If you look past the presidential race, there are indications that Texas is rapidly moving from red to purple politically. In just the past few weeks, three Republican congressmen in the cross hairs of Democrats have retired rather than face stiff challenges in 2020.
In a rapidly diversifying Fort Bend County, a mix of equal parts African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics and whites that its former U.S. representative, Tom DeLay, might not recognize, incumbent Rep. Pete Olson, facing another race against former diplomat Sri Kulkarni, whom he beat by fewer than 5 points in 2018, announced his retirement.
Rep. Kenny Marchant hung on in the Dallas/Fort Worth suburbs in 2018, 51% to 48%, against a little-known Democrat who barely raised $100,000. This time, he would have faced Air Force veteran Kim Olson, who ran a strong race for state agriculture commissioner last year.
Finally, in a huge blow to the GOP’s national image, the lone African American Republican in the House, Will Hurd, who had turned back Gina Ortiz Jones by only 926 votes in 2018, declined to be part of a rematch in next year’s higher turnout election.
This is only part of the story, with three other vulnerable GOP incumbents at risk, including first-term Rep. Chip Roy facing former state Sen. Wendy Davis’ return to electoral politics.
Further below the public radar, there’s also a real chance for Democrats to flip the state House next year and have a hand in the decade’s reapportionment process to follow.
In 2018, Democrats captured twelve GOP-held seats. The consequences were clear in the legislative session that followed. For the first time in more than a decade, in part forced by a new House speaker, Dennis Bonnen, the session spent less time on social issues and passed a serious effort on school finance reform. Although the Legislature still had time to tie local government hands with property tax limits and further demonize Planned Parenthood, the tone was more moderate, in part due to Bonnen’s recognition that another tumultuous session might hasten Democratic control.
A district-by-district analysis shows how close the change in party control of the House might be.
In mostly suburban districts in Collin, Tarrant, Dallas and Harris counties, six Republicans won with 51% or less in 2018. Another seven Republicans won with 54% or less.
And if state Rep. Sarah Davis, who won reelection with 53%, ever decides to move on from her Houston district that went easily for Hillary Clinton in 2018, then that district also might flip. Capture nine seats in all, and the Democrats become the majority i9n the House for the first time since the 2002 elections.
None of this is lost on the political pros on both sides of the partisan divide. You can expect record levels of money to be raised and spent in 2020. The evidence, though, is that money spent challenging incumbents is much more important than that spent trying to protect those already in office.
And though candidate quality is important — witness Rep. Davis’ ability to survive in her increasingly blue Houston seat and Hurd’s survival as the only GOP congressman left on the country’s southern border — the biggest factor in down-ballot races is more often the D or the R next to a candidate’s name.
Of course, all of this, more than a year in advance of the election, is speculation. At the top of the ticket, what happens if the Democrats nominate someone for president who’s too far to the left for Texas, or they run a weak campaign for Senate against John Cornyn? Will the sleeping giant of the Mexican American electorate vote in numbers that reflect their population, and would Julián Castro on the ticket make a difference? Will the elimination of straight ticket voting hurt Democrats if voters skip voting on down-ballot races?
All that said, there is something to a tipping point being reached in partisan realignments and adjustments. If the partisan trends in our diversifying suburbs continue and Hispanic voting numbers increase, if for no other reason than the explosion in that population, then change is coming. Maybe in 2020.
Paul Stekler is the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.