Democrats’ Path To National Power In The 2020s Runs Through Small Races In Texas

Last year, Sharon Hirsch lost her race for the Texas House by fewer than 400 votes. Now, she's ready for another fight in 2020.
Sharon Hirsch campaigns in Texas in 2018.
Sharon Hirsch campaigns in Texas in 2018.

The night Democrat Sharon Hirsch lost her race for the Texas House of Representatives in November 2018, she knew she would run again in 2020.

Texas Democrats flipped 12 state house districts last fall, putting them just nine seats away from having a majority, the closest the party has come to controlling the chamber in a decade.

Hirsch, a Minnesota transplant who raised her four kids in Plano, Texas, fell short, losing to Republican incumbent Matt Shaheen by just 391 votes. But she knew that in 2020, the stakes would be even higher. She’s right: Strange as it may seem, Democrats’ path to national power over the next decade might include Hirsch’s race in Collin County, Texas.

It’s all about redistricting, the process by which governors and state legislators draw each state’s legislative and congressional districts, and which occurs every 10 years, after each census. In recent decades, the Democratic Party has overlooked the importance of state legislature races, giving Republicans tremendous power to draw district boundaries that give them a substantial partisan advantage.

If Democrats can win races like Hirsch’s and take back the Texas House in 2020, they’ll have a voice in Texas’ redistricting process. That could ensure that, in future elections, Dems have a much more level playing field in the huge, blue-trending state.

“We flipped 12 [seats] in 2018, we have to defend all 12 of those. … But we have to flip nine more and my race has to be one of them,” Hirsch told HuffPost. “There’s limited opportunity for Democrats to have a voice.”

Texas Republicans know exactly what’s at stake, too.

“There is nothing more important — not only to Texas, but literally the nation — than to make sure that we maintain the Texas House” going into redistricting, Republican state Sen. Kelly Hancock said at a Tea Party event in June. If “we lose Texas, we lose the nation. And there’s no other place to go.”

An Embattled Republican Fights To Hang On

Republicans will be ready. Hirsch’s 2018 campaign was a “warning shot,” Shaheen, her Republican opponent, told the Dallas News this week. Considering Shaheen’s institutional support from Texas Republicans and wealthy donors, it was surprising for Hirsch — who had no consultants, no paid staff, and little support from national Democratic organizations — to get as close to winning as she did.

This time, “we’re taking the election seriously,” Shaheen told HuffPost. “We’re going all out. You’re going to see Republicans campaign like they never have in the past.” Shaheen said he’s going to raise $1 million for his 2020 race.

But Hirsch still thinks she’ll have a real shot. Shaheen ran a real campaign in 2018, too — and almost lost.

“The typical campaign cycle around here is a couple forums, meet-and-greet things, and Republicans don’t even come. They don’t have to show up. They’re going to win. They either have no opponent or they disregard that opponent,” Hirsch said. Shaheen “paid for ads, he came to every event that there was. That was not typical Collin County Republican behavior.”

Hirsch knows Shaheen will be even better prepared next time, she said.

“I’m not going to raise a million dollars,” she said flatly. “And I don’t think it takes a million dollars. But we will have to raise more money. ... We will do as much as we can with as little as we have.”

What Texas Dems Need

What Hirsch needs is what Shaheen already has: lots of support from state and national party organizations. Fortunately for her, those Democratic groups now have Texas on their minds.

Texas “has huge implications” for Democrats, said Matt Harringer, national press secretary for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, an organization that supports state-level Democratic campaigns.

“Democrats have no lever of power [in Texas],” he said. “We don’t have either chamber, and we don’t have the governorship.” But after 2018, Harringer and the DLCC are confident that it’s possible to change that.

Harringer said the groundswell of support for former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who ran for Senate against Republican Ted Cruz in 2018, shows there’s “a path to victory” for state Democrats. He also believes Republicans are playing defense this election cycle.

“They’re not looking to take any Democratic seats” that they lost in 2018, he said. Rather, Harringer thinks the GOP will just try to hold onto seats like Shaheen’s.

Since 2010, the DLCC has seen a huge increase in donations and volunteers eager to get involved in other ways, he said. In 2016, the group spent $16 million on state legislative races. That amount doubled in 2018. For 2020, it is expecting to spend $50 million.

“Nine house seats in Texas can cost as much as congressional seats in other parts of the country,” he said.

But “if Democrats focus on the states, and all signs are pointing to that being the case,” Harringer said, the Texas House is definitely “winnable.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story suggested that the 2018 election was the closest that Democrats had come to controlling the Texas state House in nearly two decades. In fact, Republicans had only two seats more than Democrats in 2008.

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