The number is etched in Sharon Hirsch’s mind: 391. That’s how many votes she lost her 2018 race against Republican state Representative Matt Shaheen by, in Collin County’s House District 66. If 10 more people in each precinct had voted for her, she calculated, she would have won. “It really stunk to lose. I’m not gonna lie,” Hirsch says.
The district is centered in Plano, a suburban city just north of Dallas with a population that’s grown by 50,000 since Republicans took control of the state House in 2002. Collin County has long been a bedrock of GOP conservatism—home to Ken and Angela Paxton and other influential tea partiers.
But the fact that Hirsch came so close was a sign to the former administrative staffer at Plano Independent School District that this once-ruby red suburban turf was changing—and fast. Two years before she came within a few hundred votes, Shaheen, first elected in 2014, had beaten his Democratic opponent by nearly 20 percentage points. Hirsch, a longtime Democratic activist in the area, promptly decided to challenge him again in 2020. The district is diversifying and she believes his politics are out of step with a community that prides itself on strong public schools and good parks, and is turned off by the rise of right-wing Trumpism. Apart from the 2019 school finance bill that passed out of the House near-unanimously, “I can’t think of any bill that he has supported that has been something good for the community,” she says of Shaheen, one of the most conservative members of the Texas House and a leading proponent of the “bathroom bill” legislation targeting transgender people. (Shaheen declined to be interviewed by the Observer.)
The Democratic effort to flip the Texas House this year runs straight through District 66, the sort of suburban district that just a few years ago was seen as unwinnable for Democrats. As immense population growth has changed the political and demographic contours of the area, the district—and others like it—are now competitive. After flipping 12 House seats in 2018, Democrats need to flip only nine more this year in order to take control of the lower chamber, which would give them an official lever of power in state government for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Record turnout levels have Democrats, who tend to do better when more voters cast ballots, feeling optimistic about their chances. With one week still left of early voting, Texas has already surpassed half of the total vote in 2016. In Collin County, nearly 45 percent of registered voters—290,701 in all—had already voted as of October 21, one of the highest turnout rates in the state. Democratic candidates are raising huge sums of money, groups in Texas and nationally are funneling in unprecedented amounts of cash, and grassroots activists are mobilizing voters on the ground.
Beto O’Rourke’s historic 2018 U.S. Senate run provided a blueprint of competitive House districts for Democrats in 2020. The party’s targets are the nine Republican House districts that O’Rourke won. But Dems are also making serious runs in 13 other GOP districts where O’Rourke came within 10 percentage points of Senator Ted Cruz. Almost all of these seats are in the suburbs of Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston, and the vast majority of Democratic candidates in these races are women—notable since many of these districts are swinging so quickly because of suburban women fleeing the Republican Party in droves, thanks in large part to Trump.
“This is going to be a complete referendum on the president,’” says Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican campaign consultant. The typical “meat and potatoes” Texas voter is turned off by the current version of the party, especially Trump—which is bad news for Republican incumbents, he says. “There’s just more of a, ‘We’re going to punish everybody’ sort of approach.”
Democrats are facing a critical question when it comes to flipping the House: If not now, then when? If they succeed, Democrats would provide a critical check against Republican attempts at gerrymandering heading into the 2021 redistricting cycle. But if they fail, the GOP will remain in unified control of Texas government, free to once again gerrymander themselves into power, making a Democratic House takeover unlikely for years to come.
“There is just so much at stake,” says Matt Angle, a veteran campaign operative and director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic advocacy group. “It really is extraordinarily the degree to which a lot hinges on Democrats being able to net nine seats.”
Republicans’ trifecta control of Texas is one of the longest stretches of one party-rule of state government in the United States—and the most consequential. Texas has long been the biggest red state in the nation, and the GOP agenda here has set the tone for the national party.
Although George W. Bush wrested the governorship from Democratic incumbent Ann Richards in 1994 and Republicans flipped the Senate in 1996, the state House remained a bastion of Democratic control through the end of the century. The GOP finally took hold of the House in 2002, gaining 16 seats and a conservative majority that elected longtime Midland Representative Tom Craddick as Speaker. Tom DeLay, who would later become a ruthless U.S. House Majority Leader known as “The Hammer,” infamously orchestrated the takeover by funneling money from corporate interests around the country into a PAC called Texans for a Republican Majority. DeLay would eventually be indicted for money laundering and criminal conspiracy related to campaign finance violations and disappear from politics.
