State Rep. Jon Rosenthal wasn’t supposed to win his Texas House seat last year. He was too much of a Democrat for the swath of northwest Harris County that had long elected Republicans.
But in the 2018 election, amid buzz over Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and frustration with the Trump administration, the longtime engineer and first-time candidate emerged as one of a dozen Democrats to turn a Republican seat blue.
Now Rosenthal, 56, has a political target on his back. Republican operatives say Rosenthal’s seat is one of about a dozen nestled in the Texas suburbs that they can win back. Most of the hottest races are expected in the Houston area or the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Nearly $2 million has already been poured into coffers for candidates as both parties brace for the fight.
“The 2020 year is going to be really wild in terms of what outside influences and national parties spend in our areas,” said Rosenthal.
Democrats will have to work the hardest to defend their new turf in Harris County, analysts say, after flipping two seats by slim margins in 2018.
In 2020, the stakes will be considerably higher, as the party that controls the House in 2021 will have a commanding influence on redrawing congressional and legislative district maps that will be in use over the next decade, shaping the political direction of the state.
Republicans have set their sights on Rosenthal, who won District 135 by 3 percentage points in his northwest Harris County district, which spans from Jersey Village to Westgate. Further west in Katy, first-time candidate Gina Calanni eked out a win in District 132 against another Republican incumbent by 113 votes.
“We need to take these two seats back to expand the majority and certainly heading into redistricting next session. It’s critical to taking Texas Republican after the census,” said Paul Simpson, chairman of the Harris County GOP.
Although population growth in those areas is on the rise, Republicans doubt those districts are shifting as liberal as Democrats think. The districts were victim of a “Beto wave,” Simpson said, noting that voters in both 132 and 135 also favored Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
Democrats are counting on long-awaited demographic changes to widen the margins and keep both Rosenthal and Calanni in office.
“I think the population has changed dramatically over the past few years and I think there’s a lot more anti-Trump sentiment to add fuel to the fire, said Lillie Schechter, chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party.
Let me start with the assertion that Rep. Rosenthal “wasn’t supposed to win” in HD135. Sure, he was an underdog in a Republican district that was trending Democratic, but it was not at all hard to imagine this swingy district going blue in a good year for the Dems. It’s a weird start to the article.
I’m not here to argue that Rosenthal’s HD135, or Rep. Gina Calanni’s HD132, are not legitimate targets for the Republicans in 2020. These are districts that had voted Republican for a long time, they were close races in 2018 – especially close in Calanni’s case, as she won with less than 50% with a Libertarian also in the mix – and what else are the Republicans going to do in 2020? They’d be committing political malpractice if they didn’t go all out in those districts. But for crying out loud, can we quit with the “Beto wave” foolishness? Sure, Beto won HDs 132 and 135. So did Mike Collier, Justin Nelson, and Kim Olson. The statewide Republicans that carried those districts did so by small margins. At the judicial race level, both districts were basically 50-50. Both Calanni and Rosenthal won a majority of the non-straight ticket voters in their districts. And at the risk of repeating myself, both districts were trending Democratic before 2018. There’s no reason to think they’ve trended any less Democratic since then.
None of this is to say that either or both of Rosenthal and Calanni can’t lose. Those races were actually kind of low profile in 2018. No one is sneaking up on anyone in 2020, especially not in HDs 132 and 135. The incumbents start out as favorites, as they had in 2018, but upsets are possible. Just be sure to show your work if you’re going to predict that they will happen.
The Republicans say it’s the Democrats who will have more trouble at the top of the ticket, with no O’Rourke.
“I’m not being arrogant when I say this, but our numbers should have been higher according to the polling,” said Rep. Sam Harless, a relatively moderate Republican who won his first election in 2018 by 9.7 percentage points. “The Beto factor was huge.”
“I think the Democrats see a little blood in the water, they’re getting excited, but I think the Republicans will pick back up five to seven seats,” he said.
In total, Democratic and Republican party operatives have identified 34 seats across Texas as potential toss-ups. Of them, 14 were won within a 5-percent margin in the last election. Another 13 contests came within a 10-percentage point margin, and seven are seen as vulnerable for other reasons.
Yeah, it’s the (probable) lack of Beto at the top of the ticket that will make a difference. Have y’all heard of Donald Trump? I mean, seriously. I’ll take that bet, Rep. Harless. Indeed, while this story correctly identified HDs 138 and 134 as top Democratic targets for 2020, and mentioned HDs 129 and 133 as stretch targets, HD126 was actually more Democratic than either of those two. Are those footsteps you hear, Rep. Harless? Beyond that, I’d like to see the complete list of those 34 seats, especially the seven that are “seen as vulnerable for other reasons”. What does that even mean? We can’t tell from this story, so feel free to speculate in the comments.