Until this election cycle. After gains in recent years, Democrats are now only nine seats away — in a 150-seat body — from taking control of the state House. How did such a transformation come to pass? And what would a Democratic takeover mean for the Lone Star State?
In many ways, Republicans have only themselves to blame. Their dominance in state politics brought fierce intra-party fights for legislative seats, especially after the tea party emerged as a force to challenge so-called RINOs (Republicans in name only). Groups such as Empower Texans — funded by West Texas oil baron Tim Dunn — rewarded candidates for moving further right. Meanwhile, gerrymandered Texas districts ensured that there was never need — or incentive — for state Republicans to appeal to anyone but the most conservative voters.
This indifference to Texans of other political persuasions began to backfire as changes in the electorate made the state more purple. In 2017, House Republican Charlie Geren blundered when he attacked first-year Democratic representative Victoria Neave, a Mexican American attorney who in 2016 had beaten an incumbent Republican in an east Dallas district that had grown more racially diverse. Neave launched a hunger strike to protest a “show me your papers” law that she and others feared would target Latinos. Geren offended voters when he suggested postponing debate on the bill to “see how hungry she gets.”
Bills to limit access to abortion, enact stricter voting laws and prohibit transgender Texans from using their preferred bathrooms became the norm. They emphasized the growing divide between far-right Republican lawmakers and those they governed.
Around the same time, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston began a durable shift toward the Democrats. But the real movement was in the Texas suburbs. These counties are the fastest-growing in the state, their expansion driven by a diverse and younger population, altering the political dynamic. The importance of these changes was on display in 2018, when record turnout in places including booming Collin County, north of Dallas, brought Beto O’Rourke within striking distance of unseating Sen. Ted Cruz (R) and gave Democrats a solid electoral foundation for the first time since the 1990s.
Yet as more evidence has pointed to a creeping rot that alienates key voting blocs — young people, college graduates, Latinos and suburban women — Republicans have proved collectively incapable of soul-searching. A few have raised alarms: Moderate former speaker of the House Joe Straus warned that his party’s extremism would hurt the Republican brand — and the people of Texas. For his efforts, he was officially censured by several county Republican Party organizations and the state’s executive committee. Another rebel, Rep. Sarah Davis — who represents a ticket-splitting, wealthy and educated area in Houston — has bucked her party on abortion rights and the expansion of Medicaid. She was rewarded with attacks from her own governor in her 2018 primary battle.
Winning back the Texas House would be a symbolic victory for Democrats. But are they up to the task of governing after years in the wilderness? They’re used to being the drag — not the point — in the biennial legislative session that begins a short two months after the election. And divided government is likely for the foreseeable future, since Republicans hold the governor’s mansion and the Texas Senate (not to mention every statewide executive and judicial office).
Still, holding even one house for this next session opens up crucial opportunities. The speaker of the House would be a Democrat, making the party relevant among the “Big Three” (the speaker, along with the governor and the lieutenant governor, who runs the Senate) who set the state’s agenda. Policy priorities Democrats could advance after two decades of Republican control include criminal justice reform, education, voting rights, and expanding health-insurance coverage and health-care access in a state ranked at or near the bottom for both.
The most significant opportunity for Democrats may be in redistricting. For the past 20 years, Texas electoral maps have been crafted by Republicans. But state legislatures elected this year will redraw congressional districts with data from the 2020 Census. Even though the courts are often the final word on legislative lines in Texas, if Democrats take the House, they’ll have more sway at the margins. Since several seats in coming years could be decided by fewer than 1,000 votes, this would put Democrats in a better position to consolidate their gains in the future.
Taking the House this year won’t give Democrats everything they’ve been dreaming of. But there’s an old saying in Texas politics: If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu. Flipping the House would bring Democrats back to the table — much better than where they’ve been.