Beto O'Rourke fell short — but Republicans fear Texas will go blue in 2020

Beto was no fluke: Democrats ousted two GOP congressmen and picked up 14 seats in the Texas legislature

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published November 20, 2018 6:00AM (EST)

Beto O'Rourke (AP/Eric Gay)
Beto O'Rourke (AP/Eric Gay)

Republicans in Texas are concerned that the previously reliably red state may become a swing state by the 2020 elections. While Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke fell just short in his campaign against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, he came close enough that he now looks like a plausible presidential candidate. More important still, changing demographics caused Republicans to lose more than a dozen federal, state and local seats in Texas in this month's midterm elections.

Republicans lost 12 seats in the state House and two in the state Senate in the midterms, primarily in areas around Dallas and Houston.

Voters in Houston’s Harris County also booted a Republican county executive. Republicans had won the straight-ticket vote in Harris County by nearly double-digits in 2010 and 2014, The Hill reported. This year, they lost by 11 points.

In Dallas County, Democrats edged Republicans by just 1 percent in 2002. By 2014, Democrats won the straight-ticket vote by 10 points. This year, Democrats in Dallas County won by 30 points.

In Travis County, which includes Austin, the famously liberal state capital, Democrats won the straight-ticket vote by 45 points.

On the federal level, while all eyes were on O’Rourke, who came within 2.5 points of beating Cruz -- who had won his previous election by 16 points -- Democrats ousted two longtime Republican congressmen: 11-term incumbent Pete Sessions, the House Rules Committee chair, and nine-term incumbent John Culberson, who sat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. A third congressional race, in which Republican Rep. Will Hurd leads Democrat Gina Ortiz-Jones by 1,150 votes, still has not been called.

While all this is enough to cause Texas Republicans sleepless nights, the growing urban population in the state’s largest cities appears to be turning the state downright purple, much as we have already seen in states like Nevada and Colorado, where the diverse populations of the Las Vegas and Denver areas make up a huge share of the statewide vote.

“We have a lot of new voters who have held up their hands. There’s thousands of new voters moving to Texas every week,” Texas Republican strategist Chris Homan told The Hill, which noted that roughly 10 percent of residents did not live in the state when Cruz first won his Senate seat in 2012. Six of the country’s 10 fast-growing counties are in Texas.

“Texas is a state that Democrats have been eyeing for some time now, because at the presidential level, it just keeps moving toward Democrats,” former Obama campaign strategist Ethan Roeder told The Hill.

“Urban Texas is home to a vast majority of the state’s population, so this is where future elections will be fought,” added University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. “Republicans are losing that war to date. If Republicans can’t keep Democratic numbers below 60 percent in urban Texas, winning elections is going to be much more difficult going forward.”

Republicans are also concerned that the suburbs, both in Texas and around the country, are no longer as conservative-leaning as they once were -- even just two years ago.

Cruz won Denton County, which lies in suburban Dallas, by 32 points in his first race. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by 20 points. This year, Cruz carried the county by just seven points. In nearby Collin County, where he previously won by 32 points, Cruz won by just six points this year. Meanwhile, O’Rourke won five counties that had previously backed Cruz.

Along with defeats in several house seats, other Republicans came dangerously close to losing their suburban-area district seats. Reps. Kenny Marchant, Michael McCaul and John Carter each won their suburban congressional seats by fewer than five points.

With a growing population, Texas is expected to gain two to three more House seats in the next decennial reapportionment process, which also means more electoral votes.

“Texas is in play for a presidential election,” Homan said. “The candidates we have, the campaigns we run, our ability to talk to a voting population beyond a narrow primary population, what we do in the next two years is going to define how Texas looks for the following 10 years.”

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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