Warning signs are flashing for Republicans in Texas as the party faces eroding support in the state's increasingly diverse suburbs.
A number of House seats in the state’s suburbs this cycle are in play for Democrats, while Democratic Senate candidate MJ Hegar has outperformed expectations in her race against incumbent Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). The Senate Majority PAC announced on Thursday it was jumping into the race, launching an $8.6 million television blitz supporting Hegar.
At the presidential level, a number of polls show Trump holding a single-digit lead over Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The former vice president’s wife, Jill Biden, visited a number of Texas suburbs this week in an effort to rally the vote.
Republicans’ struggle to appeal to the state’s growing and increasingly diverse suburbs is reflective of a problem the party — and in particular President Trump — faces nationwide.
Trump issued a direct appeal to suburban women at a rally in Johnstown, Pa., on Tuesday, acknowledging his growing deficit with female suburban voters in particular.
“Suburban women, will you please like me?” Trump said, surrounded by pink Women for Trump signs. “I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?”
A number of polls paint a dire picture of Trump’s standing with suburban women. A Washington Post-ABC News survey released in August showed Biden leading Trump by 13 points with the group.
“These suburban women care about their families,” said Julie Oliver, a Democratic candidate running in Texas’s 25th District. “There is a different lens through which mothers view things, and it’s with a slant towards looking at their children’s futures.”
Trump has homed in on a law-and-order message in response to growing calls for racial justice and police accountability following numerous shootings of unarmed African Americans.
However, many say this message is backfiring on the president in the suburbs, especially in Texas.
“We don’t have much white flight left in Texas,” said Richard Murray, a pollster and political science professor at the University of Houston. “For years, one of the drivers of suburban growth were whites in the older inner-city areas moving out, and they were usually making these areas increasingly conservative and Republican.”
“That’s pretty much over in Dallas, Houston and Austin,” Murray said. “Now the suburban growth is driven by minorities moving out.”
Experts say that the influx of African Americans, Hispanics and Asians to the state’s suburbs could prove to be bad news for Republicans in November due to Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket.
“Those voters were not particularly Democratic, but they’re sure anti-Trump,” Murray said. “That’s been one of the factors that has accelerated this shift in the suburbs.”
Additionally, the state’s redistricting process, which appeared to favor Republicans by drawing lines around the Texas suburbs, may be backfiring as minority communities put down their roots in suburban enclaves.
“The maps wore out,” Murray said. “Texas added a lot more people since the 2010 census than any other state, and most of those are in the suburbs, and most of those are not white.”
The suburban districts have in turn reflected what is happening across the country at a faster pace.
“I like to say that when Republicans in the suburbs nationally have a cold, they have the flu in Texas in these districts because everything in the state is happening five times faster,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Avery Jaffe.
Democrats saw some of their most encouraging gains in 2018, when now-Democratic Reps. Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred ousted two longtime Republican incumbents in suburban Texas districts: Fletcher in the 7th District, in the greater Houston area, and Allred in the 32nd District, in the greater Dallas area.
Additionally, then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) came within roughly 2 points of ousting incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (D-Texas).
Two years later, six Texas Republicans in the House have announced they are retiring, leaving the door open for Democrats to go on the offensive. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated two of these districts, the 22nd in the Houston suburbs and 24th in the suburbs between Dallas and Fort Worth, as “toss-ups.” Cook rated another district — the 23rd, which goes from the San Antonio suburbs to El Paso and is held by retiring Rep. Will Hurd (R) — as “lean Democratic.”
“It’s worrisome,” said one Texas-based Republican strategist. “They’re raising a lot, for sure, so they’ve got the resources they need.”
Democrats say the diversification of the suburbs and a focus on key issues such as health care, as well as drawing on their own backgrounds to relate to their would-be constituents, are key to their growing popularity in the state.
“My parents are immigrants from Lebanon, and both of them are health care workers,” said Lulu Seikaly, who is looking to unseat Rep. Van Taylor (R-Texas) in the 3rd District. “People here in Collin County have similar stories to the one that my family had.”
Cook rates the race as “lean Republican.”
The party’s candidates have also focused on protecting the Affordable Care Act amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Texas hard.
“On top of the pandemic itself, the health care issue has now been compounded because we have people who didn’t have access before,” said Sri Kulkarni, the Democratic candidate running in the 22nd District. “Their health care might be taken away by a lawsuit that’s going to be heard the week after the election. People are not happy about that. People are scared, actually.”
Democrats also say they are encouraged by early voter turnout so far, with the state surpassing 1 million votes on the first day of early voting this week.
“You can feel it on the ground, even the number of voters that have turned out in this area, the suburban vote is higher than it’s ever been,” said Democrat Sima Ladjevardian, who is challenging freshman incumbent Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R) in Texas's 2nd District. The Cook Political Report rates the race as “likely Republican.”
Republicans argue that it’s too early to tell who will benefit from the rise in early voting.
“I think that’s going to be something to continue to watch here over the next week, in particular,” the Texas-based strategist said. “It’s really going to be a fascinating exercise not just to see what those numbers look like but where they continued to come from.”
While many Republicans concede a number of Lone Star races are in play for Democrats this year, they say the cause for concern in the suburbs is overblown, particularly when citing race and health care.
“The field is a little bit more narrow than the Democrats would pretend,” said another GOP strategist. “They think race dictates voting. In Texas, Hispanic voters cover a much wider range of political views than in a lot of parts of the country.”
“We’re pushing back directly on health care messaging in some of these places because Democrats are running candidates who support ‘Medicare for All’ in a lot of places,” the strategist said. “That gives us a pretty potent pushback.”
Additionally, Republicans argue that while Trump is underperforming in a number of districts he won in 2016, including the 22nd and 24th, the GOP candidates are still outperforming.
“Some of these districts are ones he won fairly handily,” said the Texas GOP strategist. “That’s good news for the candidate.”
“You want to be a Sen. Cornyn, who’s outperforming him,” the strategist continued. “Even if he continues to have a little bit of a drag, you’re ahead of the curve.”