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Could Texas Be a 2020 House Battleground?

Some House races in the Lone Star State were closer than expected

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, lost a Senate bid but came close to defeating GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. ((Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, lost a Senate bid but came close to defeating GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. ((Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Texas Democrats had their best election in over a decade last week when they flipped at least two Republican-held House seats. But closer margins in other races have boosted party hopes of future gains in the once deep-red Lone Star State.

“What it shows us moving forward is that we have congressional battlegrounds in Texas,” said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “As we move into the election cycle in 2020, it’s very clear now that Texas is in play.”

One GOP strategist working onHouse races said the Democrats’ performance could be pinned on the enthusiasm built by their Senate nominee, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost to GOP incumbent Ted Cruz by just 3 points.

But others said the results cannot be simply attributed to O’Rourke’s coattails, pointing to the GOP’s bleeding of support in the suburbs nationwide. 

“The national results certainly seem to imply that there is a potential shift in the suburban areas that is new,” said James Dickey, the chairman of the Texas GOP. “And that is broader than Texas alone, which certainly means it’s broader than any one candidate.”

Flashback: Beto O’Rourke on Why He’s Running — ‘This Is Something We Absolutely Have to Do’

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Close races

While O’Rourke’s spirited campaign stole the national headlines, there was plenty of activity at the House level in Texas. 

In the 2016 cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee named just one Texas challenger to its Red to Blue program for strong recruits. By the end of the 2018 cycle, eight Texas Democrats were on the list.

Two of them unseated longtime GOP incumbents. In the 32nd District in suburban Dallas, Colin Allred defeated Republican Rep. Pete Sessions, who didn’t even face a Democratic challenger two years ago. In the Houston-area 7th District, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher knocked off GOP Rep. John Culberson, who’d won all his previous races by double digits.

The Associated Press initially called the race for the 23rd District, which stretches across southwest Texas along the Mexican border, for two-term GOP Rep. Will Hurd, but later retracted. Hurd currently clings to a 1,150-vote lead over Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones. 

Those three districts were top Democratic targets this cycle since all backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. But last week, eight other GOP-held House seats — all drawn to favor Republicans — were decided by single-digit margins.

One of the most striking results was in the 10th District, which extends from Austin to Houston, where GOP Rep. Michael McCaul defeated Democratic lawyer Mike Siegel by just 4 points. And in the 24th District, which includes the growing area around the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, seven-term Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant squeaked by accountant Jan McDowell by just 3 points. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales had rated both races Solid Republican, though there might have been hints of their potential competitiveness in the 2016 presidential results. President Donald  Trump carried McCaul’s seat by 9 points and Marchant’s by 6 points.

A fluke or a shift?

But do the close House races portend an expanded 2020 House map in Texas, or could they be written off as a lightning-in-a-bottle moment, boosted by the energy around O’Rourke’s campaign?

Dickey, the Texas GOP chairman, pointed to the state’s straight-ticket voting option — which allows voters to support all of the candidates of one party — as one factor that could have helped candidates’ further down the ballot this year. Straight-ticket voting will not be in place in 2020.

Republicans are nevertheless gearing up for a battle. Dickey said the party is looking at targeting traditionally Democratic districts in 2020, but it was too early to discuss specific seats. He said Republicans also have to re-engage in areas where their support dropped.

“My message to the team, the staff and the board and our donors is that this makes it very obvious and very critical that we dramatically improve our efforts of getting our message out, particularly in the urban and suburban areas,” Dickey said.

Both the state and national Democratic parties are still dissecting the results — which also include gains at the legislative level with Democrats picking up at least 12 seats in the state House and two in the state Senate. O’Rourke’s margins in the close House races will help party operatives determine whether the results were driven by new voters or traditionally Republican suburbanites shifting to the Democratic Party.

They did the same thing following the 2016 elections. After Clinton carried the 7th and 32nd districts, the DCCC added both to their target lists, even though they hadn’t previously been considered competitive.

“There is no question that Washington Republicans’ out of control recklessness, amplified daily by President Trump, has brought more and more districts onto the battlefield,” DCCC spokesman Cole Leiter said. 

Democrats said this year’s high election turnout showed they had built an infrastructure to make sure voters went to the polls, even in an midterm year. Roughly 53 percent of Texas voters turned out last week, according to an analysis by the Texas Tribune. That figure is closer to presidential-year levels, and exceeded past midterm elections. 

Garcia of the Texas Democratic Party sees that enthusiasm as sustainable, given the newly built apparatuses around these campaigns and the candidates’ fundraising abilities. The party was already in conversation last week with prospective candidates at all levels, including for Congress. 

And Texas Democrats see a growing role for their state in the broader battle for Congress and the White House. Garcia contrasted the current cycle with 2016, when Texas volunteers and donors were spending their time and sending their money to other states that the national party deemed more competitive.

“It is very clear that if Texas keeps its donor dollars here and its activism and its volunteer hours here, we will win this state,” he said.

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