Texas Dems Set Their Eyes on the 2020 Prize

Their goal: Flip the State House of Representatives


By Getty Images

"I'm an Ann Richards Democrat," Celia Israel says, as she commonly does; the state representative from northeast Travis County's House District 50 got her political start way back when – as a young and eager aide to Texas' last Democratic leader. "I know what it used to be like, and I've been fighting for the Texas of my youth since I took the oath of office."

Those of us who were around for the heady days of Ann Richards' "New Texas," who remember the optimism that greeted her 1990 election, understand why Israel wants to bring it back, even though today's Texas is a very different state. So different that it's created a new opportunity for Israel as chair of the House Democratic Campaign Committee – the Blue Team's inside-the-­Legislature campaign arm, roused out of hibernation to help lead the Texas Demo­cratic armies in 2020 toward their most highly cherished goal: flipping the House.

It's not their only goal, of course. Whenever the Blue Avengers assemble, they now – more than a year out – tick off the list of things they want to accomplish this cycle. The leadoff item is putting Texas' 38 electoral votes in the Democratic presidential nominee's hands, but that's understood to be a stretch goal, even as Texas party leaders (including the two running for president, Beto O'Rourke and Julián Castro) project confidence. For what they're worth this early in the cycle, most forecasting models of the 2020 presidential race still show Texas in the red zone, or at least a healthy shade of pink; other tipping-point states (Arizona and Georgia most notably) would be more likely to break blue.

The same is true of unseating Sen. John Cornyn, who's held statewide elected office since Richards' day. The packed Democratic primary field for that race includes candidates with the chops to become next year's Beto, pulling intensity into a race that 18 months ago looked poised to be a walkover. Cornyn's not really that popular – he is, more to the point, not nearly as well known as you'd expect for a GOP lifer who's high up in Senate leadership – but this race will still be a little mysterious until the Dems settle on a nominee.

That's not true of the U.S. House districts where Democrats almost won in 2018; with solid frontrunners in those primaries (some repeat candidates, some rock stars like Wendy Davis), most observers expect the Blue Team to add to its two-seat pickup from last year. But those races won't change the overall Republican lean of the state's highly gerrymandered congressional map, and Demo­crats already control the U.S. House, so despite obvious excitement, the stakes are not really that high here.

Down Memory Lane, to a New Place

But then, as you work painstakingly down the 2020 ballot (no straight-ticket voting for you!), you get to the Texas House races, and people get stars in their eyes. The last time Democrats controlled the state House – and had, under Speaker Pete Laney, a real voice in governance – was 2002, when the fashion of the day was bipartisan consensus. While Laney tried to stay neutral in the 2000 presidential race, many leading Texas Dems campaigned for then-Gov. George W. Bush, who ran for president as a moderate, across-the-aisle coalition-­builder using his Texas model as evidence. (Yes kids, it's true.)

That era ended right quick in 2002, when the GOP House takeover begat the abusive reign of Tom DeLay, Tom Craddick, Rick Perry, Greg Abbott, the tea party, the Freedom Caucus, and Dan Patrick, last seen licking President Apeshit's nethers on stage in Dallas. Over the course of the Aughts, Democrats clambered back toward parity in the House, which was split 76-74 after the Obamamentum of 2008; that collapsed into a 101-49 deficit after the 2010 Tea Party backlash.

This trip down memory lane reminds us of the high stakes in the campaign to flip the House – the power to stop the curdling ooze of GOP culture-war bullshit from tainting the entire state, and especially the power to keep redistricting after the 2020 census from turning into another assault and battery upon the non-GOP electorate. However, the 2020 narrative is not about turning back the clock, because Texas is such a different state now – in ways that work heavily to the Dems' advantage.

Ed Espinoza, the executive director of Progress Texas, has been making that case since 2017, when he produced a report highlighting "a lot of good stuff that happened in 2016, that people didn't notice" in their Trump-induced anguish. "I did that to try to change the mindset and inspire people to run for office. I don't nearly have the problems now I did two years ago; people are on board now and they truly believe."

