During the 1980s and 1990s, Texas Republicans made gains in the well-to-do suburbs of Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston, building the foundations of a statewide dynasty that continues today.
But Texas’ swing toward Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in 2016 was centered in longtime GOP suburban strongholds like Coppell and Garland, not the urban core.
Recently released numbers compiled by Daily Kos Elections and analyzed by the University of Virginia Center for Politics count six Texas congressional districts among the top 10 in the country that tilted blue in 2016. Some of those districts, like retiring Rep. Sam Johnson’s, remain solidly Republican. Others, like Coppell Republican Kenny Marchant’s, could now be in play.
“I think there is a huge vacuum and voters are not looking for parties or tags, but for leadership,” said Fort Worth political consultant Juan Hernandez, an anti-Donald Trump Republican who served in Mexican President Vicente Fox’s Cabinet and worked for John McCain’s presidential campaign.
But Democrats hoping to unseat suburban Republicans in Congress have a tall task ahead.
I think there is a huge vacuum and voters are not looking for parties or tags, but for leadership.
Fort Worth political consultant Juan Hernandez, an anti-Donald Trump Republican
Houston-area Rep. John Culberson represents Texas’ 7th Congressional District, which favored Clinton over Trump by 1.4 percentage points in November. Four years ago, that district’s voters favored Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by more than 21 percentage points.
The swing was the biggest in the country, but Culberson has served in Congress since 2001 and the seat has been held by a Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1967.
For the Democratic Party, there’s also the issue of finding a candidate with the name recognition and willingness to run an expensive campaign for a seat that may take a few cycles to pry away.
“It depends on expectations as much as actual performance,” said Texas Christian University politics professor Jim Riddlesperger.
If, for example, a Democrat challenges a Republican in a district that has an eight percentage point advantage for Republicans and loses by one or two points, Riddlesperger argues the losing effort will build name recognition and help the Democrat’s political future. But it’s a calculated risk.
“If it’s an eight-percent district and you lose by eight percent, that’s a different story,” Riddlesperger said.
Marchant’s district falls into that category. In 2012, over 60 percent of Texas’ 24th Congressional District, which includes Northeastern Tarrant County and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, voted for Mitt Romney. That figure fell to just 50.7 percent for Trump in November, in theory putting Democrats within striking distance of the seat.
But Marchant, who has held elected office since 1980, outperformed Trump by nearly five percentage points over his Democratic opponent, meaning it will likely take more than harping on Trump’s record to beat longtime Republicans.
“If you gave me the opportunity to legally bet, I would bet any amount of money that Kenny Marchant wins,” said Tarrant County Republican Party chair Tim O’Hare.
“There is something to be said for building name recognition and making yourself a name people associate with winning,” Riddlesperger said. “Can the Democrats find quality opponents? It’s easy to find someone to run, but it’s not easy to find someone competitive.”
Hernandez said Democrats can be successful by co-opting some of Trump’s populist tendencies while remaining centrist on policy issues.
“I think that if a candidate is good at presenting his or her message that is in the center, one that is caring but understands that things have shifted, they have a chance to win,” Hernandez said. “In Dallas/Fort Worth I don’t see any other way for a Democrat or independent to get in.”
Even though Hernandez said the “three m’s” of money, momentum and message still matter, Democrats must craft a message that is inclusive and allows people to share in the conversation on social media, much like Trump did with his use of Twitter.
Hernandez argues that Trump’s message emboldens certain people to perform racist or cruel actions. For example, he said, the immigrant woman who mows his lawn was told “you don’t belong here” after the election.
But the way Trump was able to transcend party boundaries and excite certain voters is a recipe Democrats must follow if they want to spring upsets in wealthy suburban districts, he said.
“The message isn’t party and values, it’s a message of discontent,” Hernandez said, adding that any successful House election “has to be very grassroots.”
The 2018 midterm elections make for an interesting case study for Texas Democrats. Typically, lower turnout in midterm elections favors Republicans in Texas, but the party holding the presidency tends to lose seats nationwide.
“There’s no doubt about it; there was a Trump effect on Republicans in Tarrant County,” O’Hare said. “Trump around these parts was a little bit of a drag on the down-ballot races. If the vote was taken today, it wouldn’t be that big a drag.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a Washington-based party organization that aims to elect Democrats to the House, has already put three Republican-held Texas seats on its target list for 2018. The trio includes the massive San Antonio-to-El Paso district represented by Will Hurd, Pete Sessions’ suburban Dallas district and Culberson’s Houston-area district, indicating that Democrats are prepared to spend millions in the expensive Dallas/Fort Worth media market on TV advertising and field operations.
But the Trump factor looms.
“Texas shifted about eight points overall from the election of 2012 to the election of 2016 and there’s real debate about why that was the case,” Riddlesperger said. “Was it a Donald Trump thing or a sign of things to come? To some degree it’s both of those things.
“If it’s one-third Trump and two-thirds demographic change, Democrats are in good shape. If it’s the other way around then the Republicans are in good shape to remain in control.”
An earlier version of this article omitted that Daily Kos Elections complied the initial data of swings in Congressional districts.