- Gage Skidmore
Like it or not, the 2020 election cycle has already arrived in Texas.
Votes were still being tallied in the Nov. 6 midterm elections as the state's Democrats began considering how they could build on their gains in two years, further loosening the GOP's longtime grip on state government. Heartened by Beto O'Rourke's surprisingly close race against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and the down-ballot victories that accompanied it, Texas Democrats are now looking toward 2020 to put an exclamation point on the state's shift to a more competitive political environment.
"Turning Texas blue is not an event, it's a process," state Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in an interview, "and I think 2020 will put us, if not blue, purple — deep purple."
In the past — especially after the last midterms, when another Democratic star, Wendy Davis, lost to Gov. Greg Abbott in a landslide — such talk has drawn scoffs from Republicans who maintained the state remained solidly red. But in the wake of last week's elections, the state's Republicans have been striking a different tone, well aware of the challenge forming in 2020 — a presidential election year — if Democrats are able to make the progress they did last week in a midterm.
"I'm encouraging every Republican activist, donor, candidate and officeholder to take very, very seriously the need to earn and get every vote possible for 2020 starting now," Hinojosa's GOP counterpart, James Dickey, said in an interview. "The candidates and officeholders and activists that we work with have been preparing for — and prepared to battle for — 2020 for over a year and a half now, and the urgency that we all have felt about preparing diligently for 2020 was reinforced by last week’s results."
When the dust settled on election night, O'Rourke lost to Cruz by less than 3 percentage points, and Democrats picked up two U.S. House seats, two state Senate seats and a dozen state House seats. There also was a notable shift in the political landscape, with Democrats further fortifying their hold on big-city counties and making serious inroads into traditionally Republican suburban counties.
Looking toward 2020, Dickey identified a few areas of particular focus for the state party, saying it is "continuing to expand our efforts in urban and suburban areas and with the demographic groups that we have not yet successfully reached with our message."
If there is one thing Texas Republicans are taking heart in as they approach 2020, it is that the state will no longer have straight-ticket voting, which Republicans in the state's big-city counties blamed for their massive losses on Nov. 6. Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill to get rid of the straight-ticket voting option — but not until September 2020.
"In the next election, every candidate will win or lose based on their record and the platform they put forward to voters," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick assured supporters in a post-election message. "This will give us better leaders and better government."
Still, Texas Democrats see a golden opportunity on the horizon. There will be a galvanizing Republican at the top of the ticket nationally, the higher turnout that comes with a presidential election and an anticipated recruitment boon after the unexpected success that so many candidates experienced this time. Maybe, just maybe, they think, the state could be up for grabs in the White House race: Donald Trump only won it by 9 points in 2016, the narrowest margin in two decades, then O'Rourke finished just 2.6 points behind Cruz. Maybe a Texan will be on the Democratic ticket, too.
Texas hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976. The last time both parties made a serious play for the state's electoral votes was in 1996, when President Bill Clinton campaigned here for his re-election ahead of Election Day. Bob Dole won the state by 4.9 percentage points.
The possibility of a serious role for Texas in the 2020 presidential contest is already being discussed in Washington. During a post-election briefing with reporters in the nation's capital, a top Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA Action, presented a slideshow that suggested up to 15 states could be in play in 2020, with the states sorted into three categories: "Core," "Expansion" and "Watch." Texas was listed under "Watch."
Much of the immediate speculation about 2020 in Texas has centered on O'Rourke, who was being discussed as a potential presidential candidate even before he reached the finish line in the Senate race. While running against Cruz, he denied interest in a White House bid. Since then, he has not said what he plans to do next beyond spending more time with his family and then starting to think about what he learned from his Senate campaign. But that has not stopped the 2020 drumbeat surrounding him. A poll released last week pegged him as Democratic voters' No. 3 pick among possible contenders, and a cryptic blog post Thursday about running — a morning jog, that is — stirred speculation anew.
If O'Rourke runs for president, he would have to contend with another Texan who has been preparing for a likely White House bid for nearly two years: Julían Castro, the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor. People close to Castro have been saying an O'Rourke run would not change his plans, a point Castro himself made Friday to the Associated Press. Castro, who said last month he is "likely" to make a White House bid, intends to make an announcement about his plans in early 2019.
Instead of running for president in 2020, some Texas Democrats would like O'Rourke to take on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who will be at the top of the ballot in two years. But privately, O'Rourke has not expressed interest in challenging Cornyn, according to his inner circle.
