Despite high hopes and lots of cash, Democrats fail to flip Texas House or land statewide seat


  • Flickr / Ed Schipul
Democrats spent big and dreamed even bigger in Texas this election cycle. And, once again, they fell desperately short.

Emboldened by promising polls and a 12-seat gain in the Texas House during 2018, the party had hoped to crack Republicans' long dominance here, winning their first statewide office in nearly three decades and racking up the nine seats needed to pull the House under their control.

Neither of those things happened, and at press time, it appears Democrats' wins in the Texas House are likely to be modest, if there are any at all. The San Antonio seat of incumbent State Rep. Steve Allison — one Dems had targeted to flip — remains in Republican control with challenger Celina Montoya falling seven points short.

"At the end of the day, they were trying to run against incumbents," said veteran Democratic political consultant Laura Barberena. "If you're going to beat an incumbent, you have to give people compelling reasons to vote against them. In the absence of that, you've got to drive turnout, and I just don't think that happened."

Despite a rush of outside spending and a rival with a smudged record, Chrysta Castañeda, a Democrat seeking a slot on the important oil-and-gas regulatory body the Texas Railroad Commission, fell 10 points shy. Many observers had given her the best hope of breaking the Dems' sad record on statewide wins.

Races for the Lone Star State's national offices were just as grim.

Democrat MJ Hegar, a decorated Air Force helicopter pilot, forced three-term incumbent John Cornyn to burn through a massive reelection war chest. Even so, he beat her by 10 points.

Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones lost a close race to GOP novice Tony Gonzales to represent retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd's sprawling 23rd District, which includes part of San Antonio.

Freshman U.S. Rep. Chip Roy bested former state Sen. Wendy Davis to hold his spot representing the 21st District, which includes San Antonio, Austin and the Hill Country.

While President Donald Trump's six-point win over Joe Biden this election cycle was the second-closest statewide race for the White House in the past quarter century, Democrats' momentum in the suburbs seems to have stalled, said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson.

"I think Democrats' success in 2018 in the Texas House was picking the low hanging fruit," he said. "It was also a period when change was coming to the suburbs, in that voters there were looking for more balance and not just Republican candidates all the time. But it doesn't look like that continued this election cycle."

Trinity University Political Science Professor Juan Sepulveda said Democrats had reason to be excited about 2020, especially new Latinx voters joining the rolls. However, he said they were overly optimistic about how another demographic change would help their chances: the influx of new voters from outside the state.

"The data shows that many of the people leaving California, Oregon or Washington are leaving because of taxation and some issues that are likely to drive them to the Republican Party," he said.

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