Democrats’ Dream Of Flipping Texas Is Turning Into A Recurring Nightmare

Each election cycle, the party puts big money and high hopes into some success in Texas only to have it end like Beto O’Rourke’s campaign — in defeat.

In 2008, Barack Obama lost the state of Texas in his first presidential bid by 946,584 votes, carrying 43.8% of the vote.

On Tuesday, Democrat Beto O’Rourke lost his long-shot bid for Texas governor by nearly 900,000 votes. With nearly all the ballots counted, he carried the exact same share of the vote as Obama did 14 years ago.

Election night offered some scattered good news for Texas Democrats. They staved off Republican threats in two South Texas congressional districts. O’Rourke, on paper, continued a trend of narrowing Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s margin of victory in gubernatorial races from the 20-percentage-point pummeling Wendy Davis suffered in 2014 to about 11 percentage points.

But the election also made a more painful reality obvious for Democrats: They still haven’t managed to turn the state purple.

“We’ve made almost no progress,” said veteran Democratic strategist Colin Strother. “In 126 years, at this pace, we’ll be at parity. The math just doesn’t work.”

Democrats running statewide slipped in key areas where they needed to make gains. Youth turnout lagged. Margins in key urban areas, including Dallas and Harris County, where Houston is located, appeared to shrink compared with O’Rourke’s margin against Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. The rural voters O’Rourke worked so hard to win over continued to reject him.

Perhaps most painfully for Democrats, outgoing President Donald Trump’s unexpected Republican in-roads in 2020 in heavily Hispanic and historically Democratic South Texas appeared to hold steady.

For more than a decade, Democrats have contended that the conservative establishment is out of sync with majority-minority-population Texas. As the state’s browner, blacker and more progressive working-class youth reach adulthood, the argument goes, they’ll gradually replace the older, whiter conservatives, shifting the electorate leftward.

O’Rourke’s near-miss race against Cruz four years ago prioritized get-out-the-vote efforts and drove record turnout. Though O’Rourke lost, his 2.6-percentage-point margin of defeat was so close that it felt like victory for a party used to losing by landslides in the state. His unexpected popularity also helped flip two U.S. House seats and 13 more in the Texas Legislature, cowing Republicans into an unusually tame legislative session.

Democratic rival Beto O'Rourke, seen here at an El Paso campaign event Tuesday, lost his gubernatorial bid while again sinking hopes about a blue resurgence in the state.
Democratic rival Beto O'Rourke, seen here at an El Paso campaign event Tuesday, lost his gubernatorial bid while again sinking hopes about a blue resurgence in the state.
LM Otero/Associated Press

For Democrats, it looked like their moment was on the horizon.

Instead, O’Rourke launched an ill-fated presidential run while Democrats saw their gains erode in 2020. On Tuesday, Republicans once again retained a stranglehold over statewide offices in Texas for going on three decades.

And the path forward for Democrats now looks more complicated than ever before.

Shrinking margins in South Texas and key urban areas indicate that Texas Democrats don’t just have a turnout problem on their hands; they’re also struggling to keep core constituencies on their side, at least with the kinds of lopsided margins that they’ve banked on in the past.

Republicans also poured millions of dollars into South Texas and ran competitive candidates after redistricting made those seats appear to be more within reach. A region that historically voted for Democrats by wide margins now saw veteran incumbents, such as Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, sweating to hold on to their seats.

“Republicans are actually trying for the first time [in South Texas],” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “They worked hard to ensure the Republican candidate was not a 64-year-old Anglo male… . They’re also taking advantage of the reality that South Texas Latinos are relatively conservative on some issues and more receptive to a Republican message than Latinos in urban centers.”

More competitive elections threaten to force Democrats to work harder for a smaller share of a voting bloc the party long took for granted.

And in a state where prominent Democrats largely avoid difficult races, Democrats relied too heavily on the star power of Beto O’Rourke.

Donors all but ignored the rest of the ticket, despite the fact that attorney general candidate Rochelle Garza consistently polled well and was well-positioned to reach the young Hispanic constituency that state Democrats have pinned their future on.

“Texas didn’t invest in the most competitive statewide race, in a Latina candidate who could have mobilized voters,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramírez, executive director of the youth voting rights group NextGen. “Rochelle was a great candidate. She just wasn’t given the resources she needed.”

The Democratic strategy of flipping the state on the back of its demographics will only work, she said, if it’s coupled with long-term investment in voter outreach and turnout efforts.

“Demographics are not destiny,” Tzintzún Ramírez said. “Texas has just barely begun to see the resources for the work that’s necessary. It takes multiple cycles. It takes a lot of money, and it’s done at the community level.”

Rep.-elect Greg Casar, an Austin Democrat, cautioned that, amid dashed hopes, his party should take away the right lesson. Though the party has lost ground since 2018, it has also managed to claw its way back from the days when Republicans routinely clobbered them by double digits. Casar credited candidates like O’Rourke and Garza, who were willing to run campaigns with tiny possibilities of success, with putting the party on stronger footing.

“We’re in such a better place than we were even just a few years ago,” Casar said. “When people give up, that’s when we don’t move forward.”

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