Flipping the House is not a fait accompli; it requires the Dems to retain seats gained in the last two cycles (12 in 2018, four in 2016), then capture nine more red districts. The good news is the list of competitive 2020 Texas House races is much longer than that, based on trends and fundamentals at this point – before any candidates have even filed, mind you, let alone competed in the Democratic primary in March.


Eliz Markowitz (Image via eliz4tx.com)

As you know because you read the Chronicle, one seat is in play right now – HD 28 in Fort Bend County, the west Houston suburbs, to be filled in a special election to replace retired GOP Rep. John Zerwas. Dr. Eliz Markowitz, an educator and first-time candidate, is the sole Democrat in the race against six Republicans and thus will almost certainly make the runoff, if not win outright, on Nov. 5. HD 28 is one of 22 seats targeted by the Texas Democratic Party to flip the House, based on the results of the 2018 Senate race between O'Rourke and Ted Cruz, who won the district by a scant three points (Zerwas himself won by eight). Nine of those House seats – exactly the number Dems need – are held by Repub­licans in districts that Beto won outright.

The target list varies depending on what metrics you're using, but the storyline remains the same. Just as now-lame-duck-Speaker Dennis Bonnen told us on tape, Donald Trump is killing the GOP in the suburbs of Texas' booming blue and purple (lookin' at you, Fort Worth) cities. Of the 22 TDP target seats, 10 are in the Metroplex, eight in metro Houston. Those two regions already delivered eight of the 12 pickups last year (the other four were here in Central Texas), and those results brought you the wholesome outcomes of the 86th Texas Legis­lature that Bonnen so clumsily fumbled away. "In 2017, you saw bathroom bills and other extreme right-wing activity" at the Lege, says TDP communications director Abhi Rahman. "Our winning those seats is the reason we have school finance [referring to last session's HB 3]. We've had a chance to show what we can do, and so picking up the other seats is a Tier 1 priority with us."

Enter The Sleeping Giants

Though the suburban electorate's disgust with Trumpism and trend toward #Resist­ance is quite tangible, the rising energy and excitement to flip the House and turn Texas blue is not really coming from Republican or independent voters changing their minds and party alliances. (Real life "swing voters" are extremely rare, despite generations of American political mythmaking to the contrary.) The Texas Dems' upward trend "really is a reflection of a changing and growing electorate," Rahman says. "People moving to Texas, people voting here for the first time, people getting engaged as donors and volunteers for the first time, bringing energy on the ground that we're helping organize."

“We’re the fastest growing state in America, and the Texas GOP is the slowest growing party in America, and you can’t explain that away.” – Progress Texas Executive Director Ed Espinoza

At Progress Texas, Espinoza has documented this shift with both wonkish precision and obvious glee: "We've always known high turnout is better for Democrats, but we didn't know Democrats were picking up so much speed in Texas, at a rate higher than even us in the business had realized." Trump's 4.5 million votes in Texas outpaced Bush's 2004 total by only about 100,000. During that same interval, the Democratic vote grew by 1.2 million. "We're the fastest growing state in America, and the Texas GOP is the slowest growing party in America, and you can't explain that away."

About 99% of the Dems' electoral growth is happening in the state's 20 most populous counties, where all 22 of those House target seats are. In previous midterm cycles, particularly 2010, dessicated Texas Demo­crats saw such low turnout that Tea Partiers and Freedom Caucusers rode to victory despite being notably more conservative than their districts even then, let alone now. "It gave people such an inaccurate view of what the electorate looks like," Espinoza says. "We now have a much different view of what these districts can do."

For a generation at least, Texas politicos have talked of the Latinx "sleeping giant" that would someday awaken and help the Blue Team clean up all the Tea Party's trash. That is happening now, both organically and through the targeted activism of groups like Jolt. But the rising blue wave is sweeping up a passel of overlapping yet distinct voting blocs – communities of color of all ethnicities and nationalities, and new arrivals to Texas of every kind and from every place. All of that change, which will be documented by the 2020 census even if the GOP succeeds in cheating as it wants to, is breaking the Democrats' way, says Espinoza: "They're growing by inches and we're growing by feet."


