There’s a small-but-real possibility that Democrat Beto O’Rourke could unseat Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in November. In two separate polls in September, O’Rourke has been 9 points behind Cruz and 2 points ahead of him. Going into Election Day he sits about six points behind the Republican incumbent. All those numbers are shockingly close for a race that’s been comfortably handed to Republicans for the past 30-odd years.
But even if he loses, O’Rourke could still be a big winner — and it wouldn’t just be a moral victory.
The closeness of the race has made Texas Republicans nervous. Not only are they staring down a competitive Senate race in deep-red Texas, but the state GOP is starting to worry that the energy behind O’Rourke could spur a local blue wave across Texas — a state that has a handful of competitive congressional races, half a dozen of competitive state seats, and more than 70 toss-up state judicial posts on the ballot.
“Even if O’Rourke can’t close the statewide gap, if he closes it within the range polling is right now, it will close the gap in some of the races that are tightly contested,” James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project, said.
The stakes are high: Control of the US House may rest on only one or two seats, and Democrats are seriously vying to flip four in Texas; enough wins at the state level could mean the difference between an ultra-conservative state government and a more bipartisan one; and because Texas also elects its judges, Republicans’ 2014 gains in county judicial seats could be in the balance.
Like all midterms, it will be a race about voter turnout. More specifically about how many Democrats O’Rourke can turn out.
“The Democrats have a pretty good group of candidates running statewide,” Richard Murray, a political scientist with the University of Houston said. “A lot depends on O’Rourke.”
Beto O’Rourke isn’t the only Texas Democrat trying to make waves in 2018
Republicans’ stronghold on Texas is clear: They control the governor’s mansion, both Senate seats, and have safe majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Of the 36 congressional districts, only 11 are held by Democrats.
That said, Democrats have major opportunities up and down the ballot.
There are four competitive House races in Texas. Democrats are looking to unseat Republicans Rep. John Culberson in Texas Seventh Congressional District, outside Houston, Rep. Will Hurd in Texas-23, a southwest border district, and Rep. Pete Sessions in Texas-32, which spans the suburbs of Dallas.
They are also eying an open seat in Texas’s 21st District, which covers north San Antonio. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen wrote, if Democrats can energize Latino voters, and win over some white, moderate suburbanites who don’t like President Donald Trump — especially women — Texas could prove an essential part of Democrats’ path to winning back the House majority this November.
There are three Republican-held state senate seats that could be in play; two are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and one is in the Houston area. Among the three districts, Hillary Clinton won in one — state Sen. Don Huffines’s district in the Dallas area — and came within mere points of Trump in the other two.
Republicans currently hold 21 seats in Texas’ 31-seat state Senate, giving them the three-fifths supermajority needed to pass any legislation without Democrats. If Democrats can flip three seats, they will win back some veto power in the state.
There are also 10 or so competitive state legislative seats that are in play in urban-suburban districts. The stakes are high for both Democrats and Republicans here, as Texas’s current state House Speaker Joe Straus is not seeking reelection. “From a Texas Democrat perspective, your greatest fear is that the next speaker of the House is way more conservative,” Mark Jones, a political scientist with Rice University said.
No matter what, Republicans, with 95 representatives in the state House, compared to Democrats’ 55, will keep their majority. But losing even five seats could change how the state speaker race plays out and result in a more moderate state House.
There are upward of 70 state judicial positions that could be competitive. In 2014, when Democratic turnout in the state hit an all-time low, Republicans won county judicial posts in historically Democratic areas. Those seats could be in the balance this year.
Put together, November could mean the difference between a very conservative Texas and a perhaps more moderate, but still Republican-controlled, Texas. And in the long term, 2018 could be a foundational year to rebuild the Democratic Party in Texas — a state with quickly changing demographics that could become increasingly liberal in years to come.
This won’t be easy for Democrats. And on one front — the state Senate — Democrats’ mission was made even harder this week, when Republicans flipped Democrat Carlos Uresti’s seat in a special election. Uresti was sentenced to 12 years in prison for 11 felonies, including money laundering and fraud. But Republicans in the state are definitely recognizing the stakes.
