Although Republicans have continued to routinely swat away Democrats in statewide races (they haven’t lost one since 1990), while sending legions of unhinged conservatives to gum up the works in Washington, Democrats have taken control of every big city in the state over the past decade—a process that began in Dallas in 2006, when Democrats swept into power. More important, and more worrying for Republicans, that trend spilled over last year into the sprawling suburbs, long the bedrock of Texas Republicanism. Cruz was only able to beat O’Rourke by trouncing him two-to-one in rural Texas, where just a quarter of the state’s voters live; meanwhile, Democrats captured six Republican-held state House seats in the outskirts of Dallas alone (and six others statewide), while giving Republicans heartburn in some of the suburban U.S. House districts where the party was routinely winning, not long ago, by 20-plus points.
Suddenly, Texas Republicans are on the defensive in their national fortress—and they’re both talking and acting like it. “The tectonic plates shifted in Texas in 2018,” Senator John Cornyn, the powerful Republican who’s facing reelection in 2020 (with just a 37 percent approval rating) said earlier this year. Cornyn has been sounding the alarms ever since November, warning national Republicans against complacency and spelling out the dire consequences for his party if they can’t stave off the Democratic surge: “If Texas turns back to a Democratic state, which it used to be, then we’ll never elect another Republican [president] in my lifetime,” said Cornyn.
A confluence of events over the past couple of weeks has reinforced Cornyn’s message. In what giddy Democrats are calling “the Texodus,” four Republican members of Congress announced, in short order, that they won’t be running for reelection in 2020; three of their seats, all in the suburbs, will likely go Democratic, adding to the two they took from Republicans in 2018. “We could see other representatives step away too,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “Why would you go into a knockdown, drag-out fight when you’re either going to lose next time, or soon afterward?”
Even before the El Paso massacre, Trump had been an albatross for Texas Republicans. While he carried the state in 2016, his single-digit margin of victory—in a state Hillary Clinton didn’t even try to contest—was the narrowest for Republicans in almost 20 years; even Mitt Romney had carried Texas by 16 points. In the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas, which accounted for more than half of the state’s votes, Trump won only 48 percent, and early 2020 polls have shown him losing Texas to O’Rourke, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders.
Cal Jillson, a venerable political scientist at Southern Methodist University, is among those who think this president has accelerated the Democratic comeback in Texas. “My sense pre-Trump was that there were demographic dynamics that were going to bring two-party competition at some point,” he said. “I thought it would take another 15 to 20 years. But Trump has brought all that forward. It’s happening much more quickly.”
Texas Democrats now have full-blown data and digital operations; they’re raising more money online than any state party in the country, Garcia said, while plotting “the largest coordinated campaign in the history of Texas” for 2020. The party’s efforts have been aided considerably by voter-engagement groups likevisit this link Jolt and visit this link Texas Rising, which have focused on Latinos and young voters and helped to send voter registration and turnout soaring; from 2014 to 2018, Texas added some 1.8 million new voters, the majority of them women and people of color. The party estimates that “there’s 30,000 to 50,000 Democrats who arrive in the state every month,” according to Garcia, and now—at last—they’re being asked to register, vote, and run for office.
But nobody in Texas, aside from a few blinkered Republicans, believes that Democrats won’t continue to loosen the Republican stranglehold in 2020. At least half a dozen Republican seats in Congress will be ripe for the taking, and Democrats have a realistic chance of capturing the nine Republican seats in the state House they need to gain a majority—just in time for the next round of redistricting in 2021. If they regain a toehold of power in Austin, and can prevent Republicans from having total control over gerrymandering, Democrats could turn Texas blue in a hurry; if not, it’ll probably be a more gradual process over the next decade, with strict voter ID and other forms of suppression still intact, and districts artificially tilted in Republicans’ favor.