Like many others in Texas politics, Wendy Davis spent much of 2018 scratching her head over fellow Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s insurgent campaign against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
Just four years earlier, Davis lost her bid for governor to Republican Greg Abbott by 20 points, a margin of defeat shared by several other Democratic statewide candidates that year. It seemed like an implausible jump from those losses to O’Rourke only losing by 2.5 points in 2018.
But Davis, who's now a candidate for Congress, noticed a key difference between O’Rourke’s Senate race and the Texas Democratic campaigns of 2014: There was a robust lineup of Democratic candidates down ballot running for the U.S. House, the state Legislature and other local campaigns. That wasn’t the case in 2014.
Those candidates knocked on doors, raised money, showed up to Rotary Club meetings and de-stigmatized Democrats in once-hostile territory.
Some even won.
Davis said those down-ballot races were key to O’Rourke’s performance. And she’s not the only one to think so.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” O’Rourke said last week in an interview with The Texas Tribune, concurring with Davis’ analysis of his race.
Texas remained the country’s largest red state in 2018. Republicans have won every statewide race in Texas since 1998, and a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won Texas since Jimmy Carter in 1976. But for 18 months, statewide polls showed 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is outperforming past nominees' margins in Texas. And a question that often elicits eyerolls is now a point of serious debate: Can Democrats flip Texas?
The battle for the state’s 38 electoral votes won’t come down to a savior candidate or some supersonic smart national strategist.
Instead, the fate of Texas in November could rest on the backs of dozens of mostly obscure Democratic candidates who are competing for legislative and congressional seats in the suburbs that have been strongly Republican.
“If Biden wins on Election Night in Texas, the first time since 1976, the credit will really be due to these candidates — most of them who by the way are women, women of color and black women of color in particular,” O’Rourke said.
Still, the Trump campaign projects confidence about Texas.
“Joe Biden and Texas Democrats’ embrace of radical policies such as defunding the police and eliminating fossil fuels won’t win over voters in the Lone Star State," said Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Cotten. "While Joe Biden hides in his basement, Texas Trump Victory has been on the ground building an expansive field operation to get out the vote for the entire GOP ticket. Texas voters are fired up and ready to reelect President Donald Trump.”
A sharp turn in 2016
Members of the state Democratic Party first noticed changes on Election Night in 2016. While Democrats across the country were inconsolable over Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, the Texas Democratic Party’s then-executive director, Crystal Kay Perkins, left her Election Night party with a sense of optimism.
"We won four state House seats," she said that night, also ticking off obscure victories like school board wins in small cities.
Within weeks, it became clear that while Trump won the state, the Republicans lost ground in several suburban areas. Those margins gave Texas Democrats a playbook for the next four years: a greater focus on on candidates for state legislative races, municipal campaigns and community college and school board contests. In 2018, they made inroads with gains in the state House and Congress, though nothing quite as flashy as a statewide victory.
Rebecca Acuña, the lead Biden staffer in Texas and a veteran of several Texas political showdowns, credits Democratic operatives and politicians who kept going through the party's years in the wilderness.
"We have been through hell and back in the past decade, but all the while focused on building the infrastructure at the Texas Democratic Party necessary to meet this very moment," said Manny Garcia, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.
That strategy has continued in 2020, where Democrats have a chance of flipping the state House and winning more congressional seats. A slew of candidates are running in and around all of Texas' big cities, in seats that were never intended to be competitive when the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature redrew congressional and legislative districts in 2012.
But in those eight years, millions of people moved to Texas; and Republicans have witnessed a collapse among college-educated voters and increasingly diversifying suburbs.
And with more national and local money pouring into those down-ballot races, political experts say that could have a major effect upstream on the ballot.
"Normally, House and down-ballot candidates are desperate for presidential investment," said Amy Walter, a political analyst at the Cook Political Report. "In this case, I think that all the money being poured into suburban [congressional districts] and battleground state [legislative] districts could help boost Biden."
For instance, Democrat Celina Montoya is challenging Republican state Rep. Steve Allison for his northern San Antonio district that includes tony Alamo Heights.
The seat's previous occupant was former state House Speaker Joe Straus, also a Republican. In 2018, Montoya was the first Democrat to bother running there in years. She lost by 8.5 points, but is running again this year. That time she raised a little under $100,000. This cycle, she said she has raised an estimated $530,000.
"It starts even before 2018 though," she said. "It's taken about a decade of concentrated work for ... the party to really organize a state the size of Texas to the point that in 2018 we were really ripe for flipping."
Montoya and many other Democrats have walloped Republican incumbents in raising money at both the state House and U.S. House levels. That advantage translated into Democratic candidates deploying their fundraising advantages to go on television weeks ahead of Republican incumbents in September.
Not so fast, Republicans say
Despite the Democratic optimism in Texas, Republicans say they are confident that the state will remain in the red column and that they could win back some of the House and congressional seats they lost in 2018.
They also say that you can't make clear connections between down-ballot races and the presidential campaign.
