Texas Zigs as the Nation Zags and Dashes Dem Dreams
This is how it is now
We've been seeing the subtle signs of diminished expectations through the end of the election cycle on the part of the Texas Democratic Party. The Johnson/Jordan Dinner, the big schmoozy donor gala, turned into a happy hour reception featuring a fly-in by Vice President Kamala Harris. The election night watch party at the Driskill, which is a multigenerational Democratic tradition, moved across the street to barren, musty, downsized quarters at the Stephen F. Austin, which is now just a chain hotel. Womp-womp. Party's kinda broke! So are its candidates! No wonder they all lost to the GOP incumbents by between 10 and 15 points. It's now been 28 years since a Democrat won statewide office.
Beto O'Rourke raised more money than Greg Abbott in the home stretch, more than any Democratic statewide candidate in history (beating his own 2018 record), and still lost by just over 11 points. Interestingly, Abbott did not receive the most votes of any Republican – that would be Supreme Court Justice Rebeca Huddle, go figure – while O'Rourke outpaced all Dems. That was enough for him to lose to Abbott by 889,155 votes, more than four times the margin by which he fell short of unseating Ted Cruz in 2018. That was a high-water mark and Dem performance has reverted to the mean, which makes sense when many of the party's statewide candidates are scraping to find enough money to go on TV once.
In 2018, all the Dems, not just O'Rourke, did a lot better, though not well enough, because Trump. That led everyone to think momentum was on the party's side, and it prepared in 2020 for the state to flip – at least capturing the Texas House seemed utterly realistic – and lots of money came to Texas. None of those good things happened, the two parties ended up in a stalemate, and then all that outside money and attention dried up. Republicans used total control of redistricting to cement the partisan status quo for a decade, which was a net benefit to Central Texas Dems and a big drag for the party elsewhere. The corps of the party in Texas is aging and exhausted, as it is nationally, but at least the D.C. Dems have cash; Texas Dem leaders have thoughts and prayers.
So how much of this blame falls on Beto? I think a combination of wanting to stick with a formula that works and showcasing O'Rourke's gifts of empathy and off-the-cuff speaking led the campaign to spend a lot of time in places where Democrats do very poorly and trying to catch up with field and voter contact when within 50 miles of Texas' major city centers is where all the Democrats are. The visiting-every-county plan was a great earned media attention grabber in 2018 when he was introducing himself to everyone east of El Paso, but this time around his travels across Texas echoed more of schtick and gave more shape to the parameters of O'Rourke's comfort zone. This is fine – it's not like there were other options to top the Dem ticket – but it's not a great foundation on which to build a coordinated campaign when only one of your candidates has fundraising chops.
That's about one-third of the story; the other two-thirds lie beyond the control of parties, candidates, and campaigns. One-third is the perfection of the Fox News Noise Machine into a tool that can be deployed not only on federal issues but also directly to enough Texas (and Florida) voters to make real-life GOP campaigning unnecessary and perfunctory. It's a godsend for awkward sad sacks like Ken Paxton and drama queens like Dan Patrick who would utterly fail at the job of being Beto O'Rourke, and the obscure-ish downballot folks just float along on party ID.
The Fox News Noise Machine works so well in Texas (and Florida) because the electorate might as well be selected from a different state as the actual population, one like Idaho where a plurality of people, not just voters, are white and old. (In South Florida, and increasingly though not that quickly in South Texas, this includes Hispanics who identify as white.) Which brings up the third piece of the story: the dismal rate of turnout that defines Texas. Eight million people voted for governor, out of more than 20 million people eligible to vote and more than 18 million who are actually registered. The ones not voting are not all Democrats; that lesson was learned in 2020 when non-college men who rarely voted turned out for Trump. But many of them could be. As long as Texans are told repeatedly and routinely not to expect their state government to work very well, not to be surprised if it turns its moral panics against you and your kids, and not to expect much help in becoming a participant in the political process, this is how it will be. For a long time, it was Democrats who benefited from that disengaged political culture. Now, the blue team will likely redouble its efforts in local races where it remains competitive, because statewide, nobody's paying attention.