Two years ago, Democrats were gearing up for a rare opportunity in modern times: capturing the Texas House majority.
But after they came up woefully short — and Republican-led redistricting reduced the number of competitive races — the battlefield heading into November is notably smaller.
Still, both sides see important stakes in the state House races this time around. While the majority is not on the line, the hottest races are unfolding in key areas that each party understands is critical to their growth for the next decade.
Look no further than the three districts that both Democrats and Republicans see as their highest priorities. Two of them are in South Texas, where Republicans are working to make inroads with Hispanic voters, while the other is in North Texas’ Collin County, a place emblematic of the fast-growing suburbs where Democrats have gained ground over the last few election cycles.
The GOP is especially serious about the two seats in South Texas — House District 37, a new open seat in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, and House District 118, a San Antonio-based seat that Republican John Lujan flipped last year in a special election. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group that works to elect Republicans to state legislatures, are announcing Monday that they are funding $360,000 in TV ads aimed at the two districts, a substantial opening salvo on the battlefield.
Millions of dollars are expected to pour in to HD-37 and HD-118 — the two South Texas seats — and then HD-70, the one in Collin County. President Joe Biden would have carried each of the three seats over Donald Trump in 2020, but only by margins of 2 to 11 points, which gives them battleground status in the current environment, according to operatives. HD-37, which Republicans rammed into the map overnight during redistricting, is the closest on paper, with a Biden margin of only 2 percentage points.
Lujan is easily the most endangered Republican incumbent, but a few others can be expected to have competitive races, including Reps. Steve Allison of San Antonio, Morgan Meyer of Dallas and Angie Chen Button of Richardson. However, all three have had tough general elections before — especially Meyer and Button — and Republicans have faith in their ability to defend themselves.
There are also some additional open seats that the GOP will have to monitor, like the Houston seat where Republican state Rep. Jim Murphy is retiring.
On the Democratic side, the most endangered incumbent may be Rep. Eddie Morales of Eagle Pass, who represents a massive district covering most of the Texas-Mexico border.
As for the issues, the GOP messaging is set to take on a national tone, seeking to tap into Biden’s deep unpopularity in Texas, especially on border security and inflation. The House Democratic Campaign Committee said its candidates are focusing on “good jobs, strong public schools and access to affordable health care.”
“In contrast, Republicans are obsessed with banning abortion with no exceptions and making sure anyone can carry a gun with no training or license,” an HDCC spokesperson, Stella Deshotel, said in a statement.
With the primaries over, candidates across the races are sounding notes of independence and bipartisanship. Mihaela Plesa, the Democratic nominee for HD-70, said in an interview it was important for representatives to go to Austin and “not just be another vote for the party line.” Her Republican opponent, Jamee Jolly, said she was optimistic she would appeal to the Biden voters in the district, which he would have carried by 11 percentage points.
“I think a lot of people chose Biden because they didn’t like the Republican option. I know that for a fact because I have friends who have said that,” Jolly said, adding that her friends found Trump “divisive” and that she would legislate as “much more of a convener, a solutions-seeker,” reaching across the aisle.
Plesa said the No. 1 issue she hears about is public school finance, along with concerns about the “social wars” that are erupting in the classroom. But she said she is also hearing a lot about abortion after the Roe v. Wade decision, which triggered a ban without exceptions in Texas. Jolly said that her focus is now on “how we continue to support maternal health care.”
First and foremost: San Antonio is not South Texas, and I will die on that hill. I am begging you to be more precise in your geographical descriptors.
Second, just to provide some perspective, here are the 2020 Biden/Trump numbers for all of the districts name-checked in this story:
Dist Biden Trump Biden% Trump% ================================= 037 27,740 26,576 50.6% 48.4% 070 45,111 35,989 54.7% 43.6% 074 31,415 28,538 51.7% 46.9% 108 54,481 55,364 48.9% 49.7% 112 44,881 45,370 48.9% 49.4% 118 36,578 34,584 50.6% 47.9% 121 50,133 52,533 48.1% 50.4% 133 40,475 42,076 48.4% 50.3%
Most of these districts got more Democratic between 2012 and 2020, often much more Democratic. HDs 37 and 74 are the exceptions in that list. You can go read that earlier post for all the context. HD70 is a current Republican district that was redrawn to be Democratic, whose incumbent is not running for re-election, and should be the most likely of the bunch to flip. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to say that if Dems don’t pick up HD70, it will have been a disappointing Election Day. It’s impossible to imagine a good overall result if the Republicans can hold that one. Republicans flipped HD118 in a low-turnout special election, which is a thing they had done before as well. Dems won it back that November, but HD118 was a more Democratic district in the previous map. Bexar County moved strongly Democratic overall last decade, though (Pre-redistricting) HD118 was at the bottom of the progress list. I also feel confident saying that Dems will be disappointed if they don’t take this one back.
Fundraising numbers are also a factor, and likely a reason some other relatively even districts were not mentioned in this Trib story. HD70 Dem candidate Mihaela Plesa has done pretty well, while HD118 candidate Frank Ramirez, who fell short in the runoff of that earlier special election, has done less so. I’ll want to take a look at the 30-day numbers in some of these races to see what other signals there may be.
I don’t want to get too deep into all this, as I don’t know much about these races beyond the numbers. I do believe that we will see a different, perhaps broader, class of contested races in 2024, partly because a lot of Republican seats were drawn with relatively tight margins, and partly because this year may tell us something new about the trends we have been seeing in the past three elections. There are always some districts that over- or under-perform their expected numbers, and this time should be no exception.