After 2018 wake-up call, Texas Republicans were ready to fight back this year

After 2018 wake-up call, Texas Republicans were ready to fight back this year

A Trump supporter with his truck at Harris County Trini Mendenhall Community Center in Houston,Tuesday, November 3, 2020 as voters head to the polls.(Photo by Michael Stravato for the Texas Tribune)

A supporter of President Donald Trump is shown at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center in Houston on Election Day.

Credit: MICHAEL STRAVATO

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Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

A little over a week before Election Day, Tony Gonzales’ campaign got internal poll results that caught its attention.

The Republican candidate was up 5 percentage points in the 23rd Congressional District, the perennial battleground where U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, is retiring. Gonzales’ team was feeling good about his chances, but a 5-point win — or anything close to it — would be significant in a district decided by much smaller margins for the past few election cycles.

That poll turned out to be pretty accurate. Gonzales defeated the Democratic nominee, Gina Ortiz Jones, by 4 percentage points — after she finished just 926 votes behind Hurd two years ago.

It was one of many bright spots Tuesday for Republicans in Texas — and an example of relatively reliable polling to boot.

Not every campaign was as fortunate, though. Democrats woke up Wednesday morning questioning long-held assumptions about the most consequential Texas election in a generation — the polling that had let them down, the turnout increase that didn’t seem as friendly to them as anticipated, the expectations that were raised sky-high.

After Texas Republicans were caught sleeping two years ago, they say it was Democrats who walked into a buzzsaw this time — a more battle-ready, unified GOP.

“I think they thoroughly underestimated the desire to fight and the sophistication of not just the candidates and the consulting class but also these groups who are committed to a conservative agenda,” said Matt Brownfield, a GOP strategist who worked on multiple races in the fight for the state House majority. “They just underestimated us tremendously.”

The Texas Democratic Party spent the cycle touting Texas as the “biggest battleground state,” and while the state attracted battleground-level attention and investment, Democrats ended up with few wins to show for it. President Donald Trump won the state by 6 percentage points, narrower than his 2016 margin but wider than many polls had suggested. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, easily dispatched a late Democratic spending surge and won reelection by 10 points. After the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeted 10 GOP-held U.S. House seats, Democrats were winning none of them as of Friday. And Democrats’ hopes of flipping the Texas House collapsed, with the balance of power largely unchanged heading into January.

On Tuesday afternoon, the state Democratic Party chair, Gilberto Hinojosa, issued a statement maintaining that the party called Texas the “biggest battleground, not the biggest blue state.”

“We have tough questions to ask ourselves,” Hinojosa said. “There are significant challenges before us, and new solutions are required.”

At the top of the ticket, Democrats had hoped for a much closer presidential race — if not the state going blue in a presidential race for the first time since 1976. Biden’s 6-point margin was especially disappointing given his striking underperformance along the border and particularly in South Texas.

That had ramifications down the ballot, which had races drawing money from across the nation. A national Democratic operative who worked on the battle for the Texas House said their side’s strategy was “predicated on a much stronger Biden performance statewide” — closer to Beto O’Rourke’s 3-point deficit against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. The operative spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak candidly about internal party strategies.

Like elsewhere in the country, Democrats were misled by polls in Texas.

While polls should be treated as a snapshot in time and not a prediction of the final outcome, many Democratic surveys — even some that were conducted close to the election — were far off. Less than two weeks before Election Day, a Democratic poll of the 3rd Congressional District found the Republican incumbent, Rep. Van Taylor of Plano, trailing by 2 points. He won Tuesday by 12.

Statewide, public polls were also more generous to Democrats, with the final RealClearPolitics polling average giving Trump only a 1-point edge in Texas.

Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster with wide experience in Texas, said polling in Texas may have failed to take into account the complexity of Hispanic voters, among other things.

“In states like Texas, you need to really manage your sample well to make sure you’re not just getting enough Hispanics, but getting enough of the right Hispanic subgroups by national origin and by socioeconomics,” he said.

In the case of Gonzales, his pollster, Nicole McCleskey of Public Opinion Strategies, had been surveying the Hispanic-majority district since Hurd’s first race in 2014. She said that especially in the 23rd District, it is important not to consider Hispanic voters as a monolith — and they can be very different in Bexar County versus the district’s western rural expanse, for example.

It was not just bad polling fueling Democratic optimism. Many saw the massive number of people voting early as a sign of a blue wave rising.

Early voting turnout ended up at 9.7 million, more than the entire 2016 election. Voters with Republican primary history outnumbered those with Democratic primary history, though both sides were far more interested in the sizable group of new voters and which way they would break.

Derek Ryan, a Republican data analyst, said Texas had 2.9 million voters who registered after the 2018 election, and 1.6 million of them voted early. He had thought that if Republicans were lucky, those 1.6 million would break 60-40 for Democrats. On Thursday, though, he said it was clear that the split was far tighter.

The turnout was an especially satisfying development for Republicans who have long heard Democrats claim that Texas is not a red state but a “nonvoting state.”

“Well, I think we fuckin’ blew that bullshit up yesterday when over 11 million people voted and they still lost and they lost everywhere,” Dave Carney, Gov. Greg Abbott’s top political strategist, told reporters Wednesday.

Republicans also argued Democrats were foolish to hold off on resuming door-knocking due to the coronavirus. While some Democrats dismissed that concern ahead of the election, others have openly grappled with it since Tuesday.

“I can’t help but imagine what we could have done if we were not restrained by the pandemic from knocking on doors,” Beto O’Rourke wrote to supporters Wednesday in an email.