Once in power, Republicans initiated an unprecedented mid-decade redistricting of Texas’ congressional map. The resulting gerrymandering would lead to the defeats of several conservative and influential Democratic members of Congress and further expand Republicans’ majority in the U.S. House.
Riding the coattails of an Obama-led surge in 2008, Texas Democrats came just within just one seat of taking back control of the House. Republican state Representative Linda Harper-Brown narrowly held onto her Irving-based seat by 19 votes against Bob Romano, a Democratic contender with little campaign funding or party support. Had Romano won, Democrats would have split control of the Texas House down the middle: 75-75. Democrats vied to finish the job in 2010 and take back control. But this didn’t go as planned, as anti-Obama backlash fueled a conservative tea party takeover in the midterms across the country. In Texas, Republicans picked up 23 state House seats, securing themselves a supermajority of 99-51.
The next year, they locked in that power by once again drawing aggressively gerrymandered legislative and congressional maps that diluted the power of Black and Latinx voters—by either “packing” into heavily Democratic districts or “cracking” up communities across several GOP districts. Lower courts have repeatedly found these maps to be racist.
Now, the upcoming redistricting cycle is the biggest factor animating the fight for the Texas House. If Democrats don’t take the House, Republicans could draw new legislative and congressional maps next year that, once again, entrench GOP power at the expense of minority communities who have accounted for the largest share of population growth in the past decade, and wipe out as many Democrats who ousted Republicans in recent years as possible.
“If Republicans have complete control once again, we know what they will do because they’ve done it before,” Grand Prairie Representative Chris Turner, who chairs the Texas House Democratic Caucus, told the Observer. “This is our best chance to achieve some balance in the state government and begin to turn this around.”
Typically, a GOP-held House and Senate collaborate on drawing legislative and congressional maps with little resistance. With a split Legislature, redistricting would likely become gridlocked. If the Legislature fails to draw new state House and Senate maps, then the task falls to what will still be a GOP-dominated Legislative Redistricting Board.
But if the Legislature fails to draw a new congressional map—which after the Census count, will likely include adding at least two new districts—the courts will draw the map, which could be a more preferable outcome for Democrats.“If they control the Texas House, [Democrats] can effectively force the issue into courts by refusing to go along with a Republican map,” says Michael Li, a redistricting expert and senior counsel at the Brennan Center. “[The courts] don’t draw the perfect map but they also don’t draw a wildly discriminatory map. It won’t be perfect but it would be a thousand times fairer.”
The amount of money flooding into Texas House races reaffirms the stakes of this battle. Several national Democratic groups have made the Texas House one of their top priorities in 2020. Democrats are outraising Republicans in the most competitive House races for the first time since the GOP won the House in 2002. “There is no more important battleground for fair maps than Texas,” says Garrett Arwa, director of campaigns at the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which was founded by former Obama attorney general Eric Holder. The group has put more than $800,000 into Texas House campaigns.
Forward Majority, a national super PAC focused on flipping state legislatures for Democrats, has committed the most cash to the cause. The super PAC announced this week that it was doubling down on its initial $6 million investment in 12 Texas House races, bringing its total spending to more than $12 million—its biggest state investment this cycle. In 2018, the group spent just $2.2 million in Texas.
And since Beto O’Rourke launched Powered by People in January and made flipping the state House its top priority, the group has attracted more than 6,000 volunteers who have made more than 25 million phone and text contacts with potential Democratic voters.
In the face of the blue money wave, the national GOP has swooped in to supplement Texas Republican donors. The Republican State Leadership Committee raised’s state account $5.2 million from July to late September, according to the latest campaign finance filings. Casino magnate and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and his wife contributed $4.5 million. Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a tort-reform PAC that is financed by business moguls, is also spending millions to help hold the House. And Governor Greg Abbott is dipping into his massive campaign war chest to provide support as well, with plans to spend a “mid-seven-figure” on 24 House races and on statewide TV ads, even as his aides try to downplay the likelihood of a Democratic House takeover.
Back in the suburbs of North Texas, where O’Rourke won the district by 6 points in 2018 after Trump won it by 3 points in 2016, Hirsch is determined to prevail. During her campaign in 2018, she says she saw a level of enthusiasm from Democratic voters that was previously unseen in Collin County. That’s only become more apparent in 2020. “We have a county of a million people and growing, and we have no Democrats in office,” she says. The five state representatives, one state senator, and county elected officials are all Republican, and it’s been that way for as long as she can remember. “There’s no diversity in representation. We deserve that.”
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