The Humbling of Democrats in Texas

Republicans in the state were caught napping in 2016 and 2018. They came back to life last night in a key special election.

Ben Sklar / Getty

Democrats always knew it was going to be hard to turn Texas blue in 2020. This week, they received a painful reminder of just how tough it’ll be.

Republicans last night swamped Democrats in what one progressive group had hyped as “the most important special election since the midterms,” winning by 16 points a key state legislative race that both parties viewed as a test run for the much-bigger campaign this fall. The defeat, particularly by such a wide margin, was a setback for Democrats, who poured nearly $1 million into the election.

It also signaled the reinvigoration of the Texas GOP. Republicans were caught napping in 2016 and 2018, giving Democrats hope that they could put the country’s largest GOP stronghold in play this year.

But the party came back to life in this race, well exceeding Democrats’ substantial investment. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and other top Republicans threw their support behind the GOP candidate Gary Gates, who spent more than $1.5 million of his own money in the campaign. The millions spent in total were a whopping sum for an election decided by just 30,000 people—a turnout of 20 percent—to fill just one of 150 seats in the Texas state House.

After cutting into the margins of the Republican majority in the chamber in 2018, Democrats need to flip just nine seats to win control this fall and loosen the GOP’s long-held grip on the state government. They had hoped to get a head start on that bid by nabbing this open GOP seat.

“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.’”

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.

Because the Texas legislature meets only in odd-numbered years, Gates won’t even cast a vote before he faces Markowitz in a November rematch. The state Democratic Party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa, vowed that race would be “a toss-up” despite Tuesday’s results. The Texas legislature is high on Democrats’ target list for 2020, when victories in state races will carry added gravity heading into the next round of redistricting.

It may have taken a lot of money, but ultimately Republicans swamped Democrats with higher turnout, particularly among their stronger coalition of voters who more reliably show up at the polls. “This was a base-versus-base election, and Republicans were able to mobilize their base to turn out in huge numbers,” Post told me.

In 2018, O’Rourke’s near-upset of Cruz was a wake-up call for Texas Republicans. Yesterday, in their first 2020 test, they answered it.