This is member-exclusive content
icon/ui/info filled

newsPolitics

After Republicans keep the House in political dogfight, where does Texas politics go?

Though Democrats grew more competitive, Republicans showed they remain the dominant party in the state. Dallas Reps. Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button won tough re-election battles in Democrat territory.

AUSTIN — Morgan Meyer faced a tough election this fall.

Two years ago, Democrat Joanna Cattanach came within 220 votes of unseating Meyer with a bootstrap campaign that coincided with a blue wave that flipped 12 seats in the Texas House.

This November, Democrats felt the tide turning and threw millions of dollars at more than two dozen Texas House races, including Meyer’s in Dallas County, where Cattanach said she was back to finish the job.

But Meyer survived and even expanded his winning margin to more than 1,600 votes. Republicans won all except one of the races Democrats had targeted and kept their commanding 83-67 majority in the Texas House.

Meyer’s victory, along with others in the Texas House, illustrates two things about Lone Star politics going forward: Republicans remain the dominant party and can win competitive races; and while Democrats failed to flip more seats this year, they have continued to make gains in urban and suburban areas that make them a viable threat.

“The margins were very tight,” said Edith Jorge-Tuñon, political director of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group dedicated to helping the GOP win state house seats. “This should be a sign to Republicans that you have to fight for your seat. Hopefully, this will help guide them with the decisions they make in the Legislature and make sure they show up for their constituents. For a long time we got away with not being active.”

Despite striking out this election cycle, Democrats remain optimistic. They tapped into millions of dollars from national groups to run competitive campaigns in some districts for the first time in recent history, and their margins narrowed from the last presidential cycle.

Still, they know the road ahead will be long, especially after electoral maps are redrawn next year.

“Doing better is not enough,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic political strategist. “But make no mistake about it, it is better.

‘A new political landscape’

While House District 108 voters stuck with Meyer, the Republican state House incumbent, they showed notably less enthusiasm for President Donald Trump and U.S. Senator John Cornyn.

Meyer wasn’t alone in outperforming the top of the ticket. Out of 76 Texas House races that were disputed by the two parties, the state house candidates got more votes than Trump in 62, according to Derek Ryan, a Republican pollster.

And where it mattered, the inverse was true for Democrats. In each of 11 competitive races in North Texas — which Democrats had made their main battleground — Democrats running for the state House got fewer votes than Biden, based on a Dallas Morning News analysis of election results.

Of those 11 competitive North Texas races The News examined, Meyer’s House District 108 had the biggest gap, with 56% of voters there picking Biden for president, compared to 48% of them going for Cattanach, the Democratic challenger in the House race.

Republican operatives say that’s because their candidates kept knocking on doors even when the pandemic made it difficult to campaign in person. When those doors opened, they kept the focus on local issues regardless of who voters were supporting in the presidential race.

Meyer’s district — which spans from downtown Dallas to the Park Cities — was once so solidly Republican that when he first ran for re-election in 2016 he didn’t even face a Democratic challenger. This time around, facing a tight race, he focused on issues like schools, recovering from the pandemic and putting Texans back to work in his ads. That allowed him to win over some Democrats and independents in the district.

“People came and talked to me at polls and said they voted all Democrat and then they voted for me,” Meyer said. “People are hungry for candidates and representatives who focus on the issues and not just personalities.”

His Dallas County neighbor, Angie Chen Button, is the only other Republican state representative from the county. She herself eked out a 220-vote win this year against Democrat Brandy K. Chambers.

Button’s consultant, Craig Murphy, said she benefited from split-ticket voters who supported Biden but backed Button because her office helped them during the pandemic.

“The election for Republicans started back in March when we had to address issues person by person,” Murphy said. “That’s a problem but that’s also an opportunity. There’s ample evidence that it paid off.”

Democrats admit it was difficult for their candidates to break through on local issues during such a hyper-partisan presidential election and that one of their strongest assets, in-person campaigning, was derailed this cycle.

That problem wasn’t unique to Texas — Democrats across the country lost down-ballot races, said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democrats.

In fact, Democrats in many states lost their 2018 gains and yet in Texas, with the exception of one seat, they held onto those gains and even picked up a state senate seat, Garcia said. The party also picked up a seat in the House, keeping the chamber’s partisan split the same as two years ago.

Garcia also saw positive signs in the 1.33 million more people who voted for Biden for president this year than voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Though those voters did not all stick with Democrats down the ballot, Garcia said, the party would spend the next two years trying to earn their votes.

That will take year-round work and better connections with voters across the state, he said. But if Democrats can do that, they’ll keep the pressure on Republicans in contested races.

“Smart people are looking at all this and seeing they need to adapt to a new political landscape,” he said.

Straight ticket voting

This year’s election was also the first in the state since the elimination of one-punch straight ticket voting. But because the election also contained numerous other variables, it’s hard to say definitively what impact the end of straight ticket voting had.

COVID-19 forced campaigns to stop in-person campaigning for much of the cycle and pushed many people to vote early or cast their ballots by mail. And Trump’s mercurial presence at the top of the ticket also appeared to influence voters.

