Six months ago, it wasn't hard to imagine how Texas' 2018 midterm election would go. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, backed by his $40 million war chest, was going to sweep to re-election with the rest of the Republican party's statewide candidates. El Paso Rep. Beto O'Rourke would fall to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz after a spirited suicide mission, and the state's U.S. House delegation would remain dominated by the GOP, which holds 25 of 36 seats.
After the last two months of favorable results for Democrats in Virginia, Alabama and special state legislative elections across the country, the narrative has shifted. Democrats are confident around the country and even in Texas, where the GOP has won every statewide election since 1994.
"I'm feeling good," Ed Espinoza, the executive director of Progress Texas says, "but I've been feeling good for a while. I'm the outlier. A lot of people are just starting to come around, including our own people. A lot of times, Democrats are our own worst enemy. We talk ourselves out of running for offices. That's kind of where some people were. They were so scared of Greg Abbott and his money that they didn't want to take him on. That's starting to change."
Espinoza points to the fact that Democrats are fielding candidates in all 36 of Texas' House races for the first time in 25 years, as well as Democrats' improved performance in 2016, as evidence that the party is ready to change its fortunes in midterm elections after getting steamrolled in 2014 by a ticket led by Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The key for Democrats, Espinoza says, is continuing to make gains in suburban counties like Collin County in North Texas and Williamson County north of Austin, and increasing margins in Texas' biggest cities, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.
"Last spring, I started looking at the Democratic growth in Collin County, looking at it in Denton County, Tarrant County. I basically did an analysis of the Democratic growth in the top 20 counties," Espinoza says. "The Democratic growth had outpaced the Republican vote by 5 to 1."
In Collin County, for example, about 4,100 more Republicans voted for Donald Trump in 2016 than voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. While Trump still beat Hillary Clinton easily in the county in 2016, she received almost 40,000 more votes than Barack Obama did four years before. Similar patterns appear in counties across the state.
"If you're talking about percentages, yeah, Democrats have a long way to go, but if you're talking about whole numbers, those whole numbers are going to come from a handful of counties," Espinoza says. "We've got to cut into those suburban counties, and we have to run up the scores in those blue areas."
If Democrats continue to make gains with new voters, Espinoza says, and stem the tide of so-called drop-off voters — those who vote in presidential elections but not midterms — Democrats could make their first significant gains in Texas in a generation.
"I'm really confident saying that we'll pick up seats in the state House, the state Senate and in Congress. I don't know how many, but I think we pick up seats," Espinoza says. "I also think we're going to pick off somebody statewide. It could be Ken Paxton. It could be [Texas Land Commissioner] George P. Bush. I don't think Bush's name recognition is going to hold up again. When new voters show up at the polls and see a Bush on the ballot, they're going to be like, 'Oh, no.'"
Dallas-based Republican political strategist Vinny Minchillo shares Espinoza's optimism about 2018, but not his view of the outcome. Minchillo thinks Doug Jones' victory over Roy Moore in Alabama's special Senate election Tuesday night came down to a unique set of circumstances, rather than anything Democrats can take heart in heading into next year.
"In Alabama, the Republican primary was this bizarre proxy war between two parts of the Republican Party. A lot of crazy things happened, and we wound up with an appallingly bad candidate," Minchillo says. "That gave Democrats a chance to take their fair-to-middling candidate, who looked fantastic next to Roy Moore, and rally around him and get a win. They turned people out and they did a good job. That being said, I think it was kind of a moon shot. A lot of really bizarre things had to fall into place to make that happen."
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The biggest change for Republicans in 2018, he says, is that they'll have to contest a general election, at least in certain parts of the state. While he doesn't expect any major upsets, the GOP will have to take November seriously, Minchillo says.
"A lot of Texas Republicans have been lazy for a long time, going, 'Well, alright, we'll have a primary, we'll try to get our person through the runoff and then that'll be it. We'll just sort of sail through the general, and then we'll get sworn in," Minchillo says. "For most of Texas, that's probably still the case, but I'm hearing a lot of consultants paying a lot more attention now and ... actually asking the question, 'Are we going to have a competitive general [election]?'"
In the case of Cruz versus O'Rourke, a contest many commentators have spotlighted after Jones' victory, Minchillo thinks that O'Rourke is still too much of an unknown to catch Cruz despite the more than 40 percent of Texans who view the senator unfavorably.
"Can Beto get enough going to make that competitive? Right now, I don't think so. He is an interesting candidate, but I don't think he's going to be able to get enough going." Minchillo says. "In legislative races, when you look at the polling, the fav/unfav doesn't have to be as high as the fav/unfav for an executive. For a president, governor or mayor, we've always thought that people tend to want to believe they have a personal relationship with that person, whereas with a legislator, they don't. In other words, you can be a big jerk and be a senator, but you're still my guy."