Above: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have a brief tête-à-tête at the MAGA rally in Houston in October 2018.
For Texas Democrats to do well in 2020 and potentially secure the state House and a number of additional congressional seats, they need to organize themselves effectively—and have a lot of things line up just right. The jury’s out on the first part: The motley crew of candidates who have stood up to challenge U.S. Senator John Cornyn in the largest statewide race doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence. But elsewhere, encouraging signs are piling up. The most obvious problem Republicans have is the president. He’s in a shockingly weak position here.
A poll released July 30 by the University of Texas at Tyler gives Trump just 40 percent approval to 55 percent disapproval among Texans, and has him underwater versus most top-tier Democratic presidential candidates—2.5 points under Elizabeth Warren, 1.9 under Sanders, 1.3 under Harris, and 11.2 under O’Rourke. Those are horrible numbers—a Republican incumbent should be leading by 10 points or more. His bad numbers are persistent across multiple Texas polls over the last several years. In 2008, when Texas Democrats ran against a similarly unpopular incumbent Republican president—George W. Bush, a Texan no less—they scored 74 seats in the 150-seat state House.
Trump is going to have to campaign here, and spend money here, to secure his chances of winning re-election. And that’s the last thing Texas Republicans want. To be sure, there are a lot of Trumpfans in Texas, but the state GOP knows it needs to keep some distance from him to win over voters in the suburbs and other places they lost in 2018. In private, some of them blame his October 2018 rally in Houston to support Ted Cruz’s re-election bid for exacerbating the butt-kicking they got locally in the midterms. That’s why they spent the last legislative session talking about property taxes and schools, trying to tell a down-home story about what they have to offer. But Trump is going to spend the next year hugging Texas and its 38 electoral votes—he has to.
That’s perhaps one reason why a peculiar number of GOP electeds are hitting the eject button early. The most shocking retirement so far is that of Will Hurd, the “moderate” border Republican who squeaked by in 2018 to hold his seat in the swingable 23rd District. For years, Hurd was touted as the future of the party, the only black Republican in the House. His throwing in the towel is a concession that he can’t win in Trump’s re-election year.
The three other Republican congressmen who are leaving—Kenny Marchant, Mike Conaway, and Pete Olson were also unexpected bowouts. Olson represents Fort Bend County, a highly diverse and growing part of the Houston metroplex that is almost certain to go blue this year for the first time in a presidential election since 1964. One of Ford Bend’s state representatives is also retiring, the moderate John Zerwas, and another, Rick Miller, is reportedly looking for an exit, giving Democrats a boost to pick up a few of the nine seats they need to take the House. They see the writing on the wall—and the script isn’t finished yet. Other high-profile retirements are widely expected in the next few months, some of them in contestable districts.
And, lately, the weirdest sign of all: A truly bizarre scandal is rocking Republican efforts to secure party unity in the run-up to the battle for the Texas House. House Speaker Dennis Bonnen stands accused of breaking countless promises to back GOP incumbents by trying to secure an agreement with a far-right group to target Bonnen’s internal enemies. At the moment, it’s a roiling mess that will be difficult to contain, and it may make Bonnen, who was supposed to quarterback efforts to maintain the GOP majority, a lame duck a year ahead of the election.
To be sure, Republicans are aware of the choppy waters ahead and are fighting back. GOP donors have forked over nearly $10 million to a new PAC, Engage Texas, which is geared to finding and registering “new” Republican voters, the first time anyone has tried to do that in a long time. But as Democrats will tell you, that’s difficult work, and a long-term project. It’s also not something Texas Republicans have any experience doing. It may prove too late to have any impact this time. Are Democrats ready to take advantage?