In North Texas, the elimination of straight-ticket voting appeared to hurt Democrats down the ballot and help Republicans.

Take District 66, which covers West Plano in Collin County. There, Biden won by 9 points but voters narrowly stuck with their incumbent Republican House member, Matt Shaheen over Democrat Sharon Hirsch. The difference in that race was 1 point.

It was a similar situation in neighboring House District 67, where Biden won his race by 9 points, with 54 percent of the vote. But in the House race, Republican incumbent Jeff Leach beat Democrat Lorenzo Sanchez by 3 points.

“Republicans got rid of straight-ticket voting for a reason,” Garcia said. “These are the kinds of effects you see.”

Ryan, the GOP pollster, said the end of straight ticket voting limited the damage to down-ballot Republicans who otherwise would have been labeled as “guilty by association” with Trump and punished with a straight ticket vote for Democrats.

But he said one election cycle is not enough to determine which side benefits more from the practice’s end.

“Who’s to say that two years from now Democrats don’t have a better showing without straight ticket voting?” he said. “It helped Republicans this time and it’s up for grabs as to who it helps two, four and six years down the line. It’s a to be continued story.”

Republican strategies

Though Republicans held their majority in the House, some of the chamber’s most competitive races in the suburbs continued to be tight.

“We’re not a purple state, we’re not a swing state, but we’re competitive,” said Dave Carney, Gov. Greg Abbott’s top political consultant.

This was true particularly in Collin and Tarrant counties, traditionally Republican bastions where Democrats made inroads but did not succeed in flipping any seats.

District 94 in Tarrant County, which includes much of Arlington, didn’t even have a Democratic challenger in 2016, only a Libertarian one. Democrats tried in 2018 and again this year — and while Republican incumbent Tony Tinderholt defended his seat, his margin of victory narrowed from about 9 points two years ago to 5 points. The margin also narrowed slightly in House District 97, where GOP incumbent Craig Goldman held off Democratic challenger Elizabeth Beck.

But in the three other Tarrant County districts targeted by Democrats, Republicans had better margins of victory than they had two years ago.

“The suburbs and the areas around cities are still pretty red,” said David Thomason, a political scientist at St. Edward’s University in Austin. “I don’t think they’re tea party red like six years ago, but they’re still a critical mass of voters that are still very ingrained and very solid Republican.”

The tightening of political races could create an opening for issues that Democrats have championed for years, like the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare that Republicans have dismissed.

If constituents keep signaling support for such a move and GOP lawmakers ignore them, they could face an angry electorate when they next face re-election, Thomason said.

On the other hand, the House has also gotten arguably more conservative after this election cycle. The chamber’s only “pro-choice” Republican, Sarah Davis, was ousted by a Democrat in Houston. And incumbent GOP state Reps. Dan Flynn and J.D. Sheffield in North Texas, who were considered too soft on conservative issues, lost their seats to more socially conservative members in the primaries.

“It was RINO season because you had some of these RINOs that were either replaced by Democrats or by more conservative members of the party,” said Thomason, using a shorthand term for “Republicans in Name Only.”

Redistricting ahead

Though Democrats made strides in making races more competitive, some of that progress may be wiped out next year during the decennial redrawing of electoral maps at the Legislature, said Thomas Gray, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas.

While Republicans maintained their strength in rural areas, the Democrats failed to capitalize in the suburbs where they had targeted seats. With the exception of Williamson and Hays counties to the north and south of Austin, Republicans held their dominance in those areas.

“Those districts won’t get any prettier,” Gray said. “In fact, it looks like the Republicans can redraw the districts to mitigate the impacts of potentially losing those seats.”

Jamie McWright, president of the Associated Republicans of Texas, said the process will be “fair and open” with a lot of discussion that is data-driven.

But Garcia, of the state Democratic party, was more skeptical.

“We’re going to have to see,” he said. “It’s incredibly clear that this decade was defined by a Republican gerrymander that deliberately discriminated against African Americans and Latinos in Texas and it was successful. We need to keep up the fight.”

So what will be different during this round of redistricting?

“Texas grew and Texas voters spoke much louder than before,” Garcia said. “We are a new electorate and we continue to grow and we are becoming louder.”

James Barragán. James Barragán covers Texas politics for The Dallas Morning News. He has covered immigration, public safety and voting rights and has traveled on assignment to the U.S. Supreme Court and Houston during Hurricane Harvey. Before joining The News in 2017, he worked for the Austin American-Statesman and The Los Angeles Times.

jbarragan@dallasnews.com /JamesBarraganNews James_Barragan

Holly K. Hacker. Holly works on the investigations team after many years covering education for The Dallas Morning News. She specializes in data analysis. Previously Holly reported for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Ventura County (Calif.) Star and the Antioch (Calif.) Ledger Dispatch.

hhacker@dallasnews.com @hollyhacker
Politics

Get Political Points

Receive the latest political news delivered every Tuesday and Thursday from reporters in Austin, Dallas and Washington.

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy