I have three things to say about this.
[Democratic operative Jason] Stanford has a theory about how [Texas Democratic] angst started. He says it began with the 1996 U.S. Senate race in Texas. Democrats were recovering from losing two years earlier and were hoping to stem another round of losses.
As a result, he says, the primary was stacked with impressive candidates running to oust incumbent Republican Sen. Phil Gramm. The field included two incumbent congressmen, a county party chair and a teacher named Victor Morales, who eventually won the nomination.
The race was relatively close, but Morales lost.
“After we lost, that was two losses in a row and Democrats lost hope for generation,” Stanford says.
For years after, he says, it was hard to convince people to run for office as a Democrat in the state.
“We couldn’t get good people to run,” he says. “We would just try to fill the ballot instead of recruiting actually good candidates.”
That’s partially why the last time a Democrat won a statewide election of any kind was back in 1994.
Even though Democrats have still been shut out of statewide races, in the past few years, the party has been able to get at least one thing back: hope.
“The political changes are astronomical in Texas,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
After 2016, Democratic-leaning Texans who had been sitting out elections started to vote again.
“I think of it like a seat with four legs,” Rottinghaus says. “You’ve got white progressives, you’ve got young people, you’ve got people of color, and you’ve got low-income people. That forms the platform for the Democratic Party. And in all of those elements, you’ve got increases in voting.”
In the 2018 election, Texas had higher voter turnout among all those groups. Republicans had been winning statewide races by double-digit margins, but that year a Democratic Senate candidate lost by only 2.6 percentage points.
Rottinghaus says this trend bodes well for Democrats in 2020, but a win is not a sure thing.
“There’s no guarantee Texas will be blue or any statewide office will be won,” he says. “But the pieces are in place to be able to be competitive. And that’s what Democrats are looking for and why a lot of people are running for these positions.”
In the past several weeks, a slew of candidates has announced they want to run against Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn next year.
The field is up to nine candidates, including former Congressman Chris Bell, state Sen. Royce West, Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards and former congressional candidate MJ Hegar. Most recently, Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, a well-known immigrant rights and political activist, said she’s joining the race, too.
“Good candidates are just showing up,” Stanford says. “It’s amazing. This is a huge sea change.”
1. The story calls it a “psychological shift”, and I’ve called it “changing the narrative”, but we both refer to the fact that now everyone believes that the state is competitive for Democrats. The previous belief that basically all of the elections, save for a couple of swing districts, were settled in the primaries, is no longer operative. This isn’t just wild-eyed optimism by Democrats or a scare story being used in fundraising emails by Republicans. Democrats actually did make Texas competitive in 2018, and despite some chest-thumping by Republicans about it all being about Beto, the objective evidence suggests we are in for more of the same this year. And everyone with skin in the game is acting accordingly. That’s how you get five experienced politicians, all of whom come with fundraising promise, lining up to take on John Cornyn.
2. The fundraising bit is important in ways that can’t be overstated. Only two Democrats since the 2002 debacle have raised sufficient money to truly compete statewide, Bill White in 2010 and Wendy Davis in 2014. Beto broke through on this in a big way in 2018, but he was the only one who did. Other statewide candidates, who ran against deeply flawed opponents and who came almost as close as Beto did to win, did not get that kind of support. Would Mike Collier, or Justin Nelson, or Kim Olson have done better if they had had $10 million or more to work with? We’ll never know, but I’m confident that the candidates on the 2022 statewide slate will not have it as tough as they did. And I hear a lot less now about how Texas is just an ATM for Democratic candidates everywhere else.
3. To an extent, the shift began right after the 2016 election, with the swarm of candidates who entered the Congressional races and raised a ton of money in them. That was part of the national wave, of course, so it was in its way a separate thing, but still. I spent all of that cycle talking about how unprecedented much of it was, in particular the fundraising. The point I’m making here is that this shift didn’t begin post-Beto, it’s been going on for two years now. The main difference is that it’s happening at a statewide level, and not just downballot.