Among O'Rourke's biggest fans, the prospect of a presidential run appears far more appealing.
"I think there need to be good challengers in 2020 for the Senate seat, but I also really feel that the country needs a moral leader right now in the Oval Office — that office has been dragged to such horrible depths and with that our county has been dragged to such horrible depths — that we need someone to uplift, unify and inspire, and I know for certain Beto can do that," said Veronica Escobar, who is replacing O'Rourke in the U.S. House and said she has not talked with him since Nov. 6 about his future plans.
To put it mildly, Cornyn would be a much different opponent for O'Rourke, and not just because the state's senior senator is not as polarizing a figure as Cruz is. During his 2018 campaign, O'Rourke regularly talked up his work with Cornyn in Congress and pointed to him as the kind of Republican he could collaborate with if elected to the upper chamber.
Nonetheless, Democrats are already targeting Cornyn. Hinojosa said it was no secret that the state party struggled to recruit some statewide candidates in 2018, but he expects that the strides the party made on Nov. 6 will spur previously reluctant Democrats to step up in 2020, with the race to unseat Cornyn serving as the prime beneficiary. Hinojosa guaranteed the party will field a "strong candidate" against Cornyn, noting it is "already getting phone calls from some major players."
O'Rourke "established a baseline that’s far higher, and now we build on it," the national Democratic Party chairman, Tom Perez, said during a post-election discussion with reporters in Washington, D.C. "If the question is, 'Are we going to compete in the Texas Senate race in 2020?', the answer is, 'Hell yeah.'"
A Cornyn spokesman referred to comments the senator made two days after the midterm elections in which he said he intends "to be ready and do my homework" for 2020.
O'Rourke is not the only statewide candidate from Nov. 6 who is already coming up in 2020 conversations. Kim Olson, the fiery Democrat who finished five points behind Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, has been punctuating her post-election social media posts with the hashtag "#kim2020," and a spokeswoman for Olson said she is "currently exploring all opportunities to determine the best way to continue serving Texas and Texans."
At the congressional level, the next cycle is also already looming large.
Democrats picked up two seats on Nov. 6, dislodging Republican U.S. Reps. John Culberson of Houston and Pete Sessions of Dallas. But they also came surprisingly close in several districts that were once considered far out of reach, and the Democratic nominees in those races emerged as local rock stars who are already being encouraged to try again in 2020. That is even before any retirement announcements from GOP incumbents who may not be game for another competitive race in 2020.
Among the rising stars are Sri Preston Kulkarni, a former diplomat who came within five points of taking out U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land. In a message to supporters the weekend after the election, Kulkarni acknowledged that the 2020 discussion was already taking shape, saying that many people have asked him to run again for the seat but he is "not ready to commit to that yet."
Then there is MJ Hegar, the former military pilot who gained a national fanbase taking on U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, and finished just 3 points behind him. In a post-election interview, she noted that even her most loyal supporters told her from the start that it would be a "two-cycle race" to win the seat.
"I’ve been approached by a lot of different people to run for a variety of different offices ... and I’m still considering the best way to serve my community," Hegar said. Running for the congressional seat again, she added, is "one of the options I'm considering."
Farther down the ballot, Democrats are already setting their sights on capturing the state House majority in 2020 — a huge prize ahead of the next redistricting round. They made significant progress on Nov. 6, flipping a dozen seats and growing their ranks from 55 members to 67. That means Democrats are entering the 2020 cycle nine seats removed from the majority — well within reach, according to Democrats inside and outside Texas.
"Democrats are now in striking distance of flipping the Texas Legislature in 2020, with the potential to upend the entire national redistricting process," said Ben Wexler-Waite, a spokesman for a super PAC, Forward Majority, that poured $2.2 million into 32 Texas House races in their closing days.
The contours of the state House battlefield for Democrats in 2020 are already coming into focus. Beyond the 12 seats they picked up, there were several more where the Democratic nominee came within just a few points — or even closer. Adam Milasincic, who lost by just 47 votes to state Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, is already promising an "announcement about 2020" in the coming months.
In the state Senate, the path to the majority for Democrats appears for now to be more challenging. But they have at least one clear target already: state Sen. Pete Flores, the Pleasanton Republican who upset Democrat Pete Gallego in the September special election for Senate District 19.