Texas Republicans experienced a sense of relief on election night. Texas voters once again dashed Democratic hopes of turning the Lone Star State blue, even as Texans turned out at the highest rate since 1992. So much for the adage “Texas isn’t a Republican state, it’s a low voting state.”
Despite spending more than $250 million up and down the ticket, Democrats failed to win any of the 10 Republican U.S. House seats they targeted, and their plan to flip the Texas House by gaining nine seats failed dismally, with a net-gain of zero. And, the Democratic Party’s statewide losing streak dating back to 1996 remained unbroken with 153 straight defeats.
Texas Republicans were relieved because the worst-case projections based on many, though not all, public opinion polls did not come to pass. But that should not obscure the fact that Texas Democrats are notably better off in 2020 than they were before Donald Trump assumed office in 2017, and Texas Republicans are notably worse off.
After the 2014 Texas House and Senate elections, Republicans held 98 of the 150 House seats and 20 of the 31 Senate seats. And, 25 of the 36 members of the Texas U.S. House delegation were Republicans, with only one of the 25 victorious Republicans winning by a margin of less than 20 percentage points, and only two facing a Democratic candidate who raised over $100,000. In the gubernatorial race, Republican Greg Abbott defeated Democrat Wendy Davis by 20 points, Republican Sen. John Cornyn defeated Democrat David Alameel by 27 points, and in the race for lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick defeated Democrat Leticia Van de Putte by 19 points for the narrowest victory of any statewide GOP candidate.
After the 2016 Texas House and Senate elections, Texas Republicans held 95 House seats, 20 Senate seats and 25 U.S. House seats. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 9 points in 2016, down from Mitt Romney’s and John McCain’s respective 16- and 12-point margins against Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008. All but one of the 25 victorious U.S. House Republicans won by more than 10 percentage points and faced a rival who raised less than $100,000. And in Harris County, with a population (4.7 million) greater than 26 states, Republicans continued to enjoy a four-to-one advantage on the Commissioners Court that runs county government.
Trump’s presidency aided Texas Democrats in three main ways. First, during his tenure, Trump alienated some members of important sectors of the Texas Republican electoral base, in particular college-educated white women and younger whites. Second, Trump provided Democrats with an ideal vehicle through which to register, energize and mobilize low-propensity Democratic voters.
Third, Trump’s election spurred a plethora of high-quality Democratic candidates to run for positions at the county, state and federal levels. Instead of Texas Democrats fielding a candidate or having to accept whoever was willing to file to run in GOP-held districts, in 2018 (and 2020) Democrats were far more likely to have multiple high-quality candidates to choose from in these districts, candidates who were able to also raise substantial sums of money.
Take, for example, the 32nd Congressional District. In 2016 Democrats couldn’t find anyone to run against Republican Pete Sessions, while in 2018 seven candidates, four considered top-notch, competed in the Democratic primary, with the winner, Colin Allred, going on to defeat Sessions.
After the 2018 Texas House and Senate elections, Republicans held 83 House seats (losing 12 seats) and 19 Senate seats (losing two seats; they had gained a seat in a September 2018 special election that they would later lose in 2020). Republicans held 23 U.S. House seats after two GOP incumbents were defeated, and unlike the case in 2014 or 2016, nine victorious Republicans won by margins of less than 10 points. Gov. Abbott defeated Democrat Lupe Valdez by 13 points (down from 20 points) and Lt-Gov. Patrick defeated Democrat Mike Collier by 5 points (down from 19 points). In the closest statewide race, Sen. Ted Cruz beat Beto O’Rourke by a mere 3 points (down from 16 points in 2012). And in Harris County, Democrats now held a three-to-two Commissioners Court advantage.
In 2020, after a well-funded and coordinated effort spearheaded by Abbott, Texas Republicans stopped the bleeding. But on November 9, 2020 the Texas GOP still finds itself worse off than it was four years ago.
After the 2016 election, the GOP held 95 Texas House and 20 Texas Senate seats and 25 U.S. House seats. And only one of the 25 victorious U.S. House Republicans had won by less than 10 points or faced a rival who raised more than $100,000.
After the 2020 election, the GOP held 83 and 18 House and Senate seats and 23 U.S. House seats. And it faced much stiffer competition in the 2020 congressional contests than in 2016, with seven of the 23 victorious U.S. House Republicans winning by less than 10 points and nine facing a rival who raised over $1 million.
The Texas Democratic revival is not due solely to Trump’s presidency. Demographic changes, self-inflicted errors caused by some Texas Republicans promoting unpopular policies and using alienating rhetoric, and grassroots efforts by Democrats all have contributed to the resurgence. That said, consider the counterfactual of Hillary Clinton being victorious in 2016. Would Texas Democrats have come within 6 percentage points of winning the 2020 presidential race or made the legislative gains of 2018?
Joe Biden’s election as the 46th president of the United States, therefore, has a silver lining for Texas Republicans. Texas Democrats will not be able to rely as much on Trump to boost turnout and attract voters in 2022. Instead, Texas Republicans will be able to dust off the Obama-era playbook and once again campaign against national Democrats with greater ease. Added to that challenge for Democrats will be legislative maps drawn by Republicans in 2021 to maximize the GOP advantage in the 2022 midterms.