O’Rourke was prolific in the battle for the state House — much to Republicans’ delight. Abbott’s campaign ran highly targeted digital ads tying candidates to O’Rourke’s positions, and the strategy was not without data to back it up — O’Rourke’s favorability rating was consistently underwater in statewide polling throughout the cycle.

When it came to issues, there was arguably none that Republicans bet bigger on than law enforcement. Abbott became obsessed with the “defund the police” movement after Austin cut its department’s budget by a third, and Republicans throughout the ballot worked strenuously to tie their Democratic opponents to the cause — which takes many forms — even if they had not declared support for it.

A fierce national debate over criminal justice reform escalated this year after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, leading some advocates to call for shifts in police funding. Republicans campaigned heavily on the issue, saying it shows a lack of Democratic support for law enforcement.

“If we lose the argument on whether [a Democratic candidate] wants to defund the police, we still win,” said Craig Murphy, a Republican consultant who was involved in the Texas House battle. “Because if the issue is whether you support the police or not, then I’m going with the Republican.”

Reluctant to let the Republicans dictate the terms of the conversation, some Democratic candidates declined to push back on the police-related attacks in a meaningful way. One exception was Wendy Davis, the Democratic challenger to U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, who aired a direct-to-camera TV ad in which she said, “We need criminal justice reform, but I don’t support defunding the police.” Still, Roy persisted with claims she wanted to defund the police, including in his final TV ad, and won by a better-than-expected 7 points.

Congressional contests

Cornyn also seized on the issue in his campaign’s TV ads, and a pro-Cornyn super PAC scrambled to shore him up in the final days by airing a commercial exclusively about law enforcement in mainly rural markets.

In his bid for a fourth term, Cornyn was determined to prevent a close race like the state’s junior senator, Cruz, faced against O’Rourke in 2018. That vigilance reassured Texas Republicans throughout the cycle, even as they wearily watched poll after poll come out showing Trump struggling in Texas.

Still, Cornyn ran into some late turbulence. His Democratic opponent, MJ Hegar, saw a fundraising boom after she won her July primary runoff, and once early voting began, a coalition of national Democratic super PACs came together to dump eight figures into the race.

Cornyn ultimately won by a wider margin than Trump.

Cornyn’s campaign knew he faced at least two challenges in the general election: low name ID and running with a president who was struggling in Texas. That is why he went on TV relatively early — Aug. 14, over three weeks before Hegar did — with positive ads targeted at a constituency that had soured on Trump: suburban women. The soft-focus commercials also provided an implicit stylistic contrast with the bombastic Trump, showing Cornyn wearing a mask — the value of which Trump has fluctuated on — and presenting him as a low-key, tactful statesman.

Asked after his victory speech if he felt he had to build an independent brand given Trump’s perceived Texas troubles, Cornyn said he was “proud to work with this president” and reiterated they have had disagreements but that he prefers to deal with them privately.

While Cornyn brought relief to the GOP at the top of the ticket, the state’s Republicans had always had more work cut out for them farther down the ballot.

Fresh off flipping two U.S. House seats here in 2018, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee stormed into Texas early in the cycle, establishing an office in Austin and vowing to make the state the linchpin to the party’s strategy to expand its House majority. The DCCC ultimately assembled a target list of 10 GOP-held districts across the state.

As of Thursday, Democrats were within 5 points in only two of those races. The closest is in the 24th District, where Democrat Candace Valenzuela has not conceded to Republican Beth Van Duyne, who leads by over a point.

“I was disappointed that we didn’t win some seats in Texas, I’ll be very honest about that,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Friday.

In a statement, a DCCC spokesperson, Avery Jaffe, highlighted how Democrats successfully defended the two Texas seats they picked up in 2018 and put the GOP on defense this cycle, “spreading Republicans paper-thin by forcing them to spend millions on historically conservative seats.”

At the end of the day, the margins in most of the DCCC-targeted districts were closer to those of Trump in each district four years ago versus O’Rourke two years ago. That spoke to a broader bet that Democrats had made down-ballot — that O’Rourke’s margin in legislative districts was something of a baseline heading into Tuesday.

“These were all Republican districts, and they all ended up behaving like Republican districts,” said Bob Salera, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Fight for the Texas House

Then there was the state House fight, where Democrats needed a net gain of nine seats to capture the majority and are staring down a net gain of zero.

Like the congressional races, Democrats relied on faulty polling for their optimism. In mid-August, Hinojosa, the state party chair, said internal polling showed Democrats leading in 18 out of 20 battleground state House races.

As of Friday, the party was on track to pick up only one seat, that of Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, and lose a seat, that of freshman Rep. Gina Calanni, D-Katy. A third contest — the reelection campaign of Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson — remained too close to call.

Austin Chambers, the head of the Republican State Leadership Committee, told reporters Wednesday that the group was “absolutely overjoyed” with the Texas results given that both sides spent more on the chamber than any other in the country.

Like the DCCC, the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee was left Thursday touting its defense victories — the reelection of 11 out of 12 freshmen — and emphasizing the expensive battle they forced Republicans to fight. That shows “they know it’s a competitive chamber and will continue to be one,” said Andrew Reagan, the HDCC’s executive director.

Reagan was not the only Democrat seeking to keep the tough election in perspective Thursday. In an interview, Monica Alcantara, chair of the Bexar County Democratic Party, noted that there was a time when the party would not even consider putting up a candidate in a place like state House District 121, where Rep. Steve Allison, R-San Antonio, won by 7 on Tuesday.

“It’s just we need more work to do,” Alcantara said, “but I think we’re heading in the right direction.”


Source: Texas Tribune