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Why Democratic hopes were dashed in Texas

Republicans made strides with Hispanic voters in Texas and kept the state red.

Attendees at an Austin, Texas, watch party celebrate Republican victories on Election Night.
Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images

Democratic dreams of flipping Texas will not be realized this year: For the 11th presidential election in a row, the state has voted for the Republican candidate.

President Donald Trump’s estimated margin of victory over Joe Biden (6 points, 52-46) appears to be the narrowest for a Republican since Bob Dole beat Bill Clinton by 5 in 1996. But that is a hollow victory for Democrats.

A close race was supposed to power the party’s down-ballot candidates and flip US House seats and the Texas House, giving them a foothold of power in the state government. Texas saw a record amount of Democratic spending, with the Biden campaign putting down $6 million on TV ads and Michael Bloomberg adding another $15 million in the final days of the race. One Democratic super PAC spent $12 million to flip the state House.

But instead, Democrats may not gain any congressional seats, and the Texas House will remain in the GOP’s hands. Evan Smith, CEO of the Texas Tribune, declared 2020 a “great big bag of bupkis for the Democrats.”

It was another disappointing night for Democrats in a state they believe is destined to turn their way. A combination of longstanding demographic trends (Texas is becoming more nonwhite) and the formerly Republican suburbs turning on Trump seemed to give them a chance to compete as soon as 2020.

Democrats did appear to make some inroads with the voters they needed: After Trump won white college graduates by 30 points in 2016, Biden narrowed the president’s margin to 13 this year, according to the New York Times exit poll. (Exit polls should always be read with caution, however.)

But Trump held a huge edge among white voters without a college degree (winning them by 45 points, per the Times) and he seemed to make up ground with nonwhites who don’t have a college degree, particularly Hispanics.

Republicans showed strength with Hispanic Texans

Biden won the Hispanic vote by 19 points this year, according to the exits, but that’s down from Hillary Clinton’s 27-point margin in 2016. A number of heavily Hispanic counties in the Rio Grande Valley shifted toward Trump: Zapata County, to name one, broke for Trump by 5 points with most of the expected vote counted after Clinton won it by more than 30 points in 2016. The president’s share of the county’s vote jumped from 33 percent to 52 percent in his reelection bid.

In 2020, the Democrat also lost several counties — Val Verde, Jim Wells, Frio among them — that Barack Obama, Clinton and Beto O’Rourke had won in previous elections.

Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a politics professor at the University of Texas, told the Texas Tribune that Biden underperformed with Hispanics because he wasn’t as well known to them as Hillary Clinton and the Covid-19 pandemic limited his campaign’s voter outreach.

The Trump campaign, on the other hand, pushed ahead with its ground game, despite the public health crisis, and it paid off. From the Tribune’s Emma Platoff:

“The Valley is old school, and you need that grassroots mobilization,” she said. “And there wasn’t grassroots work, at least on the Democratic side, because of the pandemic. And arguably the GOP did have at least a bit more grassroots work because they had a different vision of public health.”

“That to me explains the Biden underperformance: He really wasn’t known, and then he didn’t have the time to make it up,” she added.

Trump, meanwhile, launched a Latino outreach initiative for his 2020 bid, she noted.

Republicans had hoped their willingness to knock on doors during the pandemic would give them an edge over Democrats, some of whom leaned on remote campaigning methods.

Some Democratic strategists had been warning for weeks that Democrats were struggling with Hispanic voters in places like Texas. Chuck Rocha, who had focused on those voters for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, told Vox’s Nicole Narea in early September that outside Democratic groups were not focusing enough on the Latino vote.

“It’s the outside outreach game that’s currently keeping me up at night,” Rocha said then. “I’m currently tracking over a half a billion dollars that had been given to outside super PACs to boost Joe Biden in the presidential election, and less than 1 percent of all of that money went to Latino super PACs.”

Those fears proved prescient on election night. Starr County, which is 96 percent Latino, went from Clinton +60 to Biden +5. The polls had looked somewhat promising for Biden ahead of the election (Trump led by 1.1 points in the final FiveThirtyEight average), but pollsters often have some difficulty in surveying Hispanic voters. The polling appears to have missed the shift to Trump among those voters.

Democrats failed to win key Senate, House, and state legislative races in Texas

Biden’s relative underperformance also doomed Democratic hopes farther down the ballot. Newcomer M.J. Hegar lost to Republican incumbent John Cornyn in a Senate race that attracted nearly $100 million in spending. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had named 10 Republican-held US House seats in Texas as potential targets to flip, but, as of press time, it appears Democrats may not win any of those races.

Republicans will also hold on to the Texas House. As Narea covered for Vox, part of the reason Democrats invested in the presidential and Senate races in the state was they hoped to flip one chamber of the state legislature. That would have given them control of at least one legislative chamber for the first time since 2002. After winning 18 state House seats in the 2018 midterms, Democrats needed to win nine seats this year to flip it. But they appear to have fallen short.

That loss comes at a heavy price for Democrats: Republicans will now enjoy full control of the next round of redistricting in Texas, giving them a chance to redraw the state’s congressional and state legislative maps to be more favorable toward them for the coming decade.

Other less-publicized but still-important down-ballot races — for state courts and for an oil and gas regulation board — also broke for the Republicans.

Democrats will cling to the narrow margin of Trump’s victory as a sign of hope for the future. But they have been clinging to those same hopes for years now, without yet winning the big one. They’ll get their next shot in 2022, when the next governor of Texas will be elected.

“Is Texas on the route to becoming blue, or is Texas on the road to becoming a perennial battleground? That’s a question I don’t know the answer to,” DeFrancesco Soto told the Tribune. “But I do feel confident saying we are moving in the purple direction, and we may just stay stuck at purple.”