EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was reported in collaboration the Texas Observer.
Headed into election night, Democrats were bullish about their chances of flipping the Texas House, seizing a handful of GOP congressional seats, and maybe even delivering the state’s 38 electoral votes to Joe Biden.
After promising gains in 2018, Texas Democrats had support from national leadership, well-funded candidates, and grassroots enthusiasm. They also had what they thought to be a clear pathway to power centered on the state’s purpling suburbs. And there was sky-high turnout in early voting, including millions of new voters that the party has long insisted would turn the tide in Texas.
But once again, Democrats’ high hopes were decimated. Their goal of making further inroads in suburban districts proved to be an expensive pipe dream that could ultimately put Democrats in a deeper hole than before.
Seizing the Texas House was the top priority for the state party, and for many national Democratic-allied groups. Hoping to prevent another decade of GOP gerrymandering, Democrats pumped tens of millions of dollars into a massive coordinated effort that sought to wrest a lever of state government from Republicans for the first time in nearly two decades. The plan was centered on the nine suburban districts where Beto O’Rourke beat Ted Cruz in 2018, as well as expanding support into more districts—as many as 22 in all—where O’Rourke was relatively competitive. In anticipation of success, four Democrats announced their candidacy for speaker in the last week and a half. Launching his bid on Election Day, El Paso Representative Joe Moody pronounced: “Before the day is done, Democrats will take the Texas House.”
But the GOP’s grip on the lower chamber did not loosen at all, as Republicans made an aggressive push in the homestretch to protect their majority. While there are still a few tight races that have not yet been called, it’s possible that Democrats will have a net gain of zero seats. Democrats may well lose all but one of the nine seats that O’Rourke carried in 2018, along with every other contested state House race. The two remaining Dallas Republican state representatives, Angie Chen Button and Morgan Meyer, were expected to be among the first to fall, but held on with minuscule leads. In Collin County, which Democrats saw as a key suburban battleground, Republican incumbent Matt Shaheen leads by just 1,000 votes. Meyer’s Democratic opponent conceded Wednesday, but the other two races have not yet been called.
The one seat that Democrats did win by ousting Houston Representative Sarah Davis, a relatively moderate Republican in the House who supports abortion rights, was negated in a nearby Harris County district where first-term Democrat Gina Calanni lost in a rematch against the GOP incumbent she beat in 2018.
The climb to a House majority required winning in strongly gerrymandered GOP districts, but nobody publicly predicted that Democrats would flop like this. Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had made Texas its biggest battleground, targeting several congressional districts largely centered around Austin, Houston, and the suburbs of North Texas around Dallas. As of Wednesday morning, Republicans likely held on to all 10 seats that Democrats made a play for.
Then there were the statewide elections. Polling in the final weeks of the campaign showed Biden running neck-and-neck with Donald Trump in Texas. But with nearly all the votes in, Trump won the state by six percentage points. That this was the closest presidential margin since 1996 is small comfort for Democrats. Despite a big urban turnout, Biden’s margins were nowhere near large enough to counteract the deep-red rural vote.
Another worrisome trend for Democrats was Biden’s dire underperformance along the Texas-Mexico border, including the Rio Grande Valley, which has been wracked by Covid-19. Local organizers have long warned that the party has neglected the region, and in this election it largely focused on suburbs hundreds of miles away. While Biden mostly matched total votes from previous elections, he underperformed Clinton’s 2016 margin in Cameron and Hidalgo—the two urban counties in the Valley—by about 10 points as the Republican vote surged. Biden did even worse in rural Starr County, where the margin swung in Trump’s favor by nearly 30 points, and Zapata County, where Trump won by a few hundred votes.
Democratic US Senate candidate MJ Hegar’s race against John Cornyn was another blow. While she was not expected to win, it was seen as a competitive race. But Cornyn easily skated to victory by 10 percentage points, outperforming Trump, while Hegar lagged behind Biden.
One of the biggest takeaways from the election is that there is a clear ceiling for Democrats in the growing suburbs. In 2018, suburban voters proved allergic to Cruz, Trump, or both, by casting their vote for O’Rourke and then flipping back to the Republican side further down the ballot. It’s not yet clear how Biden did in specific districts, but he ran ahead or near O’Rourke in places like Fort Bend County, Collin County, and Tarrant County—home to many of the targeted House districts—while Democrats continued to suffer down-ballot.
Democrats’ electoral failure—and failure to manage expectations—is a gut punch to the burgeoning liberal grassroots. Now, Republican dominance of state government remains unfettered, as is the GOP’s ability to lock in majorities for years to come in the next redistricting cycle.