Place Your Bets: At Long Last, Texas Democrats Have Good Reason To Stay Up Election Day

Democrats cheer on candidates Beto O'Rourke and Colin Allred at a voter event in October.
Democrats cheer on candidates Beto O'Rourke and Colin Allred at a voter event in October. Brian Maschino
It’s remarkable we’re here. For decades, Texas political junkies looking for action on the eve of a general election either had to look really small, to one of the few competitive Texas legislative races that might crop up now and then, or outside the state to one of the national contests.

By the end of October in those years, all the best hopes against Texas Republican hegemony, like Wendy Davis in 2014 and, well, Wendy Davis in 2014 have been dead in the water, their campaigns already eulogized. Who can remember the name of the Democrat who ran for governor in 2006, besides Chris Bell?

That’s not the case in 2018.

This year, thanks to an almost perfect storm of charismatic challengers, incumbent hubris and the omnipresence of President Donald Trump, Texas is, for the first time in three decades, competitive.

From the top-of-the-ticket showdown between El Paso U.S. House Rep. Beto O’Rourke and incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, to the crucial but under-the-radar attorney general’s race between Collin County’s Ken Paxton and Houston civil attorney Justin Nelson, to the numerous races down the ballot that could loosen Republicans’ iron grip on the Legislature in Austin, 20 or so undecided races throughout the state are worth paying attention to on the night of Nov. 6.

It’s good for the state, even if it’s going to be bad for your blood pressure next week.

For O'Rourke to beat Cruz, one thing is essential. The polls in the race, which have shown Cruz with a small but persistent lead, have to be wrong. Statewide, Democrats down the ballot need the polls to have been wrong, too, but they also need the people who show up to vote for O'Rourke to vote a straight ticket. If the O'Rourke campaign flops or fails to have significant coattails, statewide Democrats are in a lot of trouble.

So far at least, the early voting numbers from across the state show that the electorate in 2018 will be far larger than it was in 2014.

In Texas' 15 largest counties in 2014, just more than 837,000 Texans had cast ballots by the end of the sixth day of early voting. In the same counties this year, 2.36 million people voted over the same period. That's about 100,000 votes short of the six-day early voting turnout in 2016, when more than 55 percent of Texans voted in the presidential election between Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump.

Barring a significant drop in voting this week or on Election Day, Texas is set to break its streak of abysmal voter turnout. The state hasn't seen more than 38 percent turnout in a midterm since 1994, when George W. Bush knocked off incumbent Gov. Ann Richards. That year, about 51 percent of Texas' registered voters cast ballots.

"Now, instead of having the Obama-fueled tailwinds, you have the Trump-fueled headwinds." – Mark Jones

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Locally, especially in the state's urban areas, additional forces are at play. Dallas U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions and his Houston doppelganger, Houston U.S. Rep. John Culberson, are both Republicans facing stiff challenges in districts won by Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election. Texas' competitive state House and Senate districts are largely confined to Dallas County in 2018, but that's something that's baked into the state's legislative map, according to Rice University political science professor Mark Jones.

"Most of these legislative districts, with the exception of the Dallas-area districts, they were designed to provide a buffer precisely for these types of scenarios," Jones says. "Even in the nightmare scenario, Republicans will still have 85 seats [out of 150 in the Texas House]. In the Senate, even in a nightmare scenario, they'll still have 19 seats [a super-majority]."

Dallas Republicans are more vulnerable than their statewide counterparts because they cut their margins too thin in order to keep an extra Republican legislative seat during the last round of redistricting in 2011, Jones says.

"They spread everyone out way too thin, and that's why all of the Dallas Republicans are vulnerable because, in order to get that extra seat, they had to make everyone very thin," Jones says. "That worked fine when Barack Obama was in the White House — you had this anti-Obama wave every election. Now, instead of having the Obama-fueled tailwinds, you have the Trump-fueled headwinds."

For Republicans in 2018, the game remains the same as it was in 2014, 2010 or 2006. Their goal, as exemplified by Cruz, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's rally with President Trump in October, is to turn out what's been the GOP's base over the last couple of decades, the more rural, whiter, older part of the state.

"If nothing else, our party is a little shortsighted. We look to the next election day instead of four election days ahead," Dallas-based GOP strategist Vinny Minchillo says. "That being said, I think Republicans for 2018 are really concerned about turnout and enthusiasm. ... The message that you'll hear, and that you hear Trump putting out now is, 'Don't vote for any Democrats.' Everybody's trying to get that straight-ticket vote in the bank."

