Five things to learn from Election Day 2020 in Texas

Texas played host to a series of high-stakes contests up and down the ballot

Published November 5, 2020 6:18AM (EST)

An election worker accepts mail in ballot from a voter at drive-through mail ballot drop off site at NRG Stadium on October 7, 2020 in Houston, Texas. Gov. Gregg Abbott issued an executive order limiting each Texan county to one mail ballot drop-off site due to the pandemic. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)
An election worker accepts mail in ballot from a voter at drive-through mail ballot drop off site at NRG Stadium on October 7, 2020 in Houston, Texas. Gov. Gregg Abbott issued an executive order limiting each Texan county to one mail ballot drop-off site due to the pandemic. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on The Texas Tribune.

It's finally Election Day.

After months of campaigning and prognosticating — all during a pandemic — Texas is playing host to a series of high-stakes contests up and down the ballot, from a presidential race that could be the state's closest in a generation to the fight for the Texas House majority. And it is all coming after an early voting period that saw turnout exceed the number of votes for the entire 2016 election. After 9.7 million people voted early, some experts believe Texas might be on a path to potentially surpass 12 million voters when all is said and done.

Texas has attracted intense national interest in recent weeks, and in one sign of it, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, spent the day before the election traveling the state.

"The road to the White House runs through Texas, and the road to a Senate majority runs straight through the great state of Texas, and that's why I'm proud to be here, folks," Perez said Monday morning in San Antonio.

Hours later, as he finished a six-day bus tour in Dripping Springs, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn recognized two of the factors making for a dramatic end to the general election in Texas: the massive early voting turnout and a late surge in outside Democratic spending against both him and President Donald Trump. Cornyn said the 9.7 million early voters are a "wonderful thing" but added that "about a million of them have never voted in a primary general election, so that's going to be an interesting mystery."

"We've never seen such an unprecedented amount of out-of-state money coming into Texas this election," said Cornyn, speaking from the balcony of his campaign bus surrounded by down-ballot candidates. "Every single Republican up here is being outspent by our opposition."

A reminder: The number of Texas voters casting absentee ballots has risen sharply due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the outcome of some key races may not be known Tuesday night as a result.

That being said, here are five of the biggest storylines to watch.

Can Joe Biden actually win Texas? 

A Democrat hasn't won Texas' electoral votes since 1976, but statewide polls show a highly competitive race.

If Biden can turn voters out and flip the state, it would be a massive event in state and American politics — and would almost certainly mean a Biden victory nationwide.

A Democratic win in Texas could hinge on Hispanic and suburban voters. On Friday, Biden's running mate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, made a last-minute stop in McAllen with Beto O'Rourke and Julián Castro. When asked by a reporter there why she was visiting the border city, Harris said it was "because there are people here who matter, people who are working hard, people who love their country, and we need to be here and be responsive to that." (Trump hasn't done any general-election campaigning in Texas, though national surveys have shown Trump improving among Hispanic voters compared with his 2016 standing.)

Texas' fast-changing suburbs, meanwhile, have been steadily slipping out of Republicans' grip over the last few election cycles. On Tuesday, Democrats are hoping to pick up several congressional and state House seats in these regions and build on the suburban strength they garnered in 2018 to undercut Trump's advantage in rural areas of the state.

Of the 1.8 million newly registered voters the state gained between 2016 and 2020, most of them are in large urban and suburban counties. The big cities are dominated by Democrats. Meanwhile, traditionally Republican suburban counties like Denton, Williamson and Collin are trending more blue.

Will the Texas House flip?

After gaining 12 seats in 2018, Democrats are nine away from the majority in the Texas House. Flipping the chamber would unlock a major prize for the party: more influence in the 2021 redistricting process.

While Democrats have to defend the dozen seats they picked up, they are confident about those races and have cast a wide net on offense, designating as many as 22 pickup opportunities. At the core of that battlefield are the nine seats that O'Rourke won in 2018 that are still represented by Republicans.

