Speaking at the Texas Tribune Festival back on September 29, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi briefly referred to Texas as the “hope for the future” for her party.
And throughout the weekend of events, many officials from both the state and national party were equally bullish on and off the record about Democrats’ future prospects in America’s second-largest state — potentially as soon as the 2020 presidential election.
Texas is becoming bluer, or more precisely less red, but talk of it being a genuine swing state is grossly premature. It has two very large blue cities, Dallas and Houston, plus two more mid-sized ones in San Antonio and Austin. These days, those metro areas don’t feel too different politically or culturally from standing in the middle of any other liberal city. But despite those large centers, by the numbers, Texas votes quite a bit more conservative than the national average, even in a year like 2018 when Lone Star Democrats do well.
It would be foolish for Democrats to pin hopes for 2020 on carrying Texas. Still, Texas is a very large and diverse state that contains plenty of opportunities for progressive politics — which could have real impacts on many people’s lives. The key for Democrats is to have realistic expectations to participate intelligently and effectively.
Texas has gone from extremely red to red
Back in the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by about 4 percentage points in the national popular vote, while losing Texas by about 16 percentage points. Texas, in other words, was about 20 points more Republican than the country as a whole.
Flash forward to 2016, and Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by just 2 percentage points in the national popular vote, but she lost Texas by “only” 9 points.
The Lone Star State, in other words, went from being 20 points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole to 11 points more Republican-leaning. That’s a huge change, with dramatic implications for state and local politics. But it still left the state redder than Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, Florida, and Ohio — not exactly prime target territory.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s relatively narrow defeat in the 2018 Senate race confirms that Texas’s leftward shift is real. But contrary to a certain amount of myth-making, the shift may not have been so dramatic last year. O’Rourke lost by 3 percentage points, doing about 6 points better than Clinton did in Texas in 2016. But House Democrats won the national popular vote by 8 percentage points — also 6 points better than Clinton.
That’s not to deny that O’Rourke ran an impressive race — taking on an incumbent senator is difficult, especially in a larger, expensive state with minimal party infrastructure. But that impressive race confirms that the only way Texas is in play in 2020 is if the national political environment amounts to a huge Democratic landslide, the equivalent of Barack Obama randomly winning Indiana in 2008 along with all the actual swing states.
But even if Texas isn’t a purple state, it is a gigantic state and therefore an important one. And the switch from R+20 to R+11 matters.
Democrats have a lot of opportunities in Texas
Opportunities start with the US House of Representatives, where Democrats picked up two seats in tough 2018 races, one now held by Colin Allred in the Dallas suburbs and another held by Lizzie Panill-Fletcher in the Houston suburbs. They have one excellent pickup opportunity in the border district being vacated by Rep. Will Hurd and a couple of other long shots that are at least plausible.
That’s a critical congressional battleground for 2020.
What’s more, due to what looks in retrospect like the unintended consequences of gerrymandering, O’Rourke actually carried a majority of districts in the lower house of the Texas state legislature. Democrats need to pick up nine seats there to flip the chamber, which is unquestionably a tall order. But given O’Rourke’s results, it’s not out of the question that it could happen.
After the 2020 Census, Texas is going to get at least two and possibly three new US House seats. If Democrats were able to win a state legislative chamber and have a seat at the redistricting table, that would be a huge opportunity. And even if they don’t, there’s just no way to avoid drawing some of those new seats into Texas’ newly competitive suburban landscape.
The key, though, is to recognize that while these are winnable races, we are talking about constituencies that are more conservative than the US average — places where successful progressive candidates would need to pick their battles carefully, rather than signing on to the entire laundry list of activist demands. That’s especially true because every governor’s mansion can be contestable, as long as you’re willing to be realistic about it.
Texas governors’ races are critical for health care
Texas Democrats last won a governor’s race way back in 1990.
But in general, governor’s races are much less subject to the forces of national political polarization than other kinds of elections. Right now, Louisiana and Montana have Democratic governors, while Vermont and Maryland have Republicans. The races in Mississippi and Kentucky next month are close. There’s no place that’s off the table in gubernatorial politics.
To win, though, you do need to be politically realistic. Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards is considerably more conservative than a typical national Democrat, and he infuriated progressives nationwide by signing an extremely restrictive abortion bill recently. That said, Edwards’s win four years ago is the reason Louisiana expanded Medicaid, delivering health insurance coverage to hundreds of thousands of people.
The future of Medicaid is also on the ballot in these Kentucky and Mississippi races, both of which feature Democratic nominees who the typical left-winger would doubtless find uninspiring in other respects.
But there is no state with a larger pool of uninsured people than Texas, and the failure to expand Medicaid there is the reason. Winning a governor’s race there and expanding Medicaid is the critical element to dramatically expanding health coverage in the United States, as well as dozens of other topics that are critical to Texas’s large low-income population.
Getting the job done, though, would require recognizing that winning statewide races in Texas is an uphill battle for Democrats, who aren’t going to carry the state with a message as progressive as could be viable nationally. The state has become moderate enough that it’d be a shame not to make a serious effort to win in down-ballot races, but it’s not nearly blue enough to just throw caution to the wind. Texas is a Texas-sized opportunity for progressive causes, but to seize it requires realism as much as enthusiasm.