“I’m an Ann Richards Democrat,” Celia Israel says, as she commonly does; the state representative from northeast Travis County’s House District 50 got her political start way back when – as a young and eager aide to Texas’ last Democratic leader. “I know what it used to be like, and I’ve been fighting for the Texas of my youth since I took the oath of office.”
Those of us who were around for the heady days of Ann Richards’ “New Texas,” who remember the optimism that greeted her 1990 election, understand why Israel wants to bring it back, even though today’s Texas is a very different state. So different that it’s created a new opportunity for Israel as chair of the House Democratic Campaign Committee – the Blue Team’s inside-the-Legislature campaign arm, roused out of hibernation to help lead the Texas Democratic armies in 2020 toward their most highly cherished goal: flipping the House.
It’s not their only goal, of course. Whenever the Blue Avengers assemble, they now – more than a year out – tick off the list of things they want to accomplish this cycle. The leadoff item is putting Texas’ 38 electoral votes in the Democratic presidential nominee’s hands, but that’s understood to be a stretch goal, even as Texas party leaders (including the two running for president, Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro) project confidence. For what they’re worth this early in the cycle, most forecasting models of the 2020 presidential race still show Texas in the red zone, or at least a healthy shade of pink; other tipping-point states (Arizona and Georgia most notably) would be more likely to break blue.
The same is true of unseating Sen. John Cornyn, who’s held statewide elected office since Richards’ day. The packed Democratic primary field for that race includes candidates with the chops to become next year’s Beto, pulling intensity into a race that 18 months ago looked poised to be a walkover. Cornyn’s not really that popular – he is, more to the point, not nearly as well known as you’d expect for a GOP lifer who’s high up in Senate leadership – but this race will still be a little mysterious until the Dems settle on a nominee.
That’s not true of the U.S. House districts where Democrats almost won in 2018; with solid frontrunners in those primaries (some repeat candidates, some rock stars like Wendy Davis), most observers expect the Blue Team to add to its two-seat pickup from last year. But those races won’t change the overall Republican lean of the state’s highly gerrymandered congressional map, and Democrats already control the U.S. House, so despite obvious excitement, the stakes are not really that high here.
Down Memory Lane, to a New Place
But then, as you work painstakingly down the 2020 ballot (no straight-ticket voting for you!), you get to the Texas House races, and people get stars in their eyes. The last time Democrats controlled the state House – and had, under Speaker Pete Laney, a real voice in governance – was 2002, when the fashion of the day was bipartisan consensus. While Laney tried to stay neutral in the 2000 presidential race, many leading Texas Dems campaigned for then-Gov. George W. Bush, who ran for president as a moderate, across-the-aisle coalition-builder using his Texas model as evidence. (Yes kids, it’s true.)
That era ended right quick in 2002, when the GOP House takeover begat the abusive reign of Tom DeLay, Tom Craddick, Rick Perry, Greg Abbott, the tea party, the Freedom Caucus, and Dan Patrick, last seen licking President Apeshit’s nethers on stage in Dallas. Over the course of the Aughts, Democrats clambered back toward parity in the House, which was split 76-74 after the Obamamentum of 2008; that collapsed into a 101-49 deficit after the 2010 Tea Party backlash.
This trip down memory lane reminds us of the high stakes in the campaign to flip the House – the power to stop the curdling ooze of GOP culture-war bullshit from tainting the entire state, and especially the power to keep redistricting after the 2020 census from turning into another assault and battery upon the non-GOP electorate. However, the 2020 narrative is not about turning back the clock, because Texas is such a different state now – in ways that work heavily to the Dems’ advantage.
Ed Espinoza, the executive director of Progress Texas, has been making that case since 2017, when he produced a report highlighting “a lot of good stuff that happened in 2016, that people didn’t notice” in their Trump-induced anguish. “I did that to try to change the mindset and inspire people to run for office. I don’t nearly have the problems now I did two years ago; people are on board now and they truly believe.”
Flipping the House is not a fait accompli; it requires the Dems to retain seats gained in the last two cycles (12 in 2018, four in 2016), then capture nine more red districts. The good news is the list of competitive 2020 Texas House races is much longer than that, based on trends and fundamentals at this point – before any candidates have even filed, mind you, let alone competed in the Democratic primary in March.