Central Texans (l-r) Erin Zwiener, James Talarico, and Vikki Goodwin are three of the 12 Democrats who picked up GOP seats in 2018 (Photos by John Anderson)

The bigger, bluer electorate not only changes the numbers but "dictates the strategy" of the 2020 effort, Espinoza says. "We don't necessarily have to come up with flaccid, watered-down positions to win over Republicans who aren't crossing over to vote for us anyway. We need a progressive message that brings out Dems up and down the ballot. And we're seeing that progressive values are mainstream values; soccer moms are not one bit moderate when it comes to guns, for example."

Give These Women Your Money

It's not hard to spot this change on the ground at campaign events and Dem functions. When O'Rourke stumped in Katy to support Markowitz, or in Grand Prairie last week to counterprogram Trump's rally in Dallas (and to support a whole bunch of North Texas candidates), he naturally got a solid response from the crowd (about 5,500 in Grand Prairie) for his immigration and gun control stands, which are well to the left of the Tory Democrat orthodoxy of Pete Laney's Texas, or even Ann Richards'. But his biggest, loudest applause, by far, came when he endorsed women's bodily autonomy and reproductive rights, where his policies are not notably adventurous, but where the assault waged by a Texas GOP that thinks it commands the state's center has been both destructive and ceaseless.

“Our math shows that there will be a majority-woman Democratic majority, and thus we will be closer than ever to electing a woman as speaker, and that would be a first in Texas history.” – Annie’s List Executive Director Royce Brooks

On that and many other issues, it's Democratic women of all colors who likely have a stronger claim to the center, a point not lost on party leaders and organizers and especially not on Annie's List, whose mission is to help those women win elections. "Women are definitely excited to be stepping up," says Annie's List executive director Royce Brooks, whose own Blue Texas 2020 goals include flipping the House and then some: "Our math shows that there will be a majority-woman Democratic majority, and thus we will be closer than ever to electing a woman as Speaker [to succeed Bonnen], and that would be a first in Texas history."

Including both seats to hold, and seats to flip, Annie's List has 29 targeted races, "and we expect at least 20 of the Democratic nominees in those districts to be women," says Brooks. "That's an incredible opportunity that's indicative of engagement and enthusiasm from women this cycle, and shows that women are the driving force behind Democratic gains." Nothing is set in stone yet, since filing doesn't begin until Nov. 9, but "I feel great about the candidates who've stepped up," Brooks says, including "more repeat candidates than we've ever seen, which is great – they're coming in with experience and infrastructure. It all bodes really well for next November."

While Annie's List is already engaged well before the primary with candidate and organizer trainings and support, Israel is still staffing up her HDCC and is steering clear of such business – unlike her federal counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has caused consternation by intervening in contested primaries, even ones without incumbents. "I don't have time to tell anybody they shouldn't run for office," she says. "There's a lot of really good Democrats running, and that means the voters have to tell us who they want on the ballot."

What Israel does have time to do is ask you for money. "To flip the House you need to cast your net wide, and in a sophisticated way, and that takes money," she says. "My message to donors is that they need to believe what I believe: we have good candidates, we have good structure, but we need platinum structure, and that takes money." There is an awful lot of money flowing into – and better yet, never leaving in the first place – Texas Dems' hands this cycle already, but Israel notes that her HDCC, which a lot of donors and activists don't really know exists, is specifically focused on flipping the House.

"My progressive friends get hit up for money and want to know where's the best place to spend it," Israel says, "and this is a good place to spend it. ... $100,000 is the difference between two mailers and eight mailers" in a closely fought suburban seat. "For the first time I can remember, money is coming into Texas in big chunks instead of leaving in a lot of mini-chunks. Texas is sexy and trendy now, but there's a lot of pressure for us to show up with our own money." She anticipates being able to deliver good tidings this holiday season: "There's a lot of work to be done, but hopefully we'll have a strong, eyebrow-raising report" on their fundraising at the end of the year. "It should be a big, fat number if we're doing our job right."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

March 2020 Primary, March 2020 Primaries, November 2019 Election, Celia Israel, House Democratic Campaign Committee, HDCC, John Cornyn, Beto O'Rourke, Julián Castro, Pete Laney, Ed Espinoza, Progress Texas, John Zerwas, Eliz Markowitz, Dennis Bonnen, Texas Democratic Party, Abhi Rahman, Annie's List, Royce Brooks, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee

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