Tyler Norris, a Texas-based Republican consultant working on U.S. House and state legislative campaigns, anticipates a ferocious challenge from Democrats, but he also sees a disconnect regarding the presidential campaign.
"These candidates have to build name ID and cut through the ad clutter being created by other area races," Norris said in an email to The Texas Tribune. "While minds can change as people learn more about candidates for the state house, people know the President and they know Joe Biden. Don't count on down ballot races driving up numbers for either Presidential candidate."
One clear thing is that there is Democrats are investing big money invested in Texas campaigns, through national and local fundraising. Some Democratic candidates are able to spend heavily on TV ads and own get-out-the-vote campaigns.
Trump must win Texas, but Democrats can win without it. The Democratic thinking for months has been that if Biden wins Texas, Democrats will already have secured the 270 electoral votes needed to win in states like Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But the symbolism of winning Texas is clear.
Earlier this week, O'Rourke co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed lobbying for more Biden spending in Texas. He argued that Texas could deliver an Election Night knockout of Trump that would eliminate any post-election argument from the president over the legitimacy of mail-in ballots.
The Biden campaign has been receptive to expanding its presence in Texas. It launched a $6 million ad campaign in the state this week, building on ads that have been airing for months as part of a national advertising campaign. The campaign also touted on Tuesday that there are now more than 60 paid staffers in the state. It’s all a pittance compared to investments in places like Florida, but it’s a staggering escalation compared with past Democratic presidential campaigns in Texas. While Texas isn't vital to Biden's prospects, the importance of winning the largest red state isn't lost on the campaign.
“We didn’t just wake up and say ‘We think we can win Texas this year,’ Acuña said. “We’ve been working for this moment.”
Part of the effort that's been years in the making is increased investment from national Democrats. Amber Mostyn, a prominent Houston attorney and Democratic donor, credits U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for laying the groundwork to put Texas Democrats in such a competitive position.
"We wouldn't have the opportunities we have in Texas today, if Nancy Pelosi and the DCCC hadn't been investing here for over 15 years," she said of the House Democratic campaign arm.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who's running for re-election against Democrat MJ Hegar, rang the alarm early about Democrats' Texas efforts ahead of 2020.
“Everything’s changed [since 2014],” Cornyn told the Tribune in the summer of 2019. "I think 2018 woke up everybody on the Republican side to the fact that we not only need to be competitive in the primaries, but we need to talk to broader general election voters, too.”
He urged Republicans across the state to run hard for reelection, even in districts that Republicans dominate. The logic was, he needed their help to run up the vote.
A range of predictions
For many Republicans, the strategy is loss-mitigation. Depending on the operative or news cycle of the day, Republican predictions range from a few losses in the state to deeper concerns. Nobody denies the polarizing nature of Trump. His national poll numbers have dipped after the first presidential debate and amid continuing criticism over how the coronavirus pandemic has been handled.
The state’s new GOP chairman, Allen West, characterized to the Tribune recently his outlook as “not overconfident, [but] confident” that the party will have a better year than 2018. He also forecasted Trump would maintain or improve upon his 9-point margin over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Other Republicans expect a narrowed margin, but assume the state will hold for Trump.
Cornyn’s bid for a fourth term remains the central source of confidence among most Texas Republicans. A seasoned campaigner, he ran the Senate Republican national campaigns for two terms and is uniquely situated within Texas to spot trouble. But even there, Hegar raised $13.5 million last quarter, allowing her to run a robust television campaign.
Republicans also say their polling indicates an opportunity to capitalize on the issue of law enforcement. In a year that has seen several protests over the killings of Black Americans by police officers, Republicans have run several ads denouncing “defund the police” efforts and showcasing law enforcement officers vouching for down-ballot Republicans who promise law and order.
And once a motorist drives beyond the suburbs, the enthusiasm for Trump often blankets the state’s rural landscape. Whether that enthusiasm can counter the Democratic advances is an open question.
But whether it's the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, the Texas GOP, Abbott's political operation, the super PACs that support down-ballot Republican campaigns, or their millionaire donors, none are ceding Texas to the Democrats.
“In 2018 Texas Democrats and failed Senate and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke spent millions on the largest get out the vote campaign in their party’s history, and they lost each and every congressional and legislative seat they’re now trying to say is in play," said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the U.S. House GOP campaign arm.
Amid all of this activity is the once-in-a-hundred years pandemic. At the end of the day, no one in Texas or beyond has a real grasp on who turns out to vote this year. But most political observers agree that Democrats have momentum and are on track to make gains. The key question is how big of a step they'll take?
“We don’t know quite yet if this is a full-on suburban realignment, or if these voters are just temporarily parking themselves with Democrats until Trump is no longer in office,” Walter, the Cook Political report analyst, wrote in an email to the Tribune.
“I think the first big challenge for these Democrats will be the 2022 mid-terms,” she added. “If Biden is president and Democrats have control of Congress, what kind of priorities will they push? Will Democrats over-reach and alienate the suburban Houston, Dallas and San Antonio voters they won over in 2018-2020?”
Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Amber Mostyn has been a financial supporter of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism.