Texas May Be Trending Purple, But Political Scientists Hedge on Whether It’s Lasting
WASHINGTON – “The thing about Texas is that people looking at it from the outside tend to have skewed view of what goes on here,” Joshua Blank said the other day.
We had turned to Blank, manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, Austin, to test an assumption we’ve been hearing a lot of lately: namely that the Lone Star State has moved out of the Red State column and is now a shade of magenta.
“The first thing you have to consider is most states don’t flip from red to blue or blue to red in any lasting way over the course of a single election cycle,” he said.
“As for Texas,” he said after some deliberation, “I’d say it is trending toward being a more purple state … but that it is not quite there yet.”
Less than a year out from the 2020 general election, and just over 14 weeks from the Texas Democratic primary, the consensus among political scientists in the state is that something profound is afoot there — something that could, maybe, possibly, signal an erosion of GOP support.
At the same time, however, the same political scientists appear to agree that it is naggingly difficult in the divisive age of President Donald Trump to determine whether it is a function of long-term trends or short-term factors.
In other words, to borrow a phrase from the world of finance, the reality of the impending 2020 political season in Texas is that past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Data collected by the Texas Politics Project suggests Republicans continue to hold the support of what Blank called “a remarkably consistent” pool of Texas voters: Mostly white and skewing older.
Since the 1970s and 1980s, more than 60% of votes cast in the state have gone to the GOP.
But Blank said races have steadily grown more competitive in recent years.
One reason is that the Republican vote in Texas has grown much more slowly that the Democratic vote.
Blank noted that between 2000 and 2016, the Republican vote grew by just 25%, while the Democrat vote rose some 69% during the same period.
At the same time, the concentrations of partisan support are shifting.
Blank noted that when Texas moved from being a one-party state controlled by the Democrats to one controlled by the Republicans — a shift in political fortunes that roughly coincided with Ronald Reagan’s election as president — the change occurred first in the Dallas suburbs.
Part of this, they said, was due to the flight of well-off whites, who fled the inner city and settled in homogenous communities on its periphery. “The GOP message simply resonated with those voters,” Blank said.
“Today, the suburbs are quite different. While older, Republican voters are moving even further from the cities, they are being replaced by young Texans who are largely non-white, well-educated, and who would be just as happy living in the city, if not for the cost.”
“In short, these are not your parents suburbs,” he said.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, who grew up in the Texas suburbs, agreed.
“My parents’ generation is now moving further away from cities, and those you are taking their play are younger, more progressive, and more racially and ethnically diverse,” he said.
“Texans still tend to be more conservative when it comes to things like gun control and climate change and immigration,” Blank continued, “but the thing most people don’t realize about Texas is how urban a state it is.”
“Eighty-five percent of Texans live in the state’s major metropolitan areas, and that’s where the political change is occurring,” he said.
‘Trump Effect’ Stymies Analysis
While political scientists acknowledge that, as in other states, the changing suburbs create the appearance of a red to blue migration. This one verifiable trend does not tell the whole story.
Some of what makes it appear that Texas is turning bluer might simply be attributed to a surge in turnout that is more a response to short-term factors.
“A big reason why the question ‘Is Texas now purple’ is difficult to answer with any confidence, is because we still don’t know how much of what we see in the electorate is a reaction to Trump — a short-term factor because he, someday, will not be president — and how much is durable change,” Blank said.
“For a long time, the state GOP saw the demographics of the state changing and tried to keep up with the changes. That went out the window with Trump. In the meantime, the Democrats step up their messaging, saying, on a whole host of issues, the Republican majority doesn’t get it, but we do,” he said.
Rottinghaus said that last statement means a lot.
“The thing we do know with certainty is that politically, this is a time of change in Texas. What makes it difficult to define is that we still don’t have a track record for the suburban voter. Right now, it appears, they’re swing voters that need to be courted rather than counted on,” he said.
Texas Shifts From ATM to Worthy Investment
For years, the only electorate that mattered in Texas was the Republican primary voter, and the goal of Republican candidates in the state was not to alienate them. No Democrat has won a statewide office since 1994.
While Democrats tried to build out a party infrastructure to make races more competitive, they were hamstrung by the gerrymandering of legislative maps that kept them from fielding a crop of repeat, high quality candidates.
Then came Wendy Davis and Beto O’Rourke, each of whom ran closely-watched statewide races and made Texas an investable state for Democrats and their supporters.
Davis, a former Fort Worth City Council member, was elected to the Texas Senate in 2009, and gained national attention when she thirteen-hour-long filibustered the passage of new and more restrictive abortion regulations in the state.
Though the measure would pass in the next legislative session, Davis’ stand led to a race for governor in 2014. She didn’t win. But the race served as notice that Democrats in Texas were worth keeping an eye on.
Then came O’Rourke, who declined to seek re-election to the U.S. House, and instead ran for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz. As had happened with Davis, the O’Rourke/Cruz content drew national attention, and when it was over, O’Rourke had garnered the most votes ever for a Democrat in Texas history.
Despite his loss, O’Rourke was credited for helping to elect several down-ticket candidates, flipping 12 Texas House seats and 2 Texas senate seats to the Democrats in the process.
“People used to see Texas as an ATM, now they’re willing to invest here. ” Rottinghaus said. “At the same time, Democrats are simply getting better at running for office on the lower part of the ticket .. and now that they’re doing better, allied groups are now mobilizing on their behalf.”
This could have a profound effect on Democratic fortunes going forward, Blank said.