The state's demographics are changing — the state is expected to be majority Latino by 2022 — but Republicans are betting that they aren't changing quickly enough to affect this year's election.

At some point, though, Texas Republicans and Democrats are going to have to reckon with a state that's a lot browner and a lot younger than the one to which they've been preaching over the last century. Cristina Tzintzun, the executive director of Jolt Texas, a group that seeks to grow Latino political power in Texas, says neither party is doing an adequate job of appealing to what will eventually be Texas' biggest voting bloc.

"While we have Democrats running for the first time in every single race in Texas and most Latinos vote for Democrats, you have seen, generally, from many campaigns a lack of understanding about who the Latino population is and our core issues, as well as a real lack of engagement in Latino voter outreach and engagement," Tzintzun says.

According to many activists in the Latino community, O'Rourke has done a better job of making his campaign personal to Latino voters this year, but there is still work to be done to reverse years of disproportionately low turnout by Texas' Latino community.

The party that solves that riddle, if one ever does, will have a path to dominance in the state.

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Beto encourages voters in Dallas.
Brian Maschino
Ted vs. Beto: The Big Show

If there’s a main event on Texas’ 2018 election card, it is, without a doubt, Cruz and O’Rourke’s fight to serve alongside Texas Republican John Cornyn in the U.S. Senate.

When he joined the race in late March 2017, O’Rourke was largely unknown across the state, despite having served in the U.S. House since 2012. Unless they'd seen the representative talking about immigration or border security on cable news, voters in Dallas, Houston or San Antonio likely didn't know the El Paso congressman.

O’Rourke did his best to make up for lost time, barnstorming the state throughout 2017 and 2018, eventually visiting all of Texas’ 254 counties. He held town halls in brewery backyards in Garland, ballrooms in Odessa and Italian restaurants in Atlanta (population 5,600, south of Texarkana). Suddenly, O’Rourke was everywhere, explicitly rejecting Trumpism on behalf of Texans and promising the sort of broad-based, inspirational politics that appeared prominently in President Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008.

“Yes, it is about stopping that wall and that Muslim ban,” O’Rourke said during a stop at Oak Cliff’s Texas Theatre in March, "but it’s also about replacing it with our best ideas, our ambition and our aspiration. The boldness, the confidence and the strength. The courage that should distinguish us in Texas, especially at this time of smallness and paranoia and bigotry and hatred in this country.”

Despite a slip-up in March’s Democratic primary — O’Rourke received only about 60 percent of the vote despite being the only major candidate on the ballot — the congressman continued to pile up campaign cash and national attention throughout the spring and summer. O’Rourke got hagiographic profiles from magazines like Rolling Stone, Mother Jones and Esquire, among many, many others and regularly appeared on national TV, taking turns on The Ellen Show and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as general election season heated up.

Despite being one of the bright, young things in Democratic politics — try to read one of those profiles without seeing a Kennedy comparison or an aside about how he used to play in a punk band with At the Drive In’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala — O’Rourke never managed to catch Cruz in the polls, consistently showing up somewhere between 4 and 9 points behind, depending on the pollster. That leads us to the biggest question that’s going to get answered Tuesday night: How good were the pollsters?

If the pollsters were right about who ended up voting in the election, Cruz, despite O’Rourke’s having run a smart, tenacious campaign, will hang on. Cruz's strong appeals to his conservative voters — painting O’Rourke as a socialist, pro-abortion zealot who hates cops and loves kneeling for the national anthem and flag burning — will have done enough to make sure that his blood-red base showed up to vote.

If they’re wrong, and Texas’ outsized early voting numbers really indicate the awakening of the state’s sleeping demographic giant, O’Rourke could be on his way back to Washington at Cruz’s expense.

“The one way O’Rourke can win is if there’s a dramatic enthusiasm gap and Republicans stay home in record numbers while Democrats turn out to the polls in record numbers,” Jones says.

In order for a landscape-altering Democratic turnout to happen, the party, along with its key constituencies, has to overcome years of history, as Jones explained in a late August op-ed for the Observer.

“The median Republican margin of victory in statewide judicial elections in 2014 and 2016 was 23 and 15 percent,” Jones wrote. “Since this is almost purely a partisan vote (few voters know much at all about the judicial candidates), it suggests Cruz begins the race with a natural advantage of somewhere between 10 and 18 points, taking into account the Texas GOP’s Obama tailwind has been replaced by a Trump headwind.”

The polls that have shown O’Rourke the closest to Cruz, according to Jones, have oversampled Democratic voters, again, unless the Texas electorate has changed drastically between 2014 and 2018.

Ed Espinoza, the executive director of Progress Texas, believes it has.

