“Democrats were convinced they could buy Texas. But tonight they learned Texans aren’t buying the nonsense the Democrats are selling,” said Austin Chambers, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, the national-party group dedicated to state legislative races. “Texans sent a message loud and clear to the liberals in Washington: ‘We’re going to keep Texas Texas.’”
Read: Something’s happening in Texas
The seemingly small stakes of a local campaign in the Houston suburbs had nevertheless captured the attention of the Democratic Party’s top presidential candidates, who used the race to demonstrate their commitment to Democrats’ broader goal of recapturing power in the states and making Texas truly competitive in 2020. The Democratic candidate Eliz Markowitz won endorsements from Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Bloomberg. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke, who nearly carried the district in his close Senate race in 2018, campaigned aggressively for Markowitz after dropping his own White House bid in the fall. Yet she not only failed to match O’Rourke’s performance two years ago against Senator Ted Cruz; she fell short of the 43 percent of the vote that Hillary Clinton earned in the district in 2016.
In the aftermath of last night’s election, both parties observed the unwritten rules of analyzing special-election results. To the party that won, the victory is a clear harbinger of bigger success. To the party that lost, the results mean absolutely nothing at all.
“We always knew the race would be tough,” Jessica Post, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told me this morning. She called the 16-point margin “an anomaly,” noting the unpredictability of low-turnout special elections. Post also blamed Texas Republicans for scheduling the election in the dead of winter and limiting early-voting periods.
She said Democrats had forced Republicans to spend millions and devote the full resources of their party to defend a district that as recently as 2012 went for Mitt Romney by 30 points. “I think that’s a win,” Post argued. “I think it shows Republicans are scared as hell.”
Other Democratic operatives I spoke with this morning conceded that it was a stretch to call Texas a winnable state for the party’s eventual presidential nominee in 2020. (These dampened expectations are a contrast to the hype that built up after 2016, when the nine-point gap between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in Texas was smaller than the gap in Iowa and barely larger than the one in Ohio.) But they said last night’s special-election defeat did not dim their hopes for winning a majority in the state House. There are, they noted, 15 districts more favorable to Democrats than the one they lost last night. And especially in suburban districts where voters have soured on President Trump, Democrats expect the higher turnout in November to boost their chances. “Not having Trump on the ballot really hurt [Markowitz],” said one Democratic operative with Texas ties, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the race candidly.