Democrat Beto O’Rourke couldn’t unseat Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. But it was still shockingly close for a race that’s been comfortably handed to Republicans for the past 30-odd years.
And O’Rourke could still be a big winner — and it’s not just a moral victory.
The closeness of the race has made Texas Republicans nervous. Not only because they had to stare down a competitive Senate race in deep-red Texas, but the state GOP has been worried that the energy behind O’Rourke could spur a local blue wave across Texas — a state that has a handful of competitive congressional races, half a dozen competitive state seats, and more than 70 toss-up state judicial posts on the ballot.
And we’ve already seen some signs that could be the case; Democrats unseated Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX).
“Even if O’Rourke can’t close the statewide gap, if he closes it within the range polling is right now, it will close the gap in some of the races that are tightly contested,” James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project, said.
Enough wins at the state level could mean the difference between an ultra-conservative state government and a more bipartisan one, and because Texas also elects its judges, Republicans’ 2014 gains in county judicial seats could be in the balance.
Like all midterms, it will be a race about voter turnout — more specifically, about how many Democrats O’Rourke can turn out.
“The Democrats have a pretty good group of candidates running statewide,” Richard Murray, a political scientist with the University of Houston, said. “A lot depends on O’Rourke.”
Beto O’Rourke wasn’t the only Texas Democrat trying to make waves in 2018
Republicans’ stronghold on Texas is clear: They control the governor’s mansion, both Senate seats, and have safe majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Of the 36 congressional districts, only 11 are held by Democrats.
That said, Democrats have major opportunities up and down the ballot.
There are competitive House races in Texas: Democrats are looking to unseat Republican Rep. John Culberson in Texas’s Seventh Congressional District, outside Houston; Rep. Will Hurd in Texas’s 23rd District, a southwest border district; and have already unseated Rep. Pete Sessions in Texas’s 32nd District, which spans the suburbs of Dallas.
They are also eyeing an open seat in Texas’s 21st District, which covers north San Antonio. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen wrote, if Democrats can energize Latino voters and win over some white, moderate suburbanites who don’t like President Donald Trump — especially women — Texas could prove an essential part of Democrats’ path to winning back the House majority this November.
There are three Republican-held state Senate seats that could be in play; two are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and one is in the Houston area. Among the three districts, Hillary Clinton won in one — state Sen. Don Huffines’s district in the Dallas area — and came within mere points of Trump in the other two.
Republicans currently hold 21 seats in Texas’s 31-seat state Senate, giving them the three-fifths supermajority needed to pass any legislation without Democrats. If Democrats can flip three seats, they will win back some veto power in the state.
There are also 10 or so competitive state legislative seats that are in play in urban-suburban districts. The stakes are high for both Democrats and Republicans here, as Texas’s current state House Speaker Joe Straus is not seeking reelection. “From a Texas Democrat perspective, your greatest fear is that the next speaker of the House is way more conservative,” Mark Jones, a political scientist with Rice University, said.
No matter what, Republicans, with 95 representatives in the state House compared to Democrats’ 55, will keep their majority. But losing even five seats could change how the state speaker race plays out and result in a more moderate state House.
There are upward of 70 state judicial positions that could be competitive. In 2014, when Democratic turnout in the state hit an all-time low, Republicans won county judicial posts in historically Democratic areas. Those seats could be in the balance this year.
Put together, November could mean the difference between a very conservative Texas and a perhaps more moderate, but still Republican-controlled, Texas. And in the long term, 2018 could be a foundational year to rebuild the Democratic Party in Texas — a state with quickly changing demographics that could become increasingly liberal in years to come.
This won’t be easy for Democrats. And on one front — the state Senate — Democrats’ mission was made even harder this week, when Republicans flipped Democrat Carlos Uresti’s seat in a special election. Uresti was sentenced to 12 years in prison for 11 felonies, including money laundering and fraud. But Republicans in the state are definitely recognizing the stakes.
“We’re emphasizing the possibility of losses,” Darl Easton, the Republican Party chair in Tarrant County, where one of the toss-up state Senate seats is, told the Texas Tribune in early September. “The more complacent you become, the more likely it is that you won’t win. We definitely have to keep the voters alert to the possibility of losing some seats. We’re not going to take anything for granted.”
If O’Rourke can translate his enthusiasm to other Democrats, it could be big
For a Democrat, O’Rourke did really well in Texas.
Optimistic Republicans said O’Rourke would end up like Wendy Davis, a Democrat who made a formidable statewide challenge for the governor seat in 2014, only to lose to Greg Abbott by a 20-point margin. After all, there is a well-established phenomenon that early polling in Texas can underestimate a Republican voting advantage anywhere from 4 to 16 points.
But it looks like O’Rourke defied that trend.
Even though he couldn’t flip enough to actually overcome Cruz’s advantage, enthusiasm for O’Rourke might be enough to help the down-ballot.
This is the last year Texas will have a straight-ticket ballot option, where voters can choose to vote with one party up and down the ticket. If interest in O’Rourke can get Republican-leaning voters to rethink the top of the ballot, it could help Democrats all the way down.
“[O’Rourke might] cause some Republicans who cast a straight ballot to not just do that from the start, and go down the ballot and go candidate by candidate,” Jones said, noting that Democrats are much more likely to go the straight-ticket ballot route.
Texas is a nonvoting state
In 2010, only about a third of eligible Texas voters decided the governor race, and less than 30 percent voted in the 2014 midterm cycle’s general election.
As Texas Tribune’s CEO Evan Smith told Vox’s Dylan Scott after the Texas primary in 2018, which had pretty normal turnout, “Democrats like to say Texas is not a red state, it’s a nonvoting state. Fine. But the fact that it’s a nonvoting state means that it’s a red state.”
“Both these candidates are running mobilization campaigns, not persuasion campaigns,” Henson said, explaining that he didn’t see Cruz trying to convince Democrats to vote for him over O’Rourke.
But as the Texas Tribune’s Alexa Ura and Ryan Murphy point out, Texas’s turnout is also deeply tied to demographics:
Hopes for a swell in voter turnout often hinge on the state’s burgeoning Hispanic population. But a breakdown of the population by age shows a third of Texas Hispanics aren’t even of voting age. In fact, those under 18 make up the state’s largest Hispanic age group. Meanwhile, those aged 45 to 64 make up the biggest age group of white Texans.
To be clear, Hispanic adults participate in elections at lower rates than their white and black counterparts overall, which makes them an easy target for voter mobilization efforts. But when it comes to convincing Hispanic voters to play a bigger role in elections, it doesn’t help that they’re already starting from behind.
And Latino voters aren’t a uniform voting bloc either. In 2014, 40 percent voted for the state’s Republican governor, who’s on the ballot again this year.
Republicans have been able to rest easy on this reality.
“It’s possible Texas is slightly less red than we thought it was,” Austin-based Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak told Vox during the election cycle. “Does that mean Texas is a battleground state? We are light-years away.”
Even so, O’Rourke ran a campaign more about mobilizing Democratic voters, rather than persuading moderate Republicans to support him. And Republicans control so much of the state that Democrats have a lot to gain. Republicans, on the other hand, have a lot to lose.