“Don’t get cocky, kid.” So said Han Solo to Luke Skywalker after Luke had shot down an Imperial fighter as the Millenium Falcon was fleeing from Darth Vader. That advice, given long ago and far, far away when the Star Wars films were still entertaining, should also be taken by both Republican and Democratic strategists as they ponder the meaning of the 2020 midterm election results in Texas.
Republicans should not get too cocky even though they maintained their 24-year streak of winning every statewide elective office at issue this year. They should be more concerned by the fact that their victory margins this year were narrower than they were four years ago. Consider, for example, the election returns for the races for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Controller, Land Commissioner, and Agriculture Commissioner—the six executive offices in which the men first elected in 2014 were all re-elected in 2018.
2014’s top vote-getter, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, won his office with 60.7% of the vote. The average percentage won by the Republicans was 60.0% with no Republican winning less than 58.4%. The average vote for the Democrats was 37.6% with Wendy Davis leading the field with 38.9%.
But in 2018, no Republican won more votes than Governor Abbot’s 55.8%. The average Republican vote was 52.7%. Attorney General Ken Paxton, the weakest of the Republican candidates, won only 50.6% of the vote. The Democrats won an average of 44.8% of the vote, with nobody winning less than gubernatorial nominee Lupe Valdez’s 42.5%. Democrats are clearly beginning to catch up—for now.
But Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky either. Their narrower losses were still losses. Moreover, their relative “success” may be due to a factor with less reliability than meets the eye: The alleged charisma of Congressman Beto O’Rourke.
True, Congressman O’Rourke led the Democratic ticket in more ways than one. As his party’s nominee for U. S. Senator, his name was at the top of the Democratic ticket. To many in the media as well as in the electorate, he showed extraordinary political appeal. He vaguely resembles a Kennedy (athletic build, big teeth, a shock of hair). His informal, casual personality contrasted favorably (at least in the media) to Ted Cruz’s more hard-edged style; and his emphasis on returning civility to politics simultaneously obscured his liberal policy agenda while contrasting favorably with Cruz’s partisan and policy-oriented campaign. He got the most votes of any Democrat, winning 48.3% to Republican opponent Ted Cruz’s 50.9%. He may well have had a “coattails effect,” being able to induce more voters to support down ballot Democrats as well.
But lost in the acclaim for Congressman O’Rourke are two unpleasant facts: First, he did lose to Ted Cruz. And second, he got fewer votes than any Republican running for any statewide office, executive or judicial, in 2018. Whatever his charisma, he was unable to inspire enough voters to actually vote for him or for other Democrats. If Democrats want to win in Texas, they must get more votes than Republicans get. Coming close simply doesn’t cut it.
So Republicans should waste little time celebrating their victories, because their victory margins are smaller than they once were, and should they continue to diminish Republicans will no longer have any victories to celebrate at all. They can put their time to better use by thinking how best to reverse the trend of which the decline in support from 2014 to 2018 may be a harbinger.
And Democrats should waste little time celebrating their near-victory, which is simply another term for defeat. They should work at determining whether this year’s election returns really were a fluke—the function of a single charismatic personality whose power may, or may not, be up to the task of winning votes. And they must determine how to increase their share of the vote if and when Beto O’Rourke ceases to be a participant in Texas politics. Placing their future in the hands of one individual, whatever his strengths and gifts, imposes to great a burden on that individual and is simply too risky.
A starting point for strategists of either party is to examine how each party can make itself more appealing to Texas’s emerging Hispanic voters. Whichever party wins the long-term support of Texas’s biggest ethnic group may well dominate Texas politics for decades to come, regardless of how charismatic, or uncharismatic, each party’s candidates for office may otherwise be. In a future column, we’ll explore what each party should do to win the Hispanic vote, whatever the personalities of each party’s future candidates may be.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.