Politics

Democrats Must Take a Shot at Texas

They won't take back the state. But they can turn part of it.

They don't look like liberals.

Photographer: Scott J. Ferrell/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

When Democrats are desperate, they dream of Texas.

Most current election models show Democrats coming up short of the two dozen seats they need to gain control of the House of Representatives in 2018. If Democrats don't have control of the House, a Republican Congress almost certainly won't act against President Donald Trump -- barring the most spectacular, incontrovertible and damning evidence from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.  

In other words, the cavalry -- democratic as well as Democratic -- might not be coming. Writing last month at FiveThirtyEight, election analyst David Wasserman laid out the difficult odds for Democrats:

Even if Democrats were to win every single 2018 House and Senate race for seats representing places that Hillary Clinton won or that Trump won by less than 3 percentage points -- a pretty good midterm by historical standards -- they could still fall short of the House majority and lose five Senate seats.

Other analysts, including the Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball, show Democrats may well be boxed in as the minority for at least another election cycle.

Such projections can change, of course. Three Republican House members have resigned in the past week, making their districts potentially more favorable to Democrats. More Republican resignations are likely as legislators grow weary of a dysfunction made more embarrassing by unified GOP control of the government, and by the prospect that Trump will continue to wreak damage on the party as well as the nation.

For Democrats, however, Mueller, Trump and GOP retirements are mostly spectator sports, dependent on the universe doing bad things to Republicans. For Democrats to seize operational control of a national political majority that has voted Democratic in every presidential election but one since 1992, and to overcome the structural advantages and aggressive gerrymandering of the GOP, they may have to do more than wait for Trump to implode or Mueller to indict. They may have to consider the Texas-sized obstacle in their way.

Texas is a large and utterly elusive grail. A 2016 simulation incorporating demographic and political trends in the state concluded that Texas would not fall into the Democratic column anytime in the next four presidential elections. "The juggernaut there is whites keep voting Republican," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who co-wrote the study.

A key question is whether Trump's white nationalism and colorblind incompetence might speed the state's transition to a reddish purple, putting new congressional districts in play. According to a SurveyMonkey poll taken June through August (before hurricane season ripped through Houston), Trump's approval/disapproval in Texas is weak, at 45/53.

"Trump’s politics are not playing well in Texas," said Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, via email, "and national Democrats would be smart to invest heavily there this cycle and next with two goals in mind -- winning some critical races in 2018 that could affect the control of Congress, while accelerating the state’s migration from rock bed Republican to a swing presidential state." 

For Republicans, Texas is both a spiritual home and a treasure trove of congressional seats and electoral votes. (It has 38 of each; equivalent to Ohio plus Pennsylvania with an extra dash of gerrymandering.) Yet vulnerabilities do appear. As the Atlantic reported in February, "the Republican House majority now relies predominantly on districts where whites exceed their share of the national population, that are located mostly outside of urban centers, and that contain fewer white college graduates than the national average."

Texas, by contrast, has a nonwhite majority. Nonwhite voters underperformed Democratic hopes in 2016; according to U.S. Census data, Hispanic turnout in Texas was just over 40 percent, a slight increase from 2012. Even so, about 40 percent of Texas voters in 2016 were Asian, black or Hispanic.

The state contains three of the largest 10 cities in the U.S. and six of the largest 20. More than 16 percent of Texas's population is foreign-born, a higher share than in the U.S. While the state has a slightly lower percentage of college graduates than the U.S., many of its major industries, including energy and technology, are powered by highly educated (and often immigrant-heavy) workforces.

For nearly two decades, under Governors George W. Bush and Rick Perry, Texas was arguably the leading model of a kinder, gentler GOP future, in which a significant share of Hispanics would join a majority of whites to form a durable conservative majority. Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Marco Rubio each served up helpings of this Spanglish in their presidential campaigns in 2016.

Republican voters, however, gorged on white nationalism instead, and the Electoral College, if not the popular vote, ratified their appetite.

Current Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick are more Trumpian warriors than multicultural accommodationists. (Patrick preceded Trump in the role.) Yet while the most prominent state leaders draw succor from an ever-more confrontational GOP, the state's population continues to drift elsewhere.

In 2016, while Hillary Clinton was losing states previously won by Barack Obama, she substantially outperformed him in Texas, losing the state by 9 points compared with Obama's 16-point loss in 2012.

Republican strategist Liam Donovan analyzed the swing, from 2012 to 2016, in congressional districts nationwide. Six of the 11 districts with the greatest swing in presidential vote from Republican to Democrat were in Texas.

Donovan emailed:

Traditional swing seats are still going to swing, and there may even be enough for Democrats to recapture the House, but the opportunity for realignment lies in these affluent suburbs where Clinton capitalized on Trump's relative weakness among college-educated white voters. Democrats have been seeking to turn Texas blue on the strength of Hispanic turnout, which is necessary, but thus far insufficient. Whether Democrats can win in the near term will depend on whether they can figure out how to peel off Republican-leaning Trump skeptics in places like Highland Park (metro Dallas) and Memorial (metro Houston).

You cannot peel if you do not play. Clinton received 44 percent or more of the vote in five Texas districts currently held by Republicans. More striking, Clinton defeated Trump statewide among voters under 40, and won the youngest cohort, 18- to 24-year-olds, by a thumping 26 points. Turning Texas youth into loyal Democrats should be a Democratic crusade. One-quarter of the state's population is under the age of 18.

Democratic troubles in the Midwest require money and attention. California probably has the largest cache of vulnerable GOP House seats. Resources, as always, are limited and spread thin. But with a White House running on the toxic fumes of white racial resentment, Texas represents intriguing possibilities. And Democrats may be just desperate enough to mess with it.

(Corrects surname of strategist in 10th paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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