It may be tempting for Democrats to despair and Republicans to become complacent. But it would be wrong for either party to assume that the political status quo is unshakable. Republicans should be concerned about their hold on Texas and heed the warnings this election has offered, if they hope to maintain their dominance.
Democratic optimists who believed 2020 would sweep Republican incumbents out of the White House and Senate, and sweep a Democratic majority into the Texas House of Representatives, are stumped as to why the state remained stubbornly red. The first and most obvious explanation is that, even though Joe Biden spent more money here than previous Democratic presidential candidates, the campaign did not invest the time or resources needed to change the tint of a state with 29 million residents. I saw how long it took to make Texas a majority-Republican state in the latter half of the 20th century; these shifts do not happen overnight.
Second, while some Democrats hoped President Trump’s low approval ratings would help in down-ballot races, nationalizing local contests goes both ways. While Biden is a relatively moderate Democrat, Republicans were still able to tie their opponents to polarizing national figures. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) unwittingly starred in many commercials supporting Texas Republican congressional candidates.
Third, Biden’s struggles with Hispanic voters nationwide were on full display in Texas. In the populous South Texas counties of Hidalgo and Cameron, for instance, Trump’s vote share increased from 28 and 32 percent in 2016, respectively, to 41 and 43 percent this year. These results undermine the theory that as the electorate becomes less White, gains for Democrats will necessarily follow. And though Trump underperformed relative to other Republicans running statewide, rural Texans’ cultural affinity for the president remained strong, providing a backstop against dwindling Republican support in the state’s largest metropolitan areas.
Finally, this was the first election in which Texans could no longer punch one button and vote a straight-party ticket. It will take more than one election to tell, but this change may have had a greater effect down-ballot than analysts expected — encouraging voters who preferred Biden to split for Republicans in other races.
None of this is to say, however, that Texas is politically static. The Republican margin of victory in presidential elections has slipped from 16 points in 2012 to nine points in 2016 to six points this year. The move toward Democrats in fast-growing Texas cities and suburbs is real. The chief executives of Harris (Houston) and Dallas counties were Republicans 15 years ago, but now are Democrats. So are most of the local elected officials in the state’s most populous counties.
How does a party win this changing, increasingly complex state over the long term? By having the best solutions on issues that are central to voters’ lives. Republicans’ electoral fortunes in the state legislature improved this cycle after their focus shifted away from divisive social issues — such as the failed 2017 effort to limit transgender Texans’ bathroom choices — and toward mainstream concerns such as investing more in public schools and our mental health system, both of which have been underfunded.
Focusing on substantive issues not only broadens a party’s appeal to voters, it also makes Texas more attractive to investment — which, in turn, fuels the quality-of-life gains voters appreciate, in a virtuous cycle. Texas enjoys major economic advantages: We do not assess a personal income tax, our regulatory environment is business-friendly and our cost of living is relatively low. One upside of this climate is that our economy is increasingly diverse: Natural resources still matter a great deal, but so do technology, biomedicine and many other sectors.
But while this growth is a boon for Texans, it presents new challenges for lawmakers, who must ensure that our state continues to appeal to a variety of industries. And in my conversations with CEOs from around the country, they consistently articulate other requirements of an attractive business climate: inclusiveness, infrastructure and, most of all, a well-educated workforce.
In other words, if Texas is to remain competitive, our lawmakers cannot treat the provision of social services as an afterthought. For example, among the 50 states, Texas has the highest share of residents who lack health insurance. During the coronavirus pandemic, an estimated 700,000 Texans have lost health-care coverage. One way Republicans could signal to a changing electorate that they can be trusted to govern responsibly would be to expand Medicaid with some of the same conservative parameters that other Republican-led states have.
Texas is not making the rapid partisan shift we have seen in places such as Virginia and Colorado. But while seismic change did not arrive this year, this state — diverse and dynamic in so many ways — is changing quickly. If they hope to keep winning, Republican leaders will need to keep up.
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