It certainly did in the 2018 midterms, when victories by political newcomers Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Colin Allred over long-term Republican incumbents helped the Democrats gain control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Fletcher, an attorney, beat her opponent, Republican incumbent Rep. John Culberson, by four points in the Houston area’s most competitive race this cycle. Throughout the race, she challenged the 18-year incumbent on health care and other “kitchen table” issues.
Allred, a former NFL player, beat Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions by six points in the Dallas area. Allred is a Dallas lawyer, challenged Sessions, who has served in Congress since 1997 and was chairman of the House Rules Committee.
Both races, in districts carried by Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race, were seen as crucial in Democrats’ bid for a nationwide “blue wave.”
Incumbent Republican Rep. Will Hurd won the other race Democrats hoped to win in 2018, but his defeat of Democratic challenger Gina Ortiz Jones by just 926 votes of 209,000 cast, was hardly reassuring.
Rottinghaus said 2018 revealed a chasm in GOP between those who want to focus on core issues like school finance and property tax reductions, and those who want to continue to hue to the right and push more fringe issues like abortion and transgender “bathroom bills” to the forefront.
“The lesson of 2018 was that the Republicans misread what had occurred during Barack Obama’s presidency,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
Between 2008 and 2016, Jones explained, President Obama was viewed highly unfavorably in the large rural parts of the state — an area with a population as large as some other states — and Republicans used that to galvanize the state’s most staunchly conservative voters.
“So what was they shifted as far to the right as they could, only to realize after the 2018 election that they’d gone too far,” he said.
“It could very well be that we see the Democrats do the same thing in 2020, overestimating their support in the era of Trump,” he said.
Dems Focus on Winning State House
That’s because as exciting as a presidential contest is, the real battle for Democrats in Texas is the party’s bid to seize the state House next year, and acquire a stronger hand in the redistricting process that will follow the completion of the 2020 census.
“Before there can be a lasting shift from red to blue in the state, Democrats need to start winning more consistently on the state and county level,” Blank said. “The redistricting by the Republican-controlled state legislature in the early part of the last decade made that very difficult for Democrats to do that.”
Winning the state House, something political observers in the state say is entirely possible given Trump’s unpopularity with suburban voters, would go a long way toward leveling the playing field.
“Trump is the worst thing to happen to the Texas GOP in the modern era,” Rice University’s Jones said. “He has provided the Democrats with a tool to motivate Democratic voters and alienated constituencies that have supported Republicans in the past, including women, Latinos, and Asians, who are a significant voting bloc here.
“It also appears that where in other states — Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — he’s been able to compensate for those alienated groups by appealing to working class white males, that hasn’t happened here.”
“But remember,” Blank cautioned, “Texas is still a humongous state, with expensive media markets and a diverse population, and because they’ve been in control for so long, the Republicans have an army of campaign staffers in the state and a governor who controls a massive campaign war chest. The Democrats aren’t there yet.”
Large Primary Fields Seem As Stirring Electorate
A decisive factor will be what happens in the race to unseat John Cornyn, who has served as the senior U.S. senator for Texas since 2002.
So far, at least nine Democratic candidates have announced their intention to challenge him, including Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards, State Sen. Royce West, Afghanistan war veteran M.J. Hegar, former Congressman Chris Bell, and Houston activist Sema Hernandez.
Rottinghaus said the large number of challengers to Cornyn could generate enthusiasm among the Democratic base in Texas.
While the odds are still on Cornyn winning re-election, the cascade effect of the statewide race could bolster Democrats odds of taking the House.
Things get a little more complicated when talk turns to the Democratic candidates seeking to send Donald Trump home to Mar-a-Lago.
Blank said it’s far too early to know which Democratic presidential candidate will most excite the party’s base in the state and inspire a large turnout at the polls.
But Jones was emphatic in his opinion, saying Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, would be the kiss of death for many down-ballot Democrats.
“This is the big question about the Democratic voter in Texas – how far left is too far left?” he said. “Based on what she’s proposed so far, I’d say she’s out of touch with Texas Democrats. And things like the Green New Deal … nobody is going to embrace that here. If it were implemented, it would destroy Houston and San Antonio.”
Jones said down-ballot Democrats in Texas, would likely do much better if a more moderate, centrist candidate were at the top of the ticket. “Whether that’s Joe Biden … or even a Michael Bloomberg.” he said. “Trump still wins Texas in a race against them, but by a narrower margin and that helps Democrats flip the Texas House.”
It’s here that Rottinghaus returned to the notion of the suburban voter and voters otherwise alienated by Trump turning the tide.
“While Trump is still expected to win Texas in the general election, he’s not going to do so by the 22.9 percentage points George W. Bush won the state by in 2004, or even the 9 percentage points he won the state by in 2016,” Rottinghaus said.
That means the GOP has real concerns about its down-ballot candidates, he said.
Privately, some Texas Republicans have acknowledged they are taking a risk by continuing to support the president, but the reality, Rottinghaus said, is that given the gerrymandered nature of their districts, they believe they’ll prevail even if public sentiment turns sharply against the president.
Still, there are signs of cracks in the party’s unity.
Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was forced to resign his speakership last month after a tape of a June meeting surfaced showing him trying to target 10 of his fellow Republicans.
During the meeting, Bonnen is heard offering activist Michael Quinn Sullivan legislature media credentials for his website, Texas Scorecard if Sullivan and his political group, Empower Texans, would target 10 Republican lawmakers in next year’s primary elections.
In addition to stepping down as speaker, Bonnen also said he will not seek re-election, ending a 22-year career in state government.