The key to winning the Lone Star State now lies in the suburbs. Once Democrats crack the code, it will change American politics.
by Josh Kraushaar
For doom-and-gloom Democrats who believe that the biases of the electoral college will permanently lock them out of the presidency, the growing competitiveness of Texas is a useful reminder of the political future of America.
Two of the state’s native sons, Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro, are running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sen. John Cornyn is preparing for a competitive reelection, his first since being elected nearly two decades ago. And a wave of Republican retirements is giving Democrats a chance to significantly close the partisan gap in the state’s congressional delegation, solidifying Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s control of the House.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Despite President Trump’s upset victory in 2016, he only carried the Lone Star State by 9 points, nearly matching his margin of victory in traditional swing states like Iowa and Ohio. And unlike the GOP-trending Midwestern battlegrounds, filled with blue-collar white voters, Texas has one of the most diverse and suburban populations in the entire country. It’s eventually going to become a presidential battleground, if it isn’t already.
Will 2020 will be the year when Trump’s boorish nativism will turn the state purple? In a good night for Democrats, it’s very plausible that they could win Texas (and its 38 electoral votes), pick up four or five of the state’s House seats, and give Cornyn a run for his money. But it’s also possible that the state could become a financial sinkhole, tempting bullish strategists to spend millions there with minimal results.
The biggest question for Democrats is this: Was 2018 the beginning of a realignment, the first election in a state that’s rapidly trending to the center? Or were last year’s midterms a high-water mark for the party, fueled by Trump’s polarizing nature and the tens of millions poured into O’Rourke’s close-but-no-cigar Senate campaign?
If the 2016 results are something of a baseline for next year’s elections, Democrats will face challenges in maximizing their opportunities. In the six Texas districts that House Democrats are targeting, Trump won a majority of the vote in five of them. (Trump won 50 percent of the vote in the district of retiring Rep. Kenny Marchant, 52 percent in the districts of Reps. Chip Roy, Michael McCaul and retiring Rep. Pete Olson, and 53 percent in the district of Rep. John Carter.) Only retiring Rep. Will Hurd’s district is a solid bet to flip. Meanwhile, Democrats face a muddled primary to take on Cornyn, with few of the prospects showing they can match O’Rourke’s early energy in the last cycle.
But if those districts continue to diversify, with college-educated newcomers heading to the state’s booming suburbs for job opportunities, Trump’s narrow victories in the battleground House districts threaten to turn in the Democrats’ favor. In 2018, O’Rourke won a narrow majority of the vote in three of the GOP-held seats in the state, and tallied 49.9 percent of the vote in a fourth.
More importantly, Democrats’ ability to compete in Texas largely hinges on whether Democrats nominate a moderate presidential candidate, like Joe Biden. Biden leads Trump by 4 points, 48 to 44 percent, in a June Quinnipiac poll of Texas voters. Trump led all the other leading Democratic candidates in the same survey. If Democrats nominate a strong candidate at the top of the ticket, it will also help downballot candidates win in tough districts. But if a progressive like Elizabeth Warren emerges from the primaries, Democratic congressional candidates will be forced to distance themselves from their own party’s nominee.
The stakes are high. The changing politics in Texas offer Democrats the key to breaking through the gridlock that’s become so depressingly routine in the aftermath of tragedies like this weekend’s mass murders in El Paso and Dayton. The wanton murder of 22 Walmart shoppers in El Paso, committed by a white supremacist with deep-seated hate towards Hispanics, hits especially close to home for Texans.
When Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush takes on his own party for “downplaying” the growing threat of white-supremacist terror, you better believe he recognizes the politics of his home state are changing.
Suburban voters have grown sick of Trump’s mean-spirited politics, alarmed by the rise of white nationalism, and increasingly supportive of gun-control measures. Despite the booming economy, they’re prepared to vote their values in the next election. They now control the direction of their state and, potentially, the country.
If Texas becomes a bona fide battleground, Republicans won’t be able to win the presidency by simply focusing on their base. Suburbanites in swing states, from Philadelphia to Phoenix, will become the most important constituency to win over. And blocking bipartisan gun-control proposals and tolerating bigoted rhetoric will carry a significant political cost.
Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal, and pens the weekly “Against the Grain” column. Kraushaar has held several positions since joining Atlantic Media in 2010, including as managing editor for politics at National Journal, and as executive editor and editor-in-chief of The Hotline. In addition to his management of The Hotline, Kraushaar plays a critical role in shaping National Journal’s overall political coverage.