Why Democrats Need to Play to Win in Texas

by Dan Pfeiffer

The Democratic Party — from Joe Biden all the way down to the grassroots — need make a huge investment in Texas, but not for the reasons you think.

Biden could win Texas – NBC News currently rates the state as a “tossup,” but he doesn’t need to win Texas. It is highly unlikely to be the “tipping point” state that will put him over the top. If Biden wins Texas, it is probable — based on partisan makeup and demographic voting patterns — that he also won Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. A victory in Texas is the difference between 350 and 380 electoral votes. Nice to have, but certainly not necessary.[1]

Texas is a massively expensive investment. In 2018, Beto O’Rourke spent $80 million over more than a year to come up short in his race against Ted Cruz. A serious effort to win Texas is at least a $40 million decision. For as successful as Biden’s fundraising has been to date, he doesn’t have an extra $40 million lying around. A decision to invest in Texas would pull resources from other states.[2]

So, if Biden doesn’t need to win Texas, why the hell would Democrats spend real money there?

Texas is a once in a generation opportunity to set the long-term future for the Democratic Party. An investment in Texas in 2020 could pay off in the 2022 midterms, the 2024 Presidential election, and beyond.

What’s at Stake

Texas is the future of the Democratic Party. According to estimates from the Census Bureau, Hispanics are expected to become the largest population group in Texas by 2022. In the 2018 Senate race, Hispanic Texans voted for the Democrat by a margin of 69 percent to 30 percent.The fastest growing parts of the state are the urban and suburban areas that have trended heavily Democratic in recent years. Texas moved seven points in the Democratic direction in 2016. Two years later, O’Rourke lost to Cruz by about three points – the strongest showing for a Democrat in a statewide election in decades.

At the time, it was easy to chalk these results up to Donald Trump’s particular brand of toxicity and the fact that Cruz makes Trump seem likable. But what is happening in Texas is bigger than these two small men. In 2018, Democrats flipped two GOP-held Congressional seats and picked up 12 seats in the Texas House and two seats in the state Senate. In 2020, three Republican Congressional seats are rated by the Cook Report as “toss ups” and one is rated as “Lean Democrat.” MJ Hegar is in a competitive race against Republican Senator John Cornyn

The question isn’t if Texas becomes blue. The question is when. And if we don’t fight like hell in 2020, the Republicans can delay their Democratic doom for a decade.

Control of the Texas House is in play this year. If the Democrats flip nine seats, they take control. The stakes could not be higher.

2020 is a census year, the politicians on the ballot right now will determine who gets to draw the Congressional and legislative districts for a decade. Nowhere in the nation will that process be more consequential than Texas. The state is poised to pick up as many as three new Congressional seats.

If Republicans control the Texas government in 2021, they will draw those new districts so that they are safely Republican and they will re-draw the old districts to make them more Republican – reversing the gains Democrats made in 2018 and are poised to make in 2020.  This isn’t a guess. It is exactly what happened last decade. Here is just a snippet from a must-read history of the 2011 Texas redistricting from the Texas Tribune:

Nearly 90% of that population growth, which would give the state four new seats in the U.S. House, was attributed to Texans of color, particularly Hispanics, who tend to support Democrats. But with a Republican governor and a Republican-dominated House and Senate, the GOP — with a roster of almost exclusively white lawmakers — was in complete control of drawing the lines.

If they can re-run the same play in 2021, it will make everything harder for Democrats – not just in Texas. It will affect Congress, the Biden Presidency[3] and the future of the Party. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled “that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,[4]” which means Texas Democrats will have limited legal options to combat unfair districts that violate the principal of “one person, one vote.” In other words, Texas could be stuck with these unfair districts for a decade.

Locking in power at the state level will also allow them to make it much harder for a Democrat to win Texas in a Presidential campaign.

