AUSTIN ― Texas Democrats are out to prove that they can win ― even without Beto O’Rourke at the top of the ticket. There’s no doubt that when the former Texas congressman ran for U.S. Senate last year, he energized progressives and helped fuel a surge in voter turnout. It wasn’t quite enough to win him the Senate race ― or flip close U.S. House districts like the 24th. But for 2020, Democrats believe with early investment and the state’s changing electorate on their side, they’re in a strong position to make further gains.
Democrats flipped two U.S. House seats in Texas in 2018. This time around, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which announced this month it’s opening an office in Austin, is gunning for six House Republicans they see as beatable. Texas Democrats also hope to unseat Republican Senator John Cornyn — M.J. Hegar, a military veteran, announced her campaign against him Tuesday — and take the majority in the Texas statehouse before a crucial redistricting year.
Texas’s 24th congressional district, which stretches north between Fort Worth and Dallas, is a test for whether Democrats can build upon 2018 in a way that will eventually usher in a blue wave that crests over Texas. The district went for O’Rourke in the Senate race last year; Trump won by about 6 points in 2016.
The district overlaps with a number of statehouse seats Democrats flipped the last cycle. Democrats are hoping to hold those and pick up several more Republican-held seats that overlap or are near the 24th. They only need to gain nine seats to take control of the Texas House in 2020, which would give them a seat at the table for redrawing political maps in 2021 following the U.S. Census, which only takes place every ten years.
U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant held onto his seat in the 24th district last year by about three points — a slim margin for the 68-year-old Texas Republican, who in prior elections, has breezed to victory: In 2016, for example, he won reelection against his Democratic opponent, Jan McDowell by almost 17 points.
Right now, Republicans view the shrinking margin more as a blip that may have been part of the wider O’Rourke-induced voter turnout, not a sign the 24th is eager to elect a Democrat. Marchant is not on an initial list of Republican members the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has identified as vulnerable — though four other Texas Republicans are.
Marchant has $1.7 million in the bank for 2020, according to the Dallas Morning News. He “looks forward to running against whichever candidate makes it out of the Democratic Primary,” his campaign spokesman Keats Norfleet told HuffPost.
Democrats are focused on this district, in part, because it has a growing and changing electorate like other parts of Texas: In recent years, the number of African American, Hispanic and Asian citizens of voting age has increased significantly, Democrats have noted.
The three-point spread in 2018 is “closer to a low water-mark than a high-water mark for Democratic performance,” said Clifton Walker, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. In 2018, “there hadn’t been significant investment in this district yet, and this was still a midterm election, which compared to a presidential, is historically less favorable for us,” he said.
“Democrats are focused on the 24th congressional district, in part, because it has a growing and changing electorate like other parts of Texas.”
This cycle, he pointed out, the district already has the attention of national organizations such as the DCCC, and the robust activity in the Democratic primary could lead to early investment and higher turnout in the fall.
A number of Democratic candidates have already declared bids. They include Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel who lost her statewide campaign for Texas agriculture commissioner last year by about 5 points; Candace Valenzuela, a 34-year-old local school board member whose mother is Mexican-American and father is African American; McDowell, “whose campaign hasn’t stopped since the election in November,” she told HuffPost; and John Biggan, who has also run before.
“The TX-24 Democrat primary is a socialist clown car of underfunded candidates voters have either already rejected or have never heard of,” NRCC spokesman Bob Salera told HuffPost. Marchant “will be reelected in 2020,” he added.
Olson noted that this time around, “Kenny Marchant and the gang aren’t going to sit tight and just watch it go by, they’re going to push back hard on this particular district.”
“It’s vulnerable because the demographics have changed — it’s a different district than when he got elected in 2004,” she told HuffPost.
Valenzuela, who moved to the district in 2014, compared changes in the 24th to what’s taken place in the Austin suburbs. “Austin used to be this liberal enclave, and then everywhere else around it was more conservative — but as people have been moving out of Austin, they’ve been taking their voting habits with them, and I think that’s been happening with Dallas as well,” she said.
Olson also pointed out that the district has “incredible strategic significance,” and that whoever is the Democratic candidate for U.S. House will need to “be able to bring voters out, to be inspirational,” and to “not only win her race, but to be able to influence the other races that are around.”
That’s important for Democrats because if they can take the Texas statehouse, they will “have a blocking position in the redistricting process,” explained Michael Li, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
In the past, Republicans could “basically do whatever they wanted to behind closed doors, and they did,” he said. When maps are the product of one party, you’re able to “do gerrymandering in ways that you can’t if everybody is at the table.”
Democrats are looking not only to get a seat at the table, but to reflect the changing Lone Star State in the years to come — and that’s the case whether O’Rourke is on a Senate ticket, a future presidential ticket, or back home skateboarding in a Whataburger parking lot.