Texas has long been viewed as an impenetrable Republican stronghold. But this is a wildcard year, where factors such as a global pandemic, social uprisings and a divisive reality star president have kept everyone on their toes.
Republicans still have the advantage, but if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Now, Democrats could actually have a shot at turning the Texas House blue.
No, really. Don't stop us even if you've heard this a few dozen times before.
“That’s about 50/50,” said Thomas Marshall, political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “I think there are certainly some chips on the table. The question is: Can either party win the table?”
Since this election cycle began, the Texas Democratic Party has insisted that this will be the year that a blue wave would flood the Lone Star State. It’s easy to laugh off their optimism as naivete, but some political science experts are taking those claims seriously.
All 150 spots in the state House are up for election Nov. 3. To be in the majority, Democrats would need to gain nine seats, bringing their total from 67 to 76.
Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said he’d give the Democrats a 1 in 3 – or 2 in 5 – chance of flipping the state's lower chamber; Republicans will retain a Senate majority. Democrats made solid inroads in 2018 by flipping 12 state House seats, Jones said, most of which were in North Texas.
Compared with previous years, Democrats do have a “credible map to victory” this time around, Jones said. Most incumbents will likely retain their seats, he said, though two who should be worried are state Rep. Gina Calanni, a Houston Democrat, and state Rep. John Turner, a Dallas Democrat.
Around 20 spots are highly competitive, Jones added. Many are located in the Dallas area, including that held by state Rep. Morgan Meyer (R).
Other political experts are less optimistic about the Democrats’ chances.
“I would say it’s unlikely that we’re going to see the state Legislature turn Democratic,” said professor Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, chair of the political science department at the University of North Texas. “It is a presidential election year with, at least in Texas, a fairly popular Republican president running.”
With President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, Republican state representatives will likely prevail, Eshbaugh-Soha said. Yet if the president is unable to host rallies because he’s too sick, then that could help liberals’ chances, he said.
Democrats did extremely well in 2018 because former Congressman Beto O’Rourke was running for the U.S. Senate, Eshbaugh-Soha said. His energetic, rock star-level charisma motivated liberals to vote in droves in the midterms, he said.
This time around, though, MJ Hegar is running for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s seat. Although a good politician, she’s not as much of a transformative candidate as O’Rourke, Eshbaugh-Soha said.
Candidates further down the ballot, such as those running for the state Legislature, benefit when there’s excitement around people at the top of the ticket, Eshbaugh-Soha said. The Democrats’ presidential nominee isn’t helping much, he said.
“Joe Biden is not the most inspirational candidate,” Eshbaugh-Soha said with a laugh. “I just don’t see this as a change election, so I don’t see a lot of movement.”
Biden recently announced he’d be spending $6 million in campaign advertisements in Texas, according to The Texas Tribune. Some state House candidates have already spent around $1 million, which will help them to raise their name recognition via digital and televised ads, Jones said.
So far, Democrats are “holding their own against Republicans” in terms of spending, Jones said.
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Other structural factors are weighing against the Democrats this time around, Marshall said. Liberals tend to take the coronavirus pandemic more seriously, so block-walking is less of an option. Also, voter registration this year likely suffered for the same reason, he said.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s move to limit the number of drop-off boxes for mail-in ballots could harm the Democrats, Marshall said. Plus, straight-ticket voting is no longer an option, which will serve to prolong Election Day lines, he said.
Republicans are more likely to vote in person than Democrats, so the waiting period may not bother them as much, Marshall added.
“I think it’s a maybe, a distinct maybe,” Marshall said of a Democratic majority in the House. “It’s more likely than it was two months ago, but we’ve got three weeks to go.”