78ºF

Analysis: A seasonal change in Texas politics, as November trumps March

photo

A voting sign outside Austin City Hall on Election Day in 2019. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

Whatever happens in politics this year, however red or blue or purple Texas turns out to be, the state’s longtime emphasis on primary elections has shifted to general elections.

The trend was underway before the last election, but 2018 proved that it was possible for the Democrats, who’ve been the minority party for so long, to compete in November. Republicans can no longer regard their March primaries as the uphill part of the ride and November general elections as the downhill coast to office.

Through a parade of Democrats running for governor — Garry Mauro, Tony Sanchez Jr., Chris Bell, Bill White, Wendy Davis and Lupe Valdez — the political question in Texas so far this century has been whether even a well-financed Democrat could crack Republicans’ hold on the state. And the answer — in many cases, well before any votes had been cast — was a persistent no.

The results, at least at the top of the ballot, haven’t changed. Republicans won every single statewide race in the 2018 election. Many were closer than they’ve been in years, enough to inspire speculation among donors, activists and voters. And the down-ballot effects were pronounced, with Democrats winning two seats from the Republicans in Congress, two in the state Senate (though they lost one to the Republicans in a special election) and a dozen in the Texas House. Local Republican candidates were shellacked in the state’s most populous county (Harris) and elsewhere.

It raised the real possibility that Democrats could succeed in the November elections, where they have come up short for so long. And it moved the emphasis of both the government and its elected officials to a different constituency.

In 2019, a Texas Legislature previously attuned to the wishes of conservative Republicans on issues like “sanctuary cities,” gender and public restrooms, school choice, and various other state GOP platform planks turned its attention to public education, property taxes, and other bread-and-butter issues. That was a reflection of the 2018 election, driven by rising activism around public schools, voter frustration over some of the highest property taxes in the U.S., and widespread complaints that lawmakers had frittered away too much time and energy on 2017’s bickering about bathrooms.

Voting in the 2020 primaries starts in a month, on Feb. 18, and there are competitive contests sprinkled across the Democratic and Republican ballots. And there’s a noisy Democratic primary for president, too. But the strategic conversations in Texas — and about Texas, outside of the state — are all about November.

Strategists are serious, too, raising money on both sides, one for attack, the other for defense. The presidential race gets most of the headlines, but that’s a spectator sport in some ways. The political tribes are working on races for Congress and the Texas Legislature. The state’s congressional delegation has a Republican majority and will still have one after the elections are over. But every seat counts, and Republicans would like to reverse their 2018 losses in Dallas and Houston. Democrats are working a list of five to seven seats now held by Republicans that, in a good year, might flip.

Both parties are thinking — and talking and raising money — about the composition of the Texas Legislature that will redraw the state’s political maps after this year’s national census. In a Texas with Republicans in control of all statewide offices, the Senate and the House, those maps will favor Republicans. But if Democrats win the House — Republicans had an 83-67 majority last session — the Republicans won’t have the same advantage over congressional maps. If the Legislature can’t agree on congressional maps that the governor also likes, that issue would go to federal judges for resolution.

A Democratic majority in the House would also change the state’s leadership, replacing a Republican speaker with a Democratic one for the first time since the 2001 session.

Winning primaries is important, the only way to advance to the next round. But for the first time in years, the second — harder — race is coming in November.