“Too many reporters are more worried about how they look than what might be out there. What reporters and pollsters like to do is, they like to base their projections on previous midterm outcomes.” – Ed Espinoza

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“People fall into their old habits. ‘Oh, Texas is red and I don’t want to look dumb on election night and say that it might not be red, so I’m going to be skeptical,’” Espinoza says, mocking the reporters, pundits and experts who are shorting O’Rourke and other Texas Democrats' chances Tuesday. “Too many reporters are more worried about how they look than what might be out there. What reporters and pollsters like to do is, they like to base their projections on previous midterm outcomes.”

That won’t work when looking at the 2018 election, Espinoza says, because the 2014 midterm in Texas isn’t a useful comparison.

“2014 was the lowest turnout midterm in a decade, and 2016 was the highest turnout election in a lifetime. You already had this major swing,” Espinoza says. “Granted, they were two different elections — one was a midterm and one was a presidential — but that’s important to note. 2014 was a quiet year. You didn’t have an expanded electorate, you didn’t have the era of Trump. If you have that come up in 2016, that is obviously going to affect what happens in 2018.”

Texas added more than 1.8 million registered voters between November 2014 and the Oct. 9 registration deadline for the 2018 election, too, after having added just 1.2 million over the dozen years between 2002 and 2014. More than 40 percent of those new voters registered in Texas' five most populous counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis — which makes Espinoza incredulous that those voters aren’t going to cast ballots.

“Do you really think that this mass of new registrants A: are not going to show up and B: are not going to vote Democratic? The overwhelming numbers of these registrants are coming from cities, and cities are blue,” Espinoza says. “I look at those things and I say, ‘OK, you can look at past behavior, but past behavior does not factor in the dramatic swing in voter activity from ‘14 to ‘16, it doesn’t factor in new registrations and it doesn’t factor in Beto O’Rourke raising $38 million in the third quarter [of 2018].’”

O’Rourke’s fundraising prowess — that $38 million was the most ever raised by a senate candidate in a three-month span — has many pundits, including some Republicans, believing he could produce the type of outlier turnout he needs to be genuinely competitive with Cruz.

“I think we’re in for a big surprise here at the end,” Dallas-based GOP strategist Vinny Minchillo says. “I don’t know if it will change things, but I think we are definitely going to see something new. ... I think with the O’Rourke people having so much money — I think what their plan has been all along is to make the pie bigger. In other words, if you can make more Democrats turn out than normally turn out, then you can flip the math on its head and possibly win. Normally, that’s very difficult, but the O’Rourke campaign has got all the resources they could ever need to mount a turnout operation like we’ve never seen.”

Throughout his campaign, O'Rourke has called for compromise on behalf of Texas' greater good, but he's also spoken freely about progressive ideas rarely promoted by Texas politicians. He supports single-payer healthcare, impeaching the president and expansive rights for women and the LGBTQ community, in addition to the legalization of marijuana.

O'Rourke's candor on those issues, as well as his willingness to support former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel in protest during the national anthem and comprehensive criminal justice reform, partly explain O'Rourke's rock-star status in the state's deep-blue urban areas from the national press, who often seemed startled by the contrast between O'Rourke and their notions of Texas.

Cruz has responded by saying that O'Rourke simply doesn't represent Texas. During the first debate between the two, he called O'Rourke a socialist — after being asked to say something nice about his opponent. Cruz also drew on O'Rourke's comments about the need for racial equity in the criminal justice system to insist that O'Rourke doesn't support law enforcement. During Cruz and O'Rourke's second debate, the senator repeatedly went after his opponent for his support of abortion rights and challenged O'Rourke on how much single-payer healthcare would cost taxpayers. Cruz's positions on healthcare are less clear, beyond his desire to end Obamacare, a cause the led him to help shut down the government in 2013. He says he believes Americans with pre-existing health conditions should be guaranteed coverage but has failed to articulate how to do that.

One of the defining issues between the candidates is immigration. O'Rourke believes that each of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the United States should be given a path to obtaining U.S. citizenship. Cruz is an immigration hard-liner, going so far as to support ending President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which allows certain immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to remain and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

Cruz's decision to align himself with President Trump on immigration is driving Latino voters — one of the constituencies O'Rourke must turn out if he hopes to win — to the polls, according to Carlos Duarte, the Texas director of Mi Familia Vota, a group that supports civic engagement among Latinos.