The battle for the lower chamber has become a hugely expensive affair, attracting tens of millions of dollars from statewide and national groups. On the latest campaign finance reports alone, covering Sept. 25 through Oct. 24, candidates across 34 battleground districts combined to raise $39.4 million, including in-kind donations, and spend $22.3 million.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who is not up for reelection until 2022, has made the state House fight his top political priority this election cycle. His campaign has spent over $6 million on down-ballot races this fall, according to a memo sent Monday to state House Republicans.

Abbott has also visited a handful of battleground districts recently to knock doors. On Saturday, Abbott was in House District 121, where state Rep. Steve Allison, R-San Antonio, is fighting for reelection after winning the seat by 9 points just two years ago.

Still, Democratic optimism about capturing the House majority has only grown in the homestretch. In one sign that the party anticipates being in control come January, three Democratic members have announced in recent days that they are running for speaker.

How many U.S. House seats will Democrats pick up?

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came to Texas in March 2019 and declared the state would be "ground zero" for Democrats in 2020. They have made good on her promise, at least when it comes to the congressional battlefield here.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has built a Texas target list that includes 10 GOP-held districts, more seats than the committee is working to flip anywhere else in the country. In all but two of the 10 districts, the DCCC has added the Democratic nominee to its Red to Blue program for top candidates.

National Republicans, meanwhile, have targeted the two seats they lost in 2018, those held by Democratic U.S. Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Houston.

With Allred and Fletcher well positioned for reelection, most of the action has centered on the Democrats' targets, and four of them in particular at this point: the 21st District, where Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, is up for reelection; the 22nd District, where Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, is retiring; the 23rd District, where Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, is not seeking reelection; and the 24th District, where Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, is also vacating the seat.

That is not to say Democrats are not seeing promise in other targeted districts. As an example, they have grown optimistic in the homestretch about the 3rd District, where Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, is running for reelection in the kind of highly educated suburban district that has swung away from Trump.

Can John Cornyn dispatch a late Democratic spending blitz?

Cornyn, a Republican, has long had a polling lead — if small at times — in his reelection campaign. But the race is ending on a less certain note amid an 11th-hour spending spree by Democratic outside groups that even Cornyn admits is concerning.

Senate Majority PAC, Future Forward and EMILY's List combined to dump eight figures into the contest during early voting, seeing a late opportunity to unseat Cornyn and elect his Democratic opponent, MJ Hegar. The president of EMILY's List, Stephanie Schriock, told reporters Friday that the contest has become a "late-breaking race" and that with Texas' huge early voting turnout, "we feel like we've got a real path here to victory."

A pro-Cornyn super PAC has ratcheted up its spending in recent days, but it has not been able to match the Democratic coalition dollar for dollar.

Both Cornyn and Hegar hit the road hard in the lead-up to Tuesday. Hegar, the former Air Force helicopter pilot, joined Harris for her three stops Friday across Texas and then headed out on her own, visiting Austin, Del Rio, Laredo, San Antonio, Webster, Arlington and Dallas.

Cornyn, meanwhile, went on the bus tour, which began Wednesday. He swung through 21 cities through Monday, which included three stops that day with the state's junior senator, Ted Cruz, who warned in Dripping Springs that the state is "under assault" and asked Republicans to "fight back the socialist horde that is attacking our state."

How high can Texas turnout get — and when will all the votes be counted?

There were 9.7 million early voters in Texas, exceeding the 9 million who voted in the entire 2016 election. Now the question is this: Just how high will total turnout go Tuesday?

Many political observers are bracing for a turnout north of 12 million, which would be uncharted territory in Texas politics.

Just how uncharted? Consider this: A turnout of over 12 million would be more than two and a half times that of the last time Cornyn was on the ballot, in 2014.

Across the country, election officials are preparing for a longer-than-usual wait time for full results due to adjustments made as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. However, that could be less of a factor in Texas, which declined to expand mail-in voting and lets counties begin counting absentee ballots before Election Day.

Still, more down-ballot races are in play than in recent memory in Texas, and there is the possibility that multiple outcomes are not confidently known until every last ballot is counted. In Texas, absentee ballots count as long as they are postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day and received by the county elections office by 5 p.m. the next day. Counties can also accept overseas military ballots through Nov. 9.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

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