First off, I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. I went home to Pittsburgh, PA last week to be with the family. Afterwards, I flew to El Paso to go on a road trip to Marfa, Texas and then onto Roswell, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Yes, I visited the UFO Museum, went on the Breaking Bad tour and visit this amazing art installation called Meow Woof in Santa Fe. I will be getting back to the grind on my 2019 and 2020 Election Diaries along with an end of the year analysis. But first off, since I was just in Texas, I wanted to highlight this:
Texas has for decades been considered a Republican stronghold — but according to John Cornyn, longtime GOP senator from the Lone Star state, that can no longer be taken for granted.
Speaking to radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt on Monday, Cornyn, who has served as Senate majority whip since 2015, said his home state is not “a reliably red state” anymore ― but is instead an increasingly “purple” one.
Cornyn, who was first elected to the Senate in 2002, was discussing the hotly contested midterm Senate race between Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Cruz managed to eke out a win by about 3 percentage points but his narrow victory cast a spotlight on a changing Texas, Cornyn said.
“Texas is no longer, I believe, a reliably red state,” the senator told Hewitt. “We are on the precipice of turning purple, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to keep it red, because we lost, we got blown out in the urban areas” in the Cruz-O’Rourke race.
“We got beat in the suburbs, which used to be our traditional strongholds,” he said. “And if it wasn’t for the rural areas of the state, where Senator Cruz won handily, it might not have turned out the way it did.”
I have to agree with Cornyn because despite Cruz only clinching out a 2.6 point lead over Beto, there’s plenty of evidence to back up Cornyn’s claim:
This might surprise you, so let’s run down the list. Start with the marquee race: In 2012, Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz both won Texas by about 16 percentage points. In 2014, Greg Abbott defeated Wendy Davis by about 20 points. In 2016, Donald Trump won by about 9 points. Ted Cruz’s winning margin this year sits at about 2.7. That’s atrocious, and if you’re Cruz, whose entire political career has been spent owning the libs, it’s a number to be embarrassed by. It’s the closest winning margin for a top-of-the-ticket candidate — for president, governor, or U.S. Senate — since 1990, when Ann Richards squeaked by Clayton Williams.
O’Rourke had a lot of assets. He became a media phenom and raised an ungodly amount of money. But it’s important to note that he had many disadvantages. The Democratic infrastructure in Texas is atrophied and dysfunctional, and has been a drag on every statewide candidate in the last 20 years. O’Rourke came within a polling error of a victory without strong ticketmates or strong institutional support. With some more help, he might well have won.
That collective room for improvement for Democrats is what makes the rest of the results so striking. The best-performing statewide GOP candidate was Governor Greg Abbott, who beat Lupe Valdez by more than 14 points. (A meaningful improvement on Wendy Davis’ 20-point loss, but still bad.) Comptroller Glenn Hegar and Land Commissioner George P. Bush did worse, but essentially fine. But Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller both won by less than 5 points, and indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton won with a miserable margin of 3.6.
Something happened this year that has not happened before — Republican-leaning voters studied specific down-ballot races and broke ranks. That’s a terrible omen for Republicans, who spent the month before the election begging voters to vote straight-ticket R. Once voters get in the habit of splitting their ballot, they’re more likely to do so in the future. It’s an added incentive for strong Democratic candidates to run for statewide office. And, perhaps stupidly, Republicans in the Legislature eliminated straight-ticket voting starting with the 2020 election.
Go down the ballot and the news for Republicans keeps getting worse. Democrats picked up two congressional districts they were gunning for, the 7th in Houston and the 32nd in Dallas. (A third, the 23rd, looks like it might be heading to a recount.) Democrats will need to defend them in 2020 but it ought to be easier to retain them in a presidential year, which means the target list can be expanded.
There are five more congressional districts that Republicans won this year by less than 5 points. Extremely wealthy Michael McCaul, whose district is anchored in Austin, won by just 4 points. Chip Roy, Cruz’s former chief of staff, won his Austin-to-San Antonio district by less than 3 points. DFW-based Kenny Marchant won his race by about 3 points; Houston’s Pete Olson won by 5; and John Carter, north of Austin, won by about 3 points. All of these are great targets next cycle, and they’re likely to attract strong candidates and national backing. Expect more Republican retirements opening up winnable seats, too.
The same dynamic plays out in the state Senate and state House — solid wins, and the target list expands. It was once a kind of conventional wisdom that the only real swing district in the Texas Senate was the 10th district in Fort Worth, which Wendy Davis represented before running for governor, and the joke was that it wasn’t that swingy. Last night, Democrats knocked out the libertarian tea partier who won Davis’ seat by a comfortable margin, and then blew incumbent Don Huffines out of the water in a nearby district by 10 points. There are two more good targets for Democrats next cycle. Joan Huffman won re-election in Houston by just 2.4 points and Angela Paxton, Ken’s spouse, won her district by under 5.
In the House, Democrats significantly outperformed expectations, winning 12 seats for a total of 67 in the 150-member body. Democrats knocked out some pretty bad actors, from payday lender Gary Elkins to Matt Rinaldi, who called ICE on immigration protesters in the House last year and then threatened to shoot a fellow legislator. There are another eight seats that Republicans won by less than 5 points, some achingly close.
Dwayne Bohac won by 0.3 points, Morgan Meyer won by just 0.2 points, and Matt Shaheen won by just 0.6 points. Tea party wunderkind Jonathan Stickland won by 2.4, and tea party granddad Bill Zedler won by 3.7. If Democrats win every seat they won this year and every district that they lost by less than five points — a heavy ask, of course — they’d end up with a 75-75 tie in the House.
But all of the above doesn’t even sum it up. There are significant victories elsewhere on the ballot — significantly, the Democrats elected their own as Harris County clerk, meaning they’ll run elections in the nation’s third-most populous county — but they also brutalized the Republican Party in Houston and Dallas, sweeping political offices and the courts. They even knocked off Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the most important Republican in Texas outside state government, who had tried hard to run away from the tea party.
And there’s the way the map looks, too. It’s not new for Democrats to win the state’s big cities, but the blue dots are expanding. O’Rourke won Fort Worth’s Tarrant County, the party’s last urban hold-out. Democrats consolidated their control of Fort Bend County, Houston’s great suburban orbiter, formerly beet-red, which broke for Clinton last year. DFW’s Collin and Denton counties and their exurbs gave a pathetic return for Cruz, a very worrying omen for the GOP. And the party smashed open the greater Austin metroplex, carefully “cracked” by gerrymandering, where they picked up three state House seats that were intended to remain the permanent possession of the Republican Party.
Cornyn isn’t as stupid as Cruz. He’s seeing the writing on the wall early and he’s preparing for the likelihood that Beto chooses to run for the U.S. Senate again in 2020 instead of the Democratic nomination for President. Beto is still the big winner from 2018 because he has a lot of options to choose from, He could go after Cornyn’s seat. It’s pretty common for a candidate to lose the race for one U.S. Senate and to win the other Senate seat (Ben Nelson and Chuck Hagel in Nebraska and John Ensign and Harry Reid in Nevada). Beto could also run for the Democratic nominee for President and worst case scenario, become the top choice for Vice President in case he doesn’t win the primary. Personally, I think Beto should become the new chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. he has plenty of money and charisma to push Texas even more purple. Of course, there are plenty of other Texas Democrats like one of the Castro brothers or Texas AG Commissioner nominee and retired Air Force Colonel Kim Olson, that could make the move to take on Cornyn. Who knows what will happen but if Cornyn is confirming that the Lone Star state is slipping from the GOP, it certainly means we have to keep making it competitive. Stay tuned.