"With the Latino community, it's always very interesting because there's a segment that's been loyal to the Republican Party specifically because of the abortion issue," Duarte says. "People would say, 'I'm conflicted because, on the one side, I want to vote for Democrats because of their positions on immigration, but on the other, I want to vote for my soul and therefore vote Republican because of the abortion issue.' This year, what I am seeing is that people are fed up, particularly with President Trump, and I have had several conversations where people are saying, 'I used to be a Republican, I've been a Republican all of my life, my family has been Republican, but we cannot take this anymore and now me and my family are going to vote Democrat.'"

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Colin Allred meets with supporters at a get-out-the-vote event in October.
Brian Maschino
The Side Shows: Allred vs. Sessions

The most likely incumbent in Dallas’ congressional delegation to lose is Pete Sessions, the longtime Republican representative of Congressional District 32, which covers a swath of northern Dallas County, including portions of North Dallas, Garland and Highland Park.

Sessions is a generic fiscal conservative who runs the powerful House Rules Committee. He once got in a little trouble for holding a fundraiser at a Las Vegas burlesque club and hasn’t faced a serious electoral challenge since 2004, when he was drawn into the same district as longtime Dallas Democratic Rep. Martin Frost.

The results of the 2016 election showed that Sessions, who didn't face a Democratic challenger two years ago, was vulnerable — Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 1.9 points in the district — and the representative drew three strong challengers in the Democratic primary.

Colin Allred, a civil rights attorney, former Obama appointee to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and ex-NFL linebacker, won the primary, knocking off Ed Meier and Lillian Salerno. Since his nomination, the Hillcrest High School graduate has touted his strong ties to the district and hammered Sessions over his support for getting rid of the Affordable Care Act.

"A Republican needs all of the center and center-right leaning Anglo women to vote Republican because, if they don't, then that's where you lose the race." – Jones

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Trump is also a problem for Sessions, Jones says, because of the large percentage of white, college-educated women who are registered to vote in Sessions' district. According to a New York Times poll of the district, women favor Allred over Sessions by 20 points, 58-38, and during the first two years of his presidency, Trump has seen his support among white women with college degrees plummet. Forty-four percent of the group voted for him in 2016, but a recent Los Angeles Times poll showed 67 percent of white, college-educated women intended to vote for Democrats in 2018.

"They're a major voting bloc in [Sessions’ district] for Republicans," Jones says. "[It’s] diverse enough that a Republican needs all of the center- and center-right-leaning Anglo women to vote Republican because, if they don't, then that's where you lose the race."

Lenna Webb, the president of North Dallas Texas Democratic Women, says Trump has galvanized women to show up and vote for Democrats.

"[President Trump's] misogynistic attitudes towards women and the way that his history shows that he's treated them — the way he talks about them even now, calling people names — plus the fact that a lot of issues we care about are under attack and are real problems going into this next cycle after the election, means that we're very concerned about making sure we change the makeup of the House and possibly the Senate."

Valdez vs. Abbott

The single least interesting race on Texas’ statewide ballot is Gov. Greg Abbott’s re-election campaign against former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez. Valdez started off slowly, getting out-fundraised by businessman Andrew White in the Democratic primary, and has not picked up steam during the general election.

Valdez struggled to make a case for herself in the face of Abbott’s $40 million-plus campaign war chest and is sitting about 20 points back in the polls, a 250-1 long shot, according to the statistics gurus at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver's statistics website.

The sheriff never moved beyond platitudes to specific policy proposals, frequently touting that her campaign was one "of the people" despite the fact that none of the people saw fit to donate to her campaign or show up at her events.

Despite her status as a pioneer — Valdez was the United States' first lesbian, Latina sheriff — Valdez has failed to stir the Latino community in the same way as O'Rourke, Duarte says.

"People refer to Beto in a very familiar way. They identify with him like he was just at their table. That's what we're seeing in the field," Duarte says. "[The Senate race] has this undercurrent of the Latino community trying to defend itself. I have not seen the same with regards to the gubernatorial contest, which you would assume with Lupe Valdez running for governor. That is not a race that's on people's radar. That's just reality."

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U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz meets with supporters at a Trump fundraiser in March 2017.
Mike Brooks
Nelson vs. Paxton

There’s an iconic 1988 Saturday Night Live sketch in which Jon Lovitz, playing then Massachusetts governor and presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis, deadpans, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy,” after a particularly loopy debate answer from Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush.

The sketch sums up, in many ways, Justin Nelson’s campaign against Ken Paxton for Texas attorney general.

Paxton supports positions like getting rid of the DACA program when 60 percent of the state supports protecting DACA recipients from deportation, according to a Texas Tribune poll last fall. He supports repealing the Affordable Care Act, so much so that he filed a lawsuit that asks a federal judge to strip the law’s protections for those with pre-existing conditions from Texas residents even if the law remains in effect in other states.