Every Republican strategic decision is best understood through the framework of a party that represents a shrinking, conservative mostly white minority trying to hold onto to power in a country with a growing, progressive, diverse minority. This is the primary motivation behind Republican efforts to suppress the votes of Black and Hispanic voters, gerrymander districts to within an inch of their lives, and fill the courts with Republican political operatives that will rubber stamp these measures to restrict the political power of the majority.[5]

If Texas becomes a reliably Blue state at the Presidential level, it is game, set, match for the GOP. Those two to three extra Congressional seats mean Texas will go from 38 to 40 or 41 Electoral votes. Texas plus New York and California will get a Democrat nearly halfway to 270.

Republicans will do everything in their power to stop that from happening. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder to gut the Voting Rights Act gave states a lot of leeway to implement race-based policies to suppress the vote[6]. No state has taken as much advantage of this legal and moral atrocity than Texas. Voting in Texas looks more like the Jim Crow South than modern America. In recent years, turnout in Texas has been some of the lowest in the nation. This is not apathy. It is the result of a very specific political strategy from the Republican. Since the Voting Rights Act was gutted, Texas has:

  • Implemented one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation;
  • Fought to prevent voter registration from happening online;
  • Closed thousands of polling places in ways that disproportionately target Black and Latino communities; and
  • In the middle of a pandemic, Texas does not consider COVID-19 to be a legitimate reason to vote by mail for anyone under the age of 65[7].

If Republicans retain control of the levers of power in Texas, their voter suppression efforts are going to get much worse. Texas Republicans see the writing on the wall. They will do anything and everything to hold onto power. If the Democrats ever get the opportunity to roll back the voter suppression regime so that more Texans can vote, Republicans will be out of power for the foreseeable future.

This is why the Texas GOP recently floated a proposal calling for the state to implement an electoral college-style system that would require state-wide office holders to win a majority of likely gerrymandered state senate districts. If this plan were allowed to become law, it could potentially lock Democrats out of power at the state level for decade.

For far too long, the Democratic Party’s obsession with the Presidency has focused the vast majority of our energy, resources, and strategic thinking on top of the ticket races in the small handful of states that decide the Presidency. This short-termism has hampered efforts to build sustainable progressive political power and expand the map. Playing in Texas in 2020 would be an investment in the party’s future. We may not need Texas in 2020, but we are sure as hell going to need it in the years to come.

What You Can Do

Whether Democrats can flip the Texas House, does not depend entirely on how much money Joe Biden and the DNC spends in the state and there is no need to wait for them. On Campaign HQ, David Plouffe’s podcast, longtime political consultant and native Texan Paul Begala urged Michael Bloomberg to spend $100 million in Texas to flip the state. This is a great idea and Bloomberg should do it, but probably won’t. But you don’t need to wait for Bloomberg or Biden or anyone else. There are a number of organizations on the ground in Texas right now doing work that need donations and volunteers:

Finally, Charles Gaba — a health care activist — put together a fund where you can contribute to all the Democrats running for the Texas House.

This is not a risk-free endeavor. Campaign spending is a zero-sum game. A dollar spent in Texas is a dollar not spent in Wisconsin or Arizona. However, 2020 could end being one of those transformational elections — like 1968, 1980, and 2008 — that alter American politics for a generation. Democrats need to go big to maximize that opportunity or risk losing Texas for a decade.

[1] Mandates are nice, but the Constitution does not grant Presidents additional powers for every electoral vote above 270. [2] I am going try very hard to write an entire newsletter issue on Texas without defaulting to trite Texas metaphors about “messing with Texas,” “everything being bigger in Texas,” or the Alamo. [3] That sound you hear is me knocking on wood until my knuckles bleed. [4] I would note that a legal principle that says the only way to unrig an election is to win a rigged election is real pretzel of legal logic. [5] See Kavanaugh, Brett [6] Reminder that John Roberts is neither moderate not reasonable. He is the person most responsible for the Trumpification of America. [7] Another decision upheld by John Roberts.


Dan Pfeiffer is the Co-host of Pod Save America, Former Senior Advisor to President Obama, Author of Un-Trumping America and Yes We (Still) Can.

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