WASHINGTON -Texas Democrats couldn’t snap their 24-year losing streak in statewide contests this time around.
But Tuesday’s midterm elections put a scare into Republicans and provided clues to the direction of Texas politics as the focus shifts to the 2020 presidential fight and an era of divided government in Washington.Blowback against a divisive president, Donald Trump, played a big role–on both sides, with GOP voters rallying to protect Trump and his ally, Sen. Ted Cruz, in reaction to the Democratic resistance.The Texas electorate on Tuesday was deeply polarized. It had also evolved significantly in just a few years, shifting Texas further and further from its longstanding role as a Republican firewall, and closer than it’s been in a generation to parity between the parties thanks partly to suburban shifts in Houston and Dallas.“We, too, are America,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, told an ethnically diverse and rapturous crowd of Democrats who had come to cheer on Rep. Beto O’Rourke in downtown Houston on Monday.A day later, Cruz would defeat the El Paso Democrat, protecting that Senate seat for another six years but by a slimmer margin than any Republican had expected a few months ago–just 219,000 votes out of 8.3 million, a margin of 2.63 percentage points.“The state is changing,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “Republicans became pretty lazy in the Obama era. Now they’re having to compete in a far more adverse environment and they’re going to really have to up their game.”
Suburban shiftsThis election marked the moment when Republicans lost their grip on suburbs and traditional redoubts like Collin and Tarrant counties.Democrats toppled two senior Republican congressmen in Texas on Tuesday: Reps. Pete Sessions in Dallas and John Culberson in Houston. Both held districts that Trump lost in 2016.Democrats also ousted two tea party state senators, and flipped a dozen state House seats. Nationally, they took control of the U.S. House, setting up two years of divided government in Washington – with all the subpoenas and oversight hearings that will entail.”The suburbs are a growing problem for us electorally. We’ve got to get back these college-educated white women. If we become a party that is only strong in rural areas we’re going to become a minority party. There are some warning signs out there,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist based in Austin.Cruz ran strongest in rural areas. In pockets of traditional GOP strength, he fell far short of expectations.In Fort Bend County, just west of Houston, for instance, O’Rourke outpolled Cruz by 30,000 votes out of 254,000. That’s Sugar Land–heart of what used to be a solidly conservative congressional district held last decade by Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader.
Mackowiak called O’Rourke’s supremacy in Tarrant and Fort Bend “astounding.”Four days before Election Day, Cruz stumped in Fort Worth and declared that he was counting on Tarrant County–“the reddest county in the reddest state in the nation.” He ended up trailing O’Rourke by 3,800 votes out of 626,000. He fared better in Collin County, leading by nearly 22,000 out of 354,000 votes–but thin gruel on turf won by Trump just two years earlier by a blowout 56-39.O’Rourke’s coattails helped to sweep away two of the most conservative state senators: in Tarrant, Konni Burton, a close ally of Cruz, and in Dallas, Don Huffines.”Suburbs are where Republicans have problems. We have four of the biggest 11 suburbs in the country in Texas,” said Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager.That shift puts Texas in play in coming elections, maybe even as soon as 2020, he said.”Sure,” Roe said. “Texas is less red than Ohio in coming years. [Tectonic] plates in American politics are shifting. Michigan is becoming more like Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania is becoming more like Ohio, and Ohio is more like Indiana, and Indiana’s more like Missouri…. Colorado’s drifted off and Virginia’s probably gone, and Arizona and Georgia and Texas are going less red, and into purple.”The inroads O’Rourke made in Texas left Democrats all but giddy, even if he fell short.”If you think a lot of Democrats came out this time around, watch what happens in 2020,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.
Mistrust of Trump, partisan gapOn Thursday, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the former Alabama senator who had recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation.The president had long berated Sessions for the move, which led to a special counsel inquiry that has already netted convictions of top Trump associates.On Friday, the president reiterated his denials.“There was no collusion. It’s a whole hoax. This was a thing set up by the Democrats, just like they set up other things,” he said before boarding Marine One on his way to Paris for the weekend. “The Russian investigation is a hoax. It’s a phony hoax. I didn’t speak to Russians.”Many voters remain unpersuaded.In Texas, nearly half of voters polled by Votecast, the Associated Press’ exit poll, said they believe that the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election. Nearly all of the 45 percent who believe there was collusion picked O’Rourke, while the 53 percent of skeptics overwhelmingly backed Cruz.Anxiety about ongoing foreign interference was also prevalent.Three out of five Texas voters the AP surveyed said they were concerned that such foreign interference would impact Tuesday’s midterms.Those voters broke 2-1 for O’Rourke. The rest when 4-1 for Cruz.Half of Texas voters approve of the job Trump is doing–higher than his national average. But 58 percent say he lacks the temperament to serve effectively.One of the more revealing questions in the AP exit poll had to do with political violence. More than a third of Texas voters point to Democrats alone as a source of rhetoric that leads to violence. An identical share of the Texas electorate says Republicans alone inflame violence.That’s a sign not only of polarization but of glaring mistrust across a partisan chasm.“A lot of us Hispanics still carry some hurt over President Trump’s attacks… He’s a man of privilege. He doesn’t know about the struggles when you don’t have enough money to buy the tortillas,” said Hilda Gonzalez, 65, a homemaker in Weslaco. “We need a president that can bring us together.”Republicans were acutely aware that Trump made Cruz’s path harder.“He’s not the most popular,” said Elda Condra, 55, a Kingwood resident who works as a computer company. But she said, “Look at our country. I didn’t vote for him for his personality. I voted for him on the issues.”Another Cruz voter, Jennifer Baker Hendershot, 41, an account executive at an import/export business in Houston, wore a red MAGA button and a Trump 2020 cap that read “Keep America Great” to a rally just before Election Day, despite mixed feelings about the 45th president.“I don’t care for Donald Trump at all. I don’t like him. I can’t let my kids listen to him because you don’t know what’ll come out of his mouth next,” she said. But, she added, “He’s doing a great job.”
Divided governmentRoss Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University, saw pushback against Trump in the Democrats’ takeover of the U.S. House.“Without question,” he said. “The president’s personality even more than his policies was a big factor in the many suburban districts.”In the new Senate and House, hardly any “Never Trump” Republicans remain, though Utah Sen.-elect Mitt Romney has the stature to fill that vacuum.The House GOP conference will certainly grow more conservative. They won’t have much influence over legislation, any more than House Democrats had during their time in the minority but they may be able to drown out more moderate and collaborative voices.Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a leader of the most conservative faction, is challenging the current House Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, for the post of minority leader in the new Congress.Republicans expanded their Senate majority, enough to make confirmation fights much easier to win for the White House. Democrats picked up roughly three dozen House seats, however. Impeachment is not a foregone conclusion and would expose Democrats to enormous risk in the 2020 elections with little to gain, given that the Senate majority would be loath to convict and remove a fellow Republican.Trump could focus on areas of common ground, such as improving the nation’s infrastructure–a goal he talked about but set aside.“If he’s the dealmaker he says he is, that’s the way he should go… let’s talk deals,” Baker said.Mackowiak, who served as a top aide to former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, sees several implications from divided government.For one, Trump will be eager to use Nancy Pelosi as a foil if Democrats as expected pick her as speaker, a post she held before the GOP takeover in 2010.“The Democrats aren’t going to be able to just run against Trump,” he said, though Trump will struggle to push his legislative priorities, and “it’s going to be pretty miserable for his staff and cabinet. They’re going to run up legal bills.”