The defining attribute of Trump era special elections has been tectonic shifts from red to blue, fueled by highly energized voters. Democrats have flipped more than 20 legislative seats since Trump’s election, many of them in deep-red districts in states such as Wisconsin, Missouri and Oklahoma. Before Tuesday, Republicans had only flipped three seats.
Texas Republicans added one more to that list on Tuesday night.
In a stunning upset, former one-term West Texas Congressman Pete Gallego lost the special election runoff for the Democratic-leaning state Senate District 19 to his Republican challenger Pete Flores, 53 to 47 percent. Flores, who takes over until the term expires in 2021, will become the first Hispanic Republican ever elected to the Texas Senate. The taking of another GOP senate seat makes it even harder for Democrats to break up Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s supermajority in November.
Squandering what should have been an easy win, Gallego and the party let a heavily Hispanic district centered in San Antonio and stretching along the U.S.-Mexico border — one that went Democratic by 16 percentage points in 2016 — fall into Republican control for the first time in 139 years.
The loss — in one of the most favorable political environments for Democrats in modern politics — further exposes the ramifications of a weak state party infrastructure in which local fiefdoms and stale politicians reign supreme. It also further highlights the party’s crippling inability to get Hispanic voters to consistently turn out.
Of course, it’s important to note that the only reason there was a special election in the first place is that longtime state Senator Carlos Uresti — an emblem of public corruption in Texas — resigned from his seat after being convicted on several counts of fraud and money laundering. (He’s facing more felony charges, still.)
And yet Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa sent out a statement Wednesday casting the blame on Governor Greg Abbott for setting the runoff for a date that would ensure low voter turnout. “Governor Abbott stole an election, plain and simple,” Hinojosa said.
Even though Abbott played political games with the election dates, the signs of a potential upset were there from the beginning. An ugly power struggle among a handful of Democrats trying to jump to higher office culminated in Flores actually winning the special election primary. Meanwhile, the Uresti scandal loomed over Democrats and the embattled San Antonio party apparatus has long struggled to turn out Hispanic voters in off-year elections, to say nothing of low-profile special elections.
Republicans saw an opportunity and pounced. Aiming to shore up his Senate majority, Patrick pumped about $175,000 into the race. Flores and his allies blasted Gallego on TV and radio, casting the well-known but flawed candidate who formerly represented the 23rd Congressional District in Washington, D.C., as a liberal career politician.
Running a decidedly milquetoast campaign, Gallego failed to effectively counter the GOP’s broadsides. Instead he ran radio ads with inspiring lines like, “He’s familiar — what you see is what you get. Pete Gallego — you know the name. He’s been there.”
Gallego raised more than $400,000, but let Flores and his allies go on TV completely uncontested.
“The truth of matter was we had this brass knuckles fight in the original race. And when the lieutenant governor, basically the day after the [primary] election, wrote a massive check, we were still in fundraising mode,” said Christian Archer, Gallego’s campaign strategist. “That provided them a big early advantage.”
Heading into early voting last week, Gallego still had about $150,000 in cash-on-hand. He also got a last minute infusion of nearly $100,000 in campaign cash the day before Election Day.
Archer said that the campaign had difficulties conveying to voters that this election was in September and that GOTV efforts were stifled by bad weather and a shortened early voting period. “There was a lot of voter confusion mixed in with a little bit of voter fatigue,” he told the Observer. “We wanted to increase the number of Bexar voters [in the runoff], and we did. But [the Republicans] were just more effective in their areas in strength while cutting into the margins in a lot of our areas of strength in West Texas.”
Lots of Texas Democrats have voiced frustration at Gallego’s botched campaign. “Pete Gallego kinda did what he did in the first round, which was not a lot of anything,” said Colin Strother, who worked on his Democratic primary opponent Roland Gutierrez’s campaign. “I don’t know that he did as much as he could have.”
As Flores campaign strategist Matt Mackowiak tweeted Tuesday night, the GOP knocked on 20,000 doors, made 100,000 calls, went unopposed on TV and doubled Gallego’s radio presence.
With the loss of this seat, Texas Democrats not only cede a precious Senate seat that they had no business losing in the first place; they also said goodbye to any hope of breaking Dan Patrick’s three-fifths supermajority, which allows the GOP to bring legislation to the floor (and pass it) without any Democratic support. Even if Democrats manage to pick up two battleground senate seats in Dallas and Fort Worth, an outcome that’s far from guaranteed, they will be one seat short of breaking Patrick’s grip.
Despite the critical pickup, the upset gives Texas Republicans a big jolt of momentum as well as real-world evidence to counter speculation about a blue wave hitting Texas.