Analysis: The second election can be harder than the first one

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Voting signs at the South Austin Recreation Center polling site on Oct. 14. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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Dozens of Texas candidates are at the end of their first terms in office and are now asking voters to reelect them.

It’s the political equivalent of asking for a second date, or deciding to go back to that restaurant after the first meal or sticking with a TV show.

Or that first job review: Winning a second term can be the hardest election for incumbents. They’re too new to have big accomplishments to list and too fresh a face to have a strong relationship with voters. At worst, these sophomores are unknown, unheralded and facing opponents who want voters to rebel against incumbents.

That’s why so many of the Texas officeholders first elected in 2018 defeated incumbent officeholders in Washington and Austin. With the roles switched, many of them now find themselves atop the opposing party’s list of targets in the 2020 election.

Democratic efforts to win nine more seats in the 150-member Texas House are getting a lot of attention. That would return them to the majority they lost in the 2002 elections. They’d get to elect a Democratic speaker — the first one since Pete Laney. They’d have a small hand in the redrawing of the state’s political districts, which beats no hand at all. And they’d have an effective veto over legislation that might otherwise sail into law with a Republican Senate, a Republican House and a Republican governor.

That’s their story for candidates, voters, donors and anyone else who’ll listen.

To accomplish that, Democrats are aiming at Republicans who won by narrow margins two years ago or who are in districts where GOP candidates at the top of the ballot didn’t do well in 2016 or 2018, like President Donald Trump or U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

But keep an eye on those 12 Democrats who were elected to the Texas House two years ago — many of them in elections that were decided by skinny margins. It’s hardly a surprise when candidates from a president’s political party do poorly in mid-term elections. Republicans had a bumpy ride two years ago, just like Democrats did in 2010, when Barack Obama was president, and in 1994, Bill Clinton’s first mid-term.

Some of those seats are probably gone for good. But Democrats won a few races that even the Democrats weren’t counting on. Gina Calanni, D-Katy, beat then-state Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, by 113 votes in a race where neither of them got 50% of the votes cast. Schofield is back for a rematch, and who can blame him? That’s a paper-thin mandate. Here’s another one: State Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, was reelected in 2018 by 220 votes, or 0.28 percentage points. Joanna Cattanach, the Democrat who lost, is back.

The state’s current political maps are almost 10 years old, and new ones will be drawn when the results of the 2020 U.S. Census are delivered to the state. Here at the end of the cycle, districts that were originally drawn to be reliably Republican have eroded, especially in the state’s big cities and a number of its suburbs. Meyer, for instance, was elected in 2014 with 60.7% to Democrat Leigh Bailey’s 39.3%. Candidates in formerly safe districts aren’t in safe districts anymore.

But they’re not necessarily Democratic House districts. Democrats are focusing on 2018’s near misses this year, where Republicans held on by their fingernails and might be vulnerable. They’re getting less attention for it, but Republicans will be testing the Democrats who won in 2018. They want to know whether those House districts’ voters have really turned blue, or were just in a bad mood two years ago.