When Beto O’Rourke proclaimed, during the second round of Democratic presidential debates, that “there’s a new battleground state, Texas, and it has 38 Electoral College votes,” eyes rolled in unison across America. We’ve all heard that nonsense before! Pundits and progressives have been predicting that minority-white Texas would go blue for so long, it’s practically become a running joke. And while O’Rourke came tantalizingly close to knocking off Ted Cruz last fall, that race seemed to have all the hallmarks of a fluke—a Republican senator who even Republicans can’t stomach, running in a strong Democratic midterm cycle against a fresh-faced liberal who eschewed all forms of conventional political wisdom and ran a campaign so novel, so tireless, and so perfectly made for social media that it became a viral sensation. Post-Betomania, most people assumed that Texas Democrats would resume their role as American politics’ saddest underachievers, while Texas Republicans extended their quarter-century run of dominance as their national party’s ideological, financial, and electoral-vote stronghold.
But as people in Texas know, O’Rourke wasn’t blowing smoke. Although Republicans have continued to routinely swat away Democrats in statewide races (they haven’t lost one since 1990), while sending legions of unhinged conservatives to gum up the works in Washington, Democrats have taken control of every big city in the state over the past decade—a process that began in Dallas in 2006, when Democrats swept into power. More important, and more worrying for Republicans, that trend spilled over last year into the sprawling suburbs, long the bedrock of Texas Republicanism. Cruz was only able to beat O’Rourke by trouncing him two-to-one in rural Texas, where just a quarter of the state’s voters live; meanwhile, Democrats captured six Republican-held state House seats in the outskirts of Dallas alone (and six others statewide), while giving Republicans heartburn in some of the suburban U.S. House districts where the party was routinely winning, not long ago, by 20-plus points.
Suddenly, Texas Republicans are on the defensive in their national fortress—and they’re both talking and acting like it. “The tectonic plates shifted in Texas in 2018,” Senator John Cornyn, the powerful Republican who’s facing reelection in 2020 (with just a 37 percent approval rating) said earlier this year. Cornyn has been sounding the alarms ever since November, warning national Republicans against complacency and spelling out the dire consequences for his party if they can’t stave off the Democratic surge: “If Texas turns back to a Democratic state, which it used to be, then we’ll never elect another Republican [president] in my lifetime,” said Cornyn.
A confluence of events over the past couple of weeks has reinforced Cornyn’s message. In what giddy Democrats are calling “the Texodus,” four Republican members of Congress announced, in short order, that they won’t be running for reelection in 2020; three of their seats, all in the suburbs, will likely go Democratic, adding to the two they took from Republicans in 2018. “We could see other representatives step away too,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “Why would you go into a knockdown, drag-out fight when you’re either going to lose next time, or soon afterward?”
While the Texodus was underway, Republican infighting—the latest episode in a long-running battle between conservatives and the hard right—hit the headlines in the most embarrassing of ways. Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was caught on tape by prominent right-wing activist Michael Quinn Sullivan crudely insulting several lawmakers, while rattling off a “hit list” of insufficiently conservative Republicans he wanted to be taken out in primaries next year. (Democrats filed suit earlier this week, alleging that Bonnen broke state law and violated campaign-finance regulations in the process.)
And then there was President Trump and the terrorism in El Paso. By 2022, Latino Texans are projected to outnumber whites, and the rising majority won’t soon forget the mass murder by a gunman, apparently inspired by Trump’s rhetoric, who took advantage of the state’s insanely lax gun laws. Nor will it forget the way the president put a target on the city’s back, falsely claiming in this year’s State of the Union that El Paso was “one of our nation’s most dangerous cities” before the border barriers went up, then amplifying the message in a rally there a few weeks later. “Murders, murders, murders!” Trump cried out as he talked about immigrants, while his fans chanted, “Build the wall!”
“This is going to stick with Latinos in Texas for a long, long time,” said Jessica Cisneros, who’s challenging conservative Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar from the left in a border district that stretches from Laredo to the outskirts of San Antonio. “We’re going to hold those people who enable this behavior and this language accountable.” Even before the El Paso massacre, Trump had been an albatross for Texas Republicans. While he carried the state in 2016, his single-digit margin of victory—in a state Hillary Clinton didn’t even try to contest—was the narrowest for Republicans in almost 20 years; even Mitt Romney had carried Texas by 16 points. In the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas, which accounted for more than half of the state’s votes, Trump won only 48 percent, and early 2020 polls have shown him losing Texas to O’Rourke, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders.
Cal Jillson, a venerable political scientist at Southern Methodist University, is among those who think this president has accelerated the Democratic comeback in Texas. “My sense pre-Trump was that there were demographic dynamics that were going to bring two-party competition at some point,” he said. “I thought it would take another 15 to 20 years. But Trump has brought all that forward. It’s happening much more quickly.”
