November 8, 2016 should have been a night of unmitigated joy for the Harris County Republican Party, the largest local GOP organization in Texas. After all, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, hometown hero, had rushed to back Trump as soon as Ted Cruz’s body hit the floor.
But when Patrick took the stage late in the night to address the crowd, he felt obligated to acknowledge the elephant in the room: The Republican Party had been crushed in Houston. In 2012, Obama and Romney had tied in Harris County; in 2016, Clinton beat Trump by more than 12 percentage points. The Democratic wave washed out every Republican running for a countywide office. “We have to hold the line,” Patrick said. “We have to keep Democrat victories in Harris County to a minimum so that we win statewide.”
Since his first days in the world of New York real estate, nearly everyone who’s cut a deal with Donald Trump has gotten burned. In Patrick’s case, the electoral climate he so fervently embraced came at an acute personal cost: Ryan Patrick, his son, lost his position as state district judge in Harris County, a seat he barely retained in 2012.
But it’s not just him. Trump’s deep unpopularity in the state — only 42 percent approval, in one recent poll — threatens Texas Republicans as a whole. At the same time, the sudden absence of a Democratic president has left the Texas GOP adrift. For years, the party has been too big, containing too many disparate interests. Opposition to big-spending D.C. liberals kept the coalition together, but it has gotten harder to answer the question: What is a Texas Republican? For the last 15 years, Texas Democrats have been accusing Republicans of overreach. This time, they might be right.
During this year’s legislative session, the tensions in the Republican coalition became explicit. For example, Senate Bill 4, the “show your papers” law, flipped the bird to the business lobby, which was also at odds with lawmakers over the “bathroom bill” and a host of other issues. SB 4 blew up a long-standing truce that kept hard-line immigration rhetoric from becoming law. “It may not be soon,” Representative Poncho Nevárez promised the House chamber, “but there’s going to be a reckoning.”
There’s some reason to believe him. It’s not just Houston — Clinton outdid Obama’s 2012 result by at least 7 points in the state’s five other large urban counties, and did remarkably well in populous suburban counties such as Collin, Hays and Fort Bend, which voted for a Democrat for president for the first time since LBJ.
Historically, an unpopular Republican president is the only thing that has really worked for Texas Democrats: The 2006 and 2008 elections brought them to the cusp of control of the Texas House. Trump has never been popular in Texas, and it’s likely that he’ll become even less so. The policies he champions — harsher immigration enforcement, opposition to global trade — threaten the state’s economy. The GOP is courting its own electoral backlash, right ahead of elections in 2018 and 2020, which will determine who gets to draft redistricting plans and shape the contours of power over the next decade.
But Texas Democrats are experts at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Last decade, there was a sustained campaign to pick up legislative seats that peaked with Obama’s first election. There’s no such effort now. The party waged an expensive campaign in 2014, but it got crushed, and much of that electoral infrastructure has collapsed. Coordination and candidate support is now mostly handled by outside groups on an ad hoc basis, with mixed results.
Beto O’Rourke’s campaign has garnered energy and excitement, but Democrats have no obvious contender to run for governor. The sole challenger to Patrick is a competent technocrat, Mike Collier, who is not a particularly strong candidate. The 2018 ticket could be full of holes, and it remains hard to get good people to run in Texas at the local level.
In other words, all the usual caveats about Texas progressives still apply. But if you’ve been considering volunteering or running for office, now’s the time. And if Democrats can’t, ultimately, make significant headway in this climate, it’s hard to imagine one in which they can.