The Art of Losing: A Beto O'Rourke Story, Part III - Texas, Past and Present
The forgotten battle for the future of Texas, O'Rourke's last act, and the political present and future of the nation's second largest state.
With all of the focus afforded to Beto O’Rourke’s personal story, both by the contemporaneous political press and this very series, it can be easy to forget the other, even important side of this story: the ultimate fate of Texas in 2020.
After the 2018 elections, Democrats in Texas—at least, those whose immediate concern wasn’t escaping the state as quickly as possible—found themselves in their strongest position in a generation. Although they had been abandoned by their de-facto leader in O’Rourke, Texas Democrats still had more to win in 2020 than possibly any other state party in the country. After decades of losses, stagnation, brief hope followed by somehow even more losses, and even further stagnation, the state party finally seemed to be living up to it’s oft-cited potential.
Things were no longer hypothetical now. Real meaningful wins were in sight, and Texas Democrats were more than willing to complete. And the party’s ambitions stretched even further—and far deeper—than just statewide contests. The nature of the new Democratic coalition changed the political playing field in Texas in a way that made Republicans deeply vulnerable, giving the party an opportunity to make massive gains across the state, at all levels. And, most satisfyingly of all, it was all because Texas Republicans had seemingly been far, far too arrogant at the height of their power.
To understand why, you need to go a step back to when the state’s maps were first drawn after the 2010 census. The governing Republican Party had free reign to gerrymander the state to their heart’s desire, and when shaping the districts for the 2010s, their absolute favorite tool was “cracking”. Cracking is the practice of taking a specific area that favors one party, splitting it up, and attaching the broken parts to outlying areas to create a new district that consists of a majority of voters of the opposing party. It was done to every single major city in Texas. From Houston to Dallas to Austin to San Antonio, contorted districts snaked into parts of the heavily Democratic inner cities and then expanded out to heavily Republican suburbs and rural areas that would outvote them.
It was a high-risk, high reward approach, and by the end of the decade, Texas Republicans seemed to be closing in hard on the wrong side of the gambit. It all came from one simple problem: after 2016, the suburbs meant to drown out Democratic votes in the cities were no longer all that Republican anymore. Throughout the Trump Presidency, the party’s strength in many of the “designated Republican” parts of the state’s districts became less and less capable of overwhelming the “designated Democratic” parts. The margins kept getting closer and closer, making Democrats competitive in more and more districts across the state.
On election day 2018, these maps were pushed to their breaking point. At the end of Part I of this series I mentioned the success downballot Democrats had with O’Rourke at the top of the ticket. Those gains were notable by themselves—a net of two seats in the U.S. House and over a dozen in the Texas State House—but just looking at them alone actually understates the full extent of the Democratic incursion onto GOP territory. For all the success they had, downballot Texas Democrats still underan O’Rourke. In his race, Democrats demonstrated support even further beyond what they were able to win outright.
This gap was noticeable in the state’s congressional districts, where, on top of the two districts flipped outright, there were three districts that voted for O’Rourke and a Republican for Congress. While the state would come out with a delegation of 23 Republicans and 13 Democrats, Cruz only ended up winning 20 congressional districts to O’Rourke’s 16, a small edge that looks even smaller when you look at Cruz’s margins in many of the districts he won. Two districts voted for him by a margin of less than 1%. Two more did so by less than 3%. Another two were decided by a margin of 5% or less. Added all together, this amounted to nine House districts held by Republicans going into 2020 that were either won by O’Rourke outright or only voted for Cruz narrowly. And remember: almost every single one of these districts was drawn to be safe. Hardly any of these Republican representatives had any experience running campaigns in close races and never expected they would have to do so
But for all the possibilities this presented, it paled in comparison to the true once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was on the table for Texas Democrats in 2020. Where the U.S. House gerrymander bent but ultimately didn’t break under the strain of O’Rourke’s performance, the gerrymander for the Texas State House broke outright. O’Rourke won a majority of the chamber’s districts in his race against Cruz, carrying nine seats that also voted for Republicans for the State House. This, by the way, was while he lost the actual election. His new coalition did not just make the existing map for the lower house simply fair. It now had a slight Democratic bias.
All of this could hardly have happened at a worse time for Texas Republicans. It’s bad enough to wake up and discover that a huge chunk of your congressional delegation is suddenly at risk, but it’s even worse to do so in the runup to a highly competitive Presidential election. Even in a scenario where they kept all of their at-risk seats, the national party would still have to invest significant resources in some of the nation’s most expensive media markets, reducing their capacity to compete in traditional swing states.
The state that was once the ballast for the entire Republican coalition now looked like its soft underbelly. There was a real chance for a gargantuan haul of flips that could net Democrats a huge number of seats in the House of Representatives and win them their most dramatic expansion of state-level power in living memory. And in the face of all this, Texas Republicans weren’t dismissing Texas Democrats, as they had always done.
They were scared.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Ettingermentum Newsletter to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.