“We’re emphasizing the possibility of losses,” Darl Easton, the Republican Party chair in Tarrant County, where one of the toss-up state Senate seats is, told the Texas Tribune in early September. “The more complacent you become, the more likely it is that you won’t win. We definitely have to keep the voters alert to the possibility of losing some seats. We’re not going to take anything for granted.”
O’Rourke is polling well. If he can translate that into turnout, it could be big.
For a Democrat, O’Rourke is doing really well in Texas. He has consistently polled in the single-digits. Cook Political Report changed the race’s partisan rating from “Leans Republican” to a “Toss up.”
Optimistic Republicans in the state like to say O’Rourke will likely end up like Wendy Davis, a Democrat who made a formidable statewide challenge for the governor’s seat in 2014, only to lose to Greg Abbott by a 20-point margin. There is a well-established phenomenon that early polling in Texas can underestimate a Republican voting advantage anywhere from 4 to 16 points.
Henson points out that O’Rourke’s favorability in June 2018 was “remarkably similar” to Davis’s. According to University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling, O’Rourke was viewed favorably by 37 percent of registered voters, whereas Davis was viewed favorably by 34 percent in June 2014. But there is a key difference when the numbers are broken down by party: Republicans in 2014 viewed Davis much more unfavorably than they do O’Rourke.
If O’Rourke is going to win in Texas, he will need to win over Republican-leaning independent voters. But even if he can’t flip enough to actually overcome Cruz’s advantage, enthusiasm for O’Rourke might be enough to help the down-ballot.
This is the last year Texas will have a straight-ticket ballot option, where voters can chose to vote with one party up and down the ticket. If interest in O’Rourke can get Republican-leaning voters to rethink the top of the ballot, it could help Democrats all the way down.
“[O’Rourke might] cause some Republicans who cast a straight ballot to not just do that from the start, and go down the ballot and go candidate by candidate,” Jones said, noting that Democrats are much more likely to go the straight-ticket ballot route.
Texas is a nonvoting state
In 2010, only about a third of eligible Texas voters decided the governor’s race, and less than 30 percent voted in the 2014 midterm cycle’s general election.
As Texas Tribune’s CEO Evan Smith told Vox’s Dylan Scott after the Texas primary in 2018, which had pretty normal turnout, “Democrats like to say Texas is not a red state, it’s a nonvoting state. Fine. But the fact that it’s a nonvoting state means that it’s a red state.”
“Both these candidates are running mobilization campaigns, not persuasion campaigns,” Henson said, explaining that he doesn’t see Cruz trying to convince Democrats to vote for him over O’Rourke.
But as the Texas Tribune’s Alexa Ura and Ryan Murphy point out, Texas’s turnout is also deeply tied to demographics:
Hopes for a swell in voter turnout often hinge on the state’s burgeoning Hispanic population. But a breakdown of the population by age shows a third of Texas Hispanics aren’t even of voting age. In fact, those under 18 make up the state’s largest Hispanic age group. Meanwhile, those aged 45 to 64 make up the biggest age group of white Texans.
To be clear, Hispanic adults participate in elections at lower rates than their white and black counterparts overall, which makes them an easy target for voter mobilization efforts. But when it comes to convincing Hispanic voters to play a bigger role in elections, it doesn’t help that they’re already starting from behind.
And Latino voters aren’t a uniform voting bloc either. In 2014, 40 percent voted for the state’s Republican governor, who’s on the ballot again this year.
So far, Republicans have been able to rest easy on this reality.
“It’s possible Texas is slightly less red than we thought it was,” Austin-based Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak told Vox. “Does that mean Texas is a battleground state? We are lightyears away.”
Even so, O’Rourke, who has been running a campaign more about mobilizing Democratic voters, rather than persuading moderate Republicans to support him, has made a bet the more people who vote in Texas, the more Democratic the state will become.
And that said, Republicans control so much of the state that Democrats have a lot to gain. Republicans, on the other hand, have a lot to lose.