Austin at Large: For Team Blue, So Much Green

More money, more voters for Texas Democrats aiming to flip the state House

Austin at Large: For Team Blue, So Much Green

Here's a stat you should find intriguing: According to state Rep. Celia Israel, chair of the Texas House Dem­o­cratic Campaign Committee, of the record-breaking early vote already cast in Texas (closing in on 5 million as of this writing on Wednesday), 30% has been cast either by first-time or "very infrequent" voters. "That's another indication for you of the energy that's happening in Texas," Israel told reporters on a press call organized by the HDCC's national counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

As you know, incumbent Texas Repub­lic­ans, with help from Team Trump and its corps of MAGA judges, work very hard to make the franchise too difficult for such voters to exercise. Just this week, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that if a Texas county election clerk thinks your mail ballot signatures don't match, they can throw it out without telling you. Gov. Greg Abbott using his COVID-19 emergency powers to add a week to early voting and to allow mail-ballot drop-offs (which he then scaled back in a highly public panic) was a rare exception to the rule, and it's led to his being sued by his own party and electeds (like Ag Commish Sid Miller) who could challenge Abbott in the 2022 primary.

Voter suppression, it's what they do. They also gerrymander, drawing a map that gave them a 40-seat advantage in the 150-seat lower chamber of the Legislature in 2013. Despite these enduring realities, Dems have whittled the House margin down to nine, which Israel's HDCC, the DLCC, and other players – notable among them, Beto O'Rourke's new group Powered by People – have possibly already erased with the votes already cast.

The Whole State Is On Fire

Early voting is running wild all over Texas, and along with it fundraising, volunteer engagement, and other signs of political life for the so-recently dormant Texas Democrats. Israel's job has been to raise cash, and the money flowing into Texas campaigns all up and down the ballot has given the HDCC et al. a chance to fully fund nice things many Dems have long done without, especially TV time. "Normally, there's one or two races that are hot, but [now] the whole state is on fire," she said.

That includes support for the 12 Demo­cratic freshmen, including four of Israel's fellow Central Texas reps, whose seats the GOP is trying to reclaim, in some cases with the incumbents who were ousted in 2018. "A month ago, I would have had some concerns" about their vulnerability, Israel said, "but we've been able to make sure that they are telling their story on TV. And that's been the game changer."

O'Rourke, on the same call, pointed out that the energy he and others are devoting to flipping the House is likely to have reverse coattails. "It's the bottom of the ballot, because of these amazing candidates ... who are going to send voters and votes up to competitive congressional races, to the U.S. Senate race where MJ Hegar is only two points down to John Cornyn ... and I think the state House candidates, and everyone who's working to elect them, will help Joe Biden become the first [Dem] to win the state of Texas in 44 years. And if we know on Election Night" – which we likely will, because Texas counts all those early votes ahead of time – "that Biden wins, thanks to the state House campaigns, our national nightmare is over."

This Is All Very Unusual

It's really hard to explain to "very infrequent" voters, or even frequent ones who don't pay attention to politics in between elections, how bonkers this all is. It is not a done deal, of course, that Biden or Hegar or any Dem wins statewide, or even that the Dems flip the House. But it would be a shock, at this point, if the party failed to pick up seats in either the Legislature or Congress – one that would presume the existence of a really silent GOP majority that confounds all polling and psephology, or perhaps raises a specter of voter fraud. (And you were told only dead Democrats voted in Texas.)

Democrats have made a virtue over the years of grassroots campaign skill, because they've lacked access to the cash needed for TV-based campaigns. Paid media, along with millions of phone calls and texts from Powered by People, have anchored the flip-the-House effort because of COVID-19, which is surging yet again even now across the state, and as Israel notes, the money to "fill up all the various silos of a campaign budget" (TV, mail, digital, phones, etc.) is now here. It's the GOP who now touts its field operation that will overcome the other side's big money. (And, symbolically, show its fealty to the Maskless MAGA cause, although as Israel notes, "If it's not safe to trick-or-treat, then it's not safe to campaign door-to-door.")

Because so many of the 20-ish House seats where the Dems are on offense – including the nine where O'Rourke beat Ted Cruz – are in the DFW and Houston media markets, the local spending does in fact help the Biden campaign focus its own cash cannon on places where Dems need to simply turn out voters, like El Paso and South Texas. There is really nothing like this happening on the GOP side, even though Texas is the linchpin of the party's national fortunes. Even Greg Abbott's seven-­figure media buy in House races this week is targeting his own voters, who have held sway for two decades because they have not needed encouragement, let alone persuasion, to turn out for Republicans (nor state-imposed obstacles in doing so). It's a sign not just that the party is being swamped by new Dem-friendly voters – but that its existing coalition is also falling apart.

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