Former Vice President Joe Biden has made a late-stage play for Texas in the hope of bringing to fruition his party’s longtime dream of flipping a once reliably red state. Local Democrats have set their sights lower on the ballot: They’re hoping to pick up nine seats in the Texas House of Representatives, enough to give them control of the state’s House for the first time since 2002.
The goal could be within their grasp. Those seats are all in districts that Democrat Beto O’Rourke won in his ultimately unsuccessful 2018 US Senate run. Even if President Donald Trump claims Texas’s 38 electoral votes in November and Sen. John Cornyn fends off newcomer MJ Hegar, Democrats hope that the state House will be the first domino to fall in their mission to remake Texas politics for good.
In 2018, Democrats picked up 12 seats in the state House. Genevieve Van Cleve, the Texas state director of All On the Line, the advocacy arm of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said that her organization’s polling suggests that they are on track to flip at least another six to seven seats, with the remaining seats being more of a reach. Polling from the Texas Democratic party, however, show them up in 11 districts.
The consequences of a Texas House win are bigger this year than in a typical election year because the state legislature will be responsible for redrawing electoral districts in 2021 after the results of the 2020 census come in. In a state that has long engaged in partisan gerrymandering, Democrats are hoping that, if they control the lower chamber, they will at least get a seat at the table during the redistricting process — improving their chances of winning elections in the state over the next decade.
“Democrats can compete just fine if we’re on a level playing field, and what we don’t have in Texas is a level playing field,” Van Cleve said.
They are also aiming to use a state House majority to prioritize expanding Medicaid for low-income Texans in the middle of a pandemic that has hit the state particularly hard, though with a Republican governor and state Senate that have long opposed that goal, it will likely be out of reach for at least the next two years.
Beyond those policy goals, Democrats hope that flipping the state House could give voters a reason to show up in future elections. Texas has historically low turnout, especially among Hispanic voters, in part because it has among the most restrictive voting laws nationwide. That has been a major obstacle to Democratic hopes of flipping the state.
“If we win a majority in the state House, you now have a seat at the table where you can begin to draw people back into democracy, draw them back in [with] a reason to vote,” O’Rourke said in an interview. “We have the ability to actually cure some of this.”
A state House majority would give Democrats a seat at the table in redistricting
Texas’s current electoral maps favor Republicans, but Democrats are trying to change that by flipping the state House and having a say in the redistricting process that will begin next year.
Winning the majority would offer them only modest gains in power — a single seat at the table on the state’s five-person legislative redistricting board and the possibility of sending the maps to federal court. That’s an improvement over the veto power they currently have over the maps (none), but it’s still a far cry from taking the reins and being able to redraw them more equitably.
Both congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years. In most states, including Texas, the state legislature controls the process. In 2021, the redistricting committees of both the state House and state Senate will convene and attempt to pass new electoral maps, which must include districts of equal populations that do not discriminate on the basis of race and ethnicity. The governor has the power to veto those maps.
But if the chambers can’t come to an agreement or the governor vetoes their maps — as is likely to be the case if Democrats take control of the state House — that’s when it gets tricky. A panel of three federal judges in San Antonio would have the final say over the congressional maps.
But the process is different for the state legislative maps: a five-person board composed of the lieutenant governor, state attorney general, state comptroller, commissioner of the General Land Office, and speaker of the Texas House draw the maps in closed-door meetings, with no public input. A simple majority of the board would have to approve the maps. Currently, Republicans hold all of the seats on the board, but if Democrats win the state House and select their speaker, they would gain a seat at the table.
That’s the only way Democrats can begin to reverse the partisan gerrymandering that has plagued Texas for decades. Republicans have been accused of diluting the power of nonwhite voters (who tend to favor Democrats) with their electoral maps in 2003 and 2011, spurring protracted legal battles. And they have sought to break up the state’s growing urban, Democratic centers and create districts that extend well into redder, rural areas.
The practice is particularly obvious in Travis County, home to Austin, a city often described as a “blueberry in tomato soup.” The county has five congressional districts, all anchored in liberal Austin, but only one of those districts is represented by a Democrat.
“I’ve been in these districts where they’re sliced and diced, cracked and packed,” Van Cleve said. “Somebody who wants to run for office quickly discovers that no matter how great a message they have and no matter how awesome their volunteer support is in the community, their voice is not going to be heard at the Texas Capitol if they live in a district that’s totally gerrymandered.”
There could be additional complications to redistricting next year. Ken Paxton, the Texas Attorney General, has been accused of committing crimes including bribery and abuse of office, and it’s possible that a Democratic state House could move to impeach him and force him to step down. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, would have to appoint his successor, meaning that his seat on the redistricting board would go to someone who “no Texan has vetted or voted for,” Van Cleve said.