He’s also positioned himself on the front lines of culture-war issues such as the fight against same-sex marriage and legal abortion, despite the fact that his views on those issues are out of step with the majority of Texans, according to polls. Fifty-five percent of Texans support same-sex marriage, according to a May survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. Sixty-two percent of Texans agree with the Supreme Court's decision to legalize abortion in Roe vs. Wade, according to a poll taken this summer by Quinnipiac University.

Paxton is also under felony indictment for securities violations.

Nelson has used his relatively limited campaign resources to do everything he can to make Paxton’s missteps known around the state. He’s toured with a rolling billboard featuring Paxton’s mugshot, repeatedly blasted his opponent for being unwilling to participate in a debate and rallied outside a federal court hearing about the Obamacare lawsuit.

Nelson has done his best to be something another than just the Democrat running against Paxton, and there are signs that his strategy may be working. Over the last week, Paxton has begun running negative ads against his opponent for the first time, accusing Nelson — who has said throughout the campaign that the public shouldn't be able to tell which party the attorney general belongs to — of being "too liberal for Texas," the same criticism Cruz has repeatedly lobbed at O'Rourke.

"I think with the minimal resources [Nelson has], he's been quite effective, but there's just too much going on," Jones says. "Between the [Brett] Kavanaugh [Supreme Court] confirmation process, the Cruz-Beto race and all of these competitive congressional races in the major media markets of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin — you throw all that together and there's just not enough bandwidth, especially for a position not many Texans even know exists."

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Dallas voters cheer on Democratic candidates.
Brian Maschino
The Legislature

Some of the most important results for North Texas on Tuesday night will occur down the ballot where a handful of Republicans are seeking to hold onto their seats as Dallas County turns a deeper shade of blue and its surrounding suburbs threaten to turn purple.

Don Huffines is perhaps the most vulnerable member of the Texas Senate, in Dallas County’s District 16, while Democrats like John Turner and Joanna Cattanach pose serious threats to their Republican opponents, Lisa Luby Ryan and Morgan Meyer, in two of the county’s most competitive state House races.

Minchillo says Huffines' fate is tied to the U.S. Senate race.

“It all hinges on Beto O’Rourke’s campaign. If you believe Beto O’Rourke peaked too soon, then he takes [Huffines’ opponent] Nathan Johnson down with him,” Minchillo says. “Johnson didn’t get the money he thought he was going to get, and Huffines is outspending him considerably, but if you get those straight-ticket voters and the Democrats in East Dallas can get those college-educated women 25-54 angry enough and turn them out, Johnson could win.”

A loss by Huffines wouldn’t shift the balance of power in the Texas Senate, but it would make things a little more difficult for Patrick during the 2019 legislative session, should Patrick win re-election as lieutenant governor, as expected, over his Democratic opponent, Mike Collier.

Patrick needs 19 votes to push any item to the Senate floor, thanks to the 31-member chamber’s three-fifths rule. Today, there are 21 Republicans and 10 Democrats in the Texas Senate. The closer Patrick gets to that super-majority line, the more he’s vulnerable to a rogue senator or senators holding a bill hostage, something that’s always a risk, given Patrick’s combative style.

In Ryan’s case, Dallas Republicans may have created an unnecessary problem for themselves when they voted for the anti-vaccine crusader over incumbent Jason Villalba in March’s Republican primary.

Turner has run to the center against Ryan, claiming that her Trumpist views don’t represent a district that voted for Clinton by 9 points. Villalba — chased out of office in large part because he authored a bill that would’ve strengthened vaccine requirements for kids attending Texas public schools — hasn’t endorsed Ryan.

Unlike Ryan, Meyer is a moderate Republican, but Rice's Jones identifies him among a list of GOP candidates who are vulnerable to a Democratic wave. A best-case scenario for Democrats, one in which they gain 10 state House seats, giving them a total of 65, he says, could actually lead to greater influence from the most conservative members of the Texas House during the next session.

“If Democrats sweep the table, they’ll be knocking out a lot of moderates,” Jones says. “For Democrats to realistically get up to 65 [members of the House], that means Linda Koop and Cynthia Flores and Paul Workman and Morgan Meyer and Ken Strange and Angie Chen Button are losing. Those are all votes for a more centrist [speaker of the House] candidate. While the number of Republicans would drop, so too would the number of centrist Republicans. In the Republican caucus, you could actually have a more Republican caucus than if every Republican achieved re-election."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young

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