That’s not just because the president has trashed the image of Republicans for Texas Latinos, who’ve traditionally been more conservative than their peers in places like California; it’s also because the Texas GOP has wholeheartedly embraced Trumpism and Tea Partyism. Despite the state’s ultra-conservative reputation, this is a recent development: When the party rose to power in the 1990s, and then achieved dominance in the 2000s, its leading figures—Governors George W. Bush and Rick Perry—prevented right-wing lawmakers from passing Arizona-style anti-immigration laws. In his first of four terms, in fact, one of Perry’s initial acts was championing and signing a bill that gives free in-state tuition to undocumented Texans. Like Bush, Perry also used his power to keep a lid (for the most part) on the other forms of right-wing extremism that were always threatening to boil over in the state capital; culture-war bills that might make businesses think twice about coming to Texas, or staunch the nation’s biggest flow of in-migration (mostly from the Midwest and California), were quietly killed. If it wasn’t good for business, it wasn’t happening.
But when Perry left office in 2015, as Jillson said, “traditional conservatism went with him.” Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, right-wing ideologues who both won reelection last year, have unchained the pent-up lawmakers and activists who’d long chafed at the relative moderation of party leaders—and they’re steering the Texas GOP straight toward self-destruction. “You’ve got a very conservative group of Republicans in the legislature passing their preferred legislation,” Jillson noted, “while the wave builds on the other side and Democrats are making gains.” Even though Republican leaders have grown increasingly alarmed about the Democratic renaissance, “there’s no move to moderate what the party is doing, or to speak to those growing constituencies in Texas. The Republicans are locked in,” Jillson said. “There’s a lot of money and a lot of institutional influence on the right that keeps the Republicans worried about primary challenges from the right more than winning general elections.”
While Republicans have been busy planting the seeds of their likely doom, the Texas Democratic Party has been rebuilding itself into a force capable of capitalizing on its opponents’ strategic insanity. A decade ago, when I was running a political magazine in Texas, the state’s Democrats were comically inept; while Texas grew browner and younger by the day, the party was led by a gang of aging, nostalgic white moderates who clung to the outdated strategies that had won them elections in the 1960s and ’70s. These dinosaurs couldn’t understand why Latinos weren’t registering and voting Democratic in far greater numbers, or why upward of 40 percent of those who did vote sometimes cast ballots for Republicans like Perry—what was wrong with these people?
What was wrong, of course, was that Texas Democrats were giving Latinos and young whites no reason to engage. That started to change in 2012, when Gilberto Hinojosa, a former judge, was elected party chair. “He wanted a progressive, aggressive institution,” said Manny Garcia, who became one of the new hires charged with “creating a Democratic brand” where there was none, and moving the party into the twenty-first century. Texas Democrats now have full-blown data and digital operations; they’re raising more money online than any state party in the country, Garcia said, while plotting “the largest coordinated campaign in the history of Texas” for 2020. The party’s efforts have been aided considerably by voter-engagement groups like Jolt and Texas Rising, which have focused on Latinos and young voters and helped to send voter registration and turnout soaring; from 2014 to 2018, Texas added some 1.8 million new voters, the majority of them women and people of color. The party estimates that “there’s 30,000 to 50,000 Democrats who arrive in the state every month,” according to Garcia, and now—at last—they’re being asked to register, vote, and run for office.
The spooked Republicans recently rolled out a voter-registration PAC of their own, called Engage Texas, which aims to sign up new Republicans. Garcia finds this both telling and amusing. “Those one million unregistered Republicans they’re talking about don’t exist,” he said, laughing. “They’re tapped out.”
It’s been a long time since Democrats in Texas could have a good chuckle at the other party’s expense. Republicans have been so omnipotent that, for years, they’ve been dispatching their own grassroots volunteers to other states at election time; they simply weren’t needed in Texas. Wealthy conservative donors have followed suit, funneling their millions into places where money was needed. That will likely change in 2020, after last year’s wake-up call—though conservative pundits like Sean Trende are worrying aloud about Republican complacency:
Trump and Cornyn will still be favored to win in 2020, partly because the chances of national Democrats fully investing in carrying Texas, at this point, remain slim. With its massive size and large number of media markets, it would cost gazillions to go all-in on winning the state—and national Democrats will probably choose to funnel their resources into the Rust Belt states Trump barely carried in 2016, along with Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona.
But nobody in Texas, aside from a few blinkered Republicans, believes that Democrats won’t continue to loosen the Republican stranglehold in 2020. At least half a dozen Republican seats in Congress will be ripe for the taking, and Democrats have a realistic chance of capturing the nine Republican seats in the state House they need to gain a majority—just in time for the next round of redistricting in 2021. If they regain a toehold of power in Austin, and can prevent Republicans from having total control over gerrymandering, Democrats could turn Texas blue in a hurry; if not, it’ll probably be a more gradual process over the next decade, with strict voter ID and other forms of suppression still intact, and districts artificially tilted in Republicans’ favor.
Whether Democrats regain power in Texas quickly or gradually, it still adds up to a doomsday scenario for Republicans—and a precious ray of light, through the fog and gloom of Trumpism, for Democrats.