The redistricting process also hinges on the new population counts from the 2020 census, which has been delayed on account of the pandemic and obstructed by the Trump administration. The population of Texas has grown substantially over the last 10 years, which can largely be attributed to growth in the Latino community and in major metro areas. The state is on track to gain two to three congressional seats, but if the results of the census are delayed or found to be inaccurate, that could impact whether the electoral maps accurately reflect population trends.
“It just doesn’t serve ordinary people,” Van Cleve said. “This system of rigged maps and hyperpartisan gerrymandering really goes lockstep with voter suppression.”
Democrats are highlighting Medicaid in their battle for the state House
On the campaign trail, Democratic candidates have sought to make their battle for the state House about one of voters’ top priorities, particularly in the middle of a pandemic: health care. In particular, they want to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act’s joint state-federal program that has offered health care coverage to individuals with incomes below 138 percent of the poverty line (about $17,600 for a single adult) since 2016.
It’s a central pillar in their so-called “contract with Texas,” laying out policies they would seek to enact if they captured the majority. It’s also been highlighted in ads funded by the national Democratic super PAC Forward Majority, which has sunk $12 million into the Texas state House battle.
But since the GOP still holds a decisive majority in the state Senate, Democrats won’t likely be able to pass Medicaid expansion even if they capture the state House. And even if they did manage to pass it, Abbott could still veto it.
Texas, which has the highest uninsured rate nationwide, is one of only 12 states that has yet to expand Medicaid. The federal government covers 90 percent of costs associated with the program as of 2020, and Democrats estimate that it could bring in $110 billion in federal funds over the next decade.
Expanding Medicaid would extend health insurance coverage to an estimated 1 million low-income Texans amid the pandemic. Coronavirus hospitalizations peaked over the summer after Texas became one of the first states to reopen its economy, and 650,000 Texans have lost their health insurance during the pandemic. There have been concerning signs that Texas is due for another surge as cases have recently spiked in El Paso and North Texas.
“We have got to expand Medicaid,” state Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Democrat who is up for reelection after flipping their district in 2018, told KXAN. “Texas is leaving $10 billion of federal funding on the table every year because we got stubborn in 2009.”
Republicans, including Abbott, have long cautioned that it would nevertheless be too expensive and raise health care costs across the board.
“Medicaid expansion is wrong for Texas,” Abbott said in 2015, calling it a “broken and bloated” program.
A few Texas Republicans appear to be changing their position on the matter, but not nearly enough to be able to get the legislation through the state Senate and Gov. Abbott.
Democrats see winning the state House as a driver of voter enthusiasm
The Democrats’ play for the state House is coming on the heels of a particularly divisive few years in the Texas legislature, marked by controversies around a bill protecting businesses like Chick-Fil-A that donate to religious organizations that oppose same-sex marriage, and a failed proposal that would have barred transgender people from using public bathroom facilities that align with their gender identity.
Democrats see this election as an opportunity to show Texans, and the whole country, that their state politics can be different.
“This is ground zero for the fight for LGBTQ rights. This is ground zero for the fight for voting rights. It’s ground zero for the fight for reproductive health care,” Charlie Bonner, a spokesperson for MOVE Texas, a voter registration and engagement group, said. “For that reason, there’s a lot of national interest in ensuring that we see progress here.”
State House candidates have the challenge of getting their names out there in the middle of a pandemic that has made rallies, town hall meetings, and door-knocking impossible. Texas Republicans have also put up their own defenses, with Abbott injecting a mid-seven-figure investment into down-ballot candidates during the final weeks before Election Day. And they have sought to curb voter participation, limiting the number of ballot drop-off locations to just one per county, banning counties from sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters, and seeking to curtail drive-thru voting.
But organizations like MOVE Texas have observed that Democratic voters are now more activated in the state than ever. While the top of the ticket is driving voters to the polls, so are competitive down-ballot races, particularly among young people.
“We haven’t been having this discussion before about the hyperlocal basis for these issues that our generation really cares about, like racial justice and climate change,” Bonner said. “The president can’t have that much of an impact on those issues. But you can make a big difference on those issues in your city.”
Turnout already appears to be up this cycle. As of October 20 — with 10 days of early voting still to go — almost one-third of registered voters had cast their ballots in the state’s 10 largest counties. (That includes both Democrats and Republicans.) And Harris County, which has historically voted Democratic, has set early voting records.
Democrats are hoping that their play for the state House will keep voters activated for future contests: Abbott will be up for reelection in 2022, and his approval ratings have taken a hit during the coronavirus pandemic, possibly leaving him vulnerable to a Democratic challenger down the road. A Democratic PAC has already started fundraising to defeat him. A win in the state House could add momentum to those efforts.
“People have written off Texas for so many years that Texas voters didn’t believe in themselves,” Bonner said.