November’s election is behind us, and as the legislature gavels into session this week, there is at least one issue on which all political observers agree: In 2018, the Texas GOP suffered one of its worst election cycles in recent history. Although Republicans ended up retaining every statewide office, the narrow margins of victory in some of these races resulted in a down-ballot massacre. The GOP lost twelve House seats, two Texas Senate seats, two congressional seats, and, most significantly, countless judicial benches, county judges and county commissioners.
Today, on paper, it appears that Texas conservatives walked away from election night still controlling Texas government, but the details present a much less clear picture. Furthermore, the results present a pathway to success for Democrats to win their first statewide election in over 20 years, and, for the first time since 1976, deliver Texas for the Democratic nominee for president in 2020.
While Texas Republicans still control both chambers of the legislature, the two losses in the Texas Senate are significant. That chamber is left with only 19 Republican votes, the magic number needed to pass a bill. This is going to make the session challenging for Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, as Republican Senator Kel Seliger has been opposed to Patrick’s “tea party” style of governing, specifically on issues of local control, school vouchers, and immigration.
Looking at the longer term impact of the 2018 election, it’s important to understand that Governor Abbott won re-election with more votes than any other candidate in the country, while Senator Ted Cruz barely won re-election. Post-election data tells us that the reason for the disparity in these results has everything to do with President Trump’s unpopularity in the urban and suburban counties of Texas. Texas Republicans will control the Texas Legislature for the next two years, but with President Trump likely leading the ticket in 2020, Democrats are salivating at the opportunity to build on their 2018 gains, especially during a presidential cycle and leading into a redistricting session. After all, Republicans cannot win a presidential election without winning Texas’s coveted 38 electoral votes. Also at stake is one US Senate seat, as Senator John Cornyn stands for re-election in 2020.
Republicans have taken notice and they are now promising to organize a year-round voter ID and registration program. And some of the most ideologically driven Republicans are moderating their rhetoric, promising to work for their districts as opposed to a particular ideology. And they are optimistic that the effect of Trump’s “unlikability” will be limited, as 2020 is the first cycle for which Texas voters will not have a straight ticket option. That means those who show up strictly to vote against Trump will likely skip the down ballot, leaving those races to be decided by voters who still value Texas’s conservative approach to governing.