a great candidate willing to put in the effort, and it took what had been an 8-point victory and turned it into a 16-point pounding.”
The GOP emerged victorious in that special election in part due to a blitz of attack ads on issues including gun control and immigration and an effort to tie the Democratic candidate to O'Rourke, who had taken increasingly liberal positions in his presidential bid.
Republicans also have a hefty financial advantage. According to the most recent filings, the Texas GOP had over $582,000 cash on hand in February, while the state Democratic Party had just more than $76,000.
“Texas is one of the most important states in the country this cycle,” Austin Chambers, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), told The Hill. “We’re going to work closely with the team to make sure that Texas stays Texas. The Democrats, if they gain power in Texas, will fundamentally transform everything that has made Texas Texas, everything that has made Texas great. We’re not going to let that happen.”
The presidential election will raise the stakes in the battle for the state House. Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon last week named Texas as part of three red states they believe will turn to battleground contests in 2020.
Trump prevailed over Democrat Hillary Clinton by about 9 points in the Lone Star State in 2016, but recent polls are projecting a closer race this time. The RealClearPolitics average of Texas polls shows Trump ahead of Biden by 2.5 points.
Republicans believe, though, that having Trump at the top of the ticket will ensure increased turnout given the president's high popularity among his own party.
"You’re in a situation where you’ve got a presidential election that’s hotly contested, that’s going to drive turnout on both sides," said RSLC's Chambers. "We’re going to have the highest turnout we’ve ever had. We’ve also got some of the tightest legislative chambers we’ve ever had, so you put those two together and you’ve got extremely high stakes on both sides.”