Texas Democrats were certain: 2020 would be the year when the Lone Star State would finally turn blue.
Instead, more than a week after Election Day, the party is scrambling to regroup after failing to make gains at virtually every level despite boasting that they at last had a shot at collecting Texas’s 38 electoral votes, winning a Senate seat, flipping about a half dozen House seats and controlling the state House.
“I remember sitting [in] the office, putting my hands on my temples and saying, ‘what the f--- is happening?’” Progress Texas Executive Director Ed Espinoza said of watching the votes come in on Nov. 3.
President Trump is projected to win Texas by nearly 6 points, Sen. John Cornyn (R) won reelection by about 10 points, a number of contested House seats stayed in Republican hands and the state House is still in GOP control, an important hold in a redistricting year.
Polls had showed all those contests within range for Democrats, who did manage to flip the traditionally conservative states of Arizona and Georgia, indicating that conditions in Texas remain stronger for Trump and down-ballot Republicans than either party had anticipated.
“It’s pretty clear at this point that we were wrong about what the environment would look like. And I don’t think it was just us. Our polling showed the same thing national polling showed, and ultimately Republican polling too, which was that Trump was going to lose 7 to 10 points off of his 2016 margins in Texas and across the country,” said one Democratic strategist who worked on down-ballot races. “That didn’t happen.”
Democrats have long predicted that a mushrooming Hispanic population and an influx of new residents from liberal states would eventually purple Texas, with surveys showing those yearslong trends could come to a head in 2020.
But Republicans rode Trump’s unexpectedly enduring coattails to victories across the state.
Trump was able to supercharge turnout in major cities, though he still lost there, while proving to be not nearly as toxic as Democrats needed him to be in the suburbs. He also ran up the score with gargantuan margins in Texas’s sparsely populated but vast rural counties.
The president’s strength was seen in Harris County, the state’s largest and home of Houston, where he actually jumped 1 percentage point from 2016, and in neighboring Fort Bend County, a suburb where he only slipped a point. While he still lost those two counties, the results there and elsewhere shocked Democrats who expected to see the same suburban exodus from the GOP they saw in 2018.
Trump also defied Democrats’ claims he’d maxed out in rural communities in 2016, expanding his vote share by over 7 points in Crocket County and 12 points in Upton County in West Texas, a trend that stretched across the state.
“Houston, Harris County, delivered 545,000 votes to Republicans in 2016 and 700,000 votes in 2020. I did not think they could get beyond 600,000 on a good day, and they added 150,000 there. So there you’re looking at two buckets – they added 400,000 in the rurals and they added 150,000 in just Harris County alone,” Espinoza said.
The GOP also made stunning gains among Hispanic voters, a demographic where Democrats needed to run up the score to remain competitive statewide. Those gains were mainly focused in South Texas areas such as Starr County on the Mexico border, where Trump’s vote share shot up from 19 percent in 2016 to over 47 percent.
Beyond the presidential contest, Trump helped down-ballot Republicans avoid anticipated defeats. Texas Democrats had crowed that at least two congressional seats were sure flips and that they’d win the nine seats needed to control the state House. Instead, no congressional seats changed hands and the state House’s margin remained the same, leaving Democrats without a seat at the table next year when new congressional lines are drawn.
The failure to make any ground sparked party-wide head-scratching ahead of a possible reckoning.
“The first thing is definitely a postmortem to see exactly what happened, because until you do that, you can’t shoot a target until you know where it is,” Texas Democratic Party communications director Abhi Rahman said when asked what the party could do better moving forward.
Virtually every Democrat who tried to explain the results pointed to polling that had shown the party in strong shape heading into Election Day and which influenced strategy and hyped expectations.
“Clearly, we need to look at why polling data’s off, and I don’t have the answers to that. I’ve spoken with the state Democratic Party, I’ve spoken with the leaders in the caucus to talk about it, and we’re planning to do some deep evaluation on why the data was off,” said state Rep. John Bucy (D), who flipped a state House seat in the Austin suburbs in 2018 and won reelection this year.
Democrats also pointed to Texas races getting caught up in the national conversations over progressives’ push to “defund the police” and Republicans’ claims that candidates would careen the country toward socialism, two issues they said were GOP winners in the state.
And with organizers pulled back from in-person campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic, the party was hindered in combating GOP broadsides.
“You have to organize, you have to get your message out on the ground because…it’s harder to just do it on ads. You have people who are telling people why they should be voting for Democrats, and with the pandemic we just didn’t have anybody on the ground there, so it was just Republicans on the ground going door-to-door basically spreading rumors and lies about Democrats,” said a second Democratic strategist who worked on down-ballot contests.
While the results shattered Texas Democrats' dream even as nationally the party captured the White House and held onto the House, they also broke an electoral trope that Democrats had hoped would apply this year: that high turnout helps the left.
High turnout in fact seemed to help both parties pad their support, shocking Democrats who had seen a surge in voters as a key piece to their path to victory in Texas.
“The theory of change for so long has been high turnout is good for Democrats. The thing is it was, at some level, good for us, it just wasn’t good enough,” said Espinoza. "[A] rising tide lifts all boats, and we weren’t prepared for that.”
Searching for silver linings, Democrats noted that they did not lose ground after making congressional and state legislative gains in both 2016 and 2018 and underscored that several of the targeted races they lost were decided by narrow margins. And while Trump did secure a victory, his margin was whittled down 3 points from 2016.
“I think that is the positive, we didn’t go backwards,” said Bucy. “I think this was a massive peak for [Republicans] in this state. Clearly the numbers are moving against them and that’s just going to keep happening. It just didn’t happen as fast as we had hoped.”
While Democrats defend their hold-the-line performance, the GOP is taking a victory lap.
Republicans had pushed back all cycle against Democratic optimism that Texas would turn blue this year, and when asked to respond to the results, GOP strategist Corbin Casteel simply responded: “Toldja.”
“They’re really good salesmen. But they’re clearly not using good data because they lose and they lose and they lose,” Casteel said. “Texas is absolutely still a red state, and all you need to do is look at all these contested House races that Democrats were spending all this money to try to flip.”
After last week’s results, it is now Republicans who are confident about making gains in Texas heading into the 2022 midterms. Not only were Democrats unable to gain ground in a year when the environment was supposed to be friendly, but they will face a tougher map after redistricting than the already Republican-leaning spread they dealt with this year.
“We didn’t want the political landscape in Texas to be drawn by the left, and we know that that would be detrimental to Texas for 10 years, maybe even longer,” said Texas GOP Chair Allen West. “So we’re going to be a solid red, conservative state, and we’re very pleased with our results. We look forward to maintaining this momentum that we have.”