Trouble is brewing for Republicans in Texas
Speaking at a campaign rally in Dallas on Thursday, President Donald Trump declared, “Donald Trump isn’t going to lose Texas.” That is, more likely than not, an accurate statement: Texas is still a red state, although light red rather than deep red. But the very fact that Trump even felt the need to point it out and offer the crowd some reassurance demonstrates that there is trouble brewing for Republicans in Texas — which still leans GOP but is no longer a state that the party can take for granted. The Dallas rally demonstrated that when it comes to Texas, the Republican National Committee and the 2020 campaign are leaving nothing to chance. And they have good reason to be worried.
Until a Democrat wins another statewide race in Texas — in a presidential race, a gubernatorial race or a U.S. Senate race — it will be premature to describe it as a swing state, let alone a blue state. But that advantage isn’t as strong as it was in the 2000s. When Beto O’Rourke announced that he was taking on incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2018 midterms, pundits initially expected a double-digit loss for the El Paso Democrat. But the race turned out to be shockingly close — so close that Cruz, once a major Trump critic, implored the president to visit Texas and campaign for him. O’Rourke ultimately lost to Cruz, but only by 2%.
When GOP strategists go on Fox News and put on their game faces, their spin is typically as follows: O’Rourke was an unusually charismatic candidate, his campaign was an anomaly and Texas will always be a red state. But the evidence suggests that O’Rourke’s campaign wasn’t an anomaly, and that Republicans do need to be concerned about Democrats making inroads in Texas.
Item: in 2018, Democrats flipped two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, two seats in the state Senate and 12 seats in the Texas House.
Item: a Quinnipiac poll released in September found that 48% of Texas voters said they definitely won’t be voting for Trump’s reelection in 2020.
Item: Gallup found that of the 30 states Trump won in 2016, Texas is the one where he had the lowest approval ratings (hovering in the low 40s).
Item: a Dallas Morning News/Emerson College released last month found that Republican Sen. John Cornyn had only 37% approval in his state. Cornyn is up for reelection in 2020, and Democrats are competing aggressively for a chance to take him on.
Item: Rep. Will Hurd, the only African-American Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives and a rising star in the GOP, isn’t seeking reelection in 2020.
None of that means that Trump or Cornyn won’t win in 2020, but it does mean that Republicans are having to fight harder in Texas than they did in the past. And when the GOP is having to invest more time, energy and resources in Texas races, that isn’t a good sign for Republicans.
When Texas is described as a red state, there is an important caveat that is often overlooked: major urban centers like Houston, Dallas, El Paso, Austin and San Antonio lean Democrat. The GOP advantage in Texas, historically, has come largely from all the rural counties in Central Texas and North Texas — that, and suburban districts. Houston Proper, for example, hasn’t had a Republican mayor since the early 1980s, although its suburbs were much more GOP-friendly in the 1990s and 2000s. But in the 2018 midterms, Texas Democrats were able to flip seats in suburban districts.
Another important caveat: U.S. Census Bureau figures show that more and more, non-Hispanic whites are becoming a minority in Texas. The GOP base tends to be older and predominantly white.
The Texas GOP has a strong ground game and is great at getting older whites to the polls, but if Democrats can do more to drive voter turnout in that state and fire up their base — which tends to be younger and more ethnically diverse — it won’t be good news for Texas Republicans in the future.
In 2016, Trump carried Texas by 9% — compared to his 32% win in Idaho or his 46% win in Wyoming. Based on those figures, Trump’s chances of losing Idaho or Wyoming in 2020 are slim and none; in Texas, the odds are in his favor but not an iron-clad guarantee.
Trump was trying to fire up his MAGA base when he declared, on Thursday, “Donald Trump isn’t going to lose Texas.” But he was also acknowledging, in effect, that Texas has become light red rather than deep red and that — like Ted Cruz in 2018 — he can’t take the state for granted.