Battleground Texas?

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Dr. Malcolm Cross

Throughout most of Texas history, Democratic and Republican candidates for president have ignored the Lone Star State, and for good reason.  Texas has either been so reliably Democratic or so reliably Republican that the presidential election outcomes were considered foregone conclusions, and nobody wanted to waste time and money on elections whose results were, for all practical and intents and purposes, known in advance.  

But this might be changing.  More and more Democrats are expressing hope they can win the Texas Senate seat up for grabs, flip the state House of Representatives, and even capture Texas’s 38 electoral votes.  How hopeful should Democrats be?  How fearful should Republicans be?  The answer to both questions:  VERY.

Between 1848 and 1948 Texas voted solidly Democratic in all but one of the presidential elections in which Texans could participate (Texas did not participate in the Civil War election of 1864 or the Reconstruction Era elections of 1868 and 1872).  But beginning in 1952, Republicans began to carry Texas more frequently.  Eisenhower, with his appeal as a Texas-born war hero and fiscal conservative, carried the state twice.   As the national Democrats became more socially liberal and  supportive of civil rights while the national Republicans became more socially conservative, Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1980 and 1984 carried Texas by landslides.  By 1988 the Republicans had carried Texas in 5 of the previous 9 elections.  Of the four elections the GOP lost, it came within less than three points of winning each.

The surging Republican strength in presidential elections caused both national parties to begin taking Texas more seriously.  The high water mark of national party interest in the Lone Star State took place in 1988 when each party placed a Texan on its national ticket:  Republicans nominated George H. W. Bush for president while Democrats, sensing Texas was slipping away yet wanting to retain its loyalty, gave the vice presidential nomination to Texas’s last Democratic U. S. Senator, Lloyd Bentsen.

In 1992 both parties once again staged “Texas-centric” national conventions, with Governor Ann Richards, the Democrats’ keynote convention speaker in 1988, being brought back to preside over her party’s national convention, while the Republicans recruited Kay Bailey Hutchinson, then Texas State Treasurer, to run the Republican convention.  Both parties also gave prime speaking slots to rising Texas stars.

But since 1996, Texas has slipped into the political shadows, as far as presidential elections are concerned.  Because Texas has now voted Republican in each of the last 10 presidential elections since 1980, and the Republicans now hold all statewide elected executive and judicial offices, both U. S. Senate seats, and majorities in the state Senate, state House of Representatives, and state delegation to the U. S. House of Representatives, neither party has seriously considered the possibility that Texas may someday go Democratic.  Neither party has considered campaigning for president here.  Until now.

So why are the Democrats suddenly more hopeful?  Why should the GOP be more concerned?  Why might Texas be added to the battleground states where the 2020 presidential election will be fought, and lost or won?  Consider the omens:

  • In 2016, although Donald Trump won Texas’s electoral vote, he did so with the smallest percentage of a straight two-party vote (52%) since 1980 ( this excludes the two three-way presidential races of 1992 and 1996);
  • In 2018, Ted Cruz, although winning re-election the Senate, nonetheless got the smallest percentage of the vote of any victorious Republican running for Senator in over 20 years;
  • In 2018, the 6 Republican statewide executives seeking re-election won their bids, but by smaller margins than those by which they won office in 2014;
  • In 2018, the Democrats flipped 12 state House seats previously held by Republicans, as well as 2 U. S. House seats;
  • Some public opinion polls show President Trump leading Joe Biden by only one point (44-43) and Senator Cornyn with only a 37% approval rating.

Much can be said to explain these findings:  Trump and Cruz were unattractive candidates, O’Rourke, while losing narrowly to Cruz, nonetheless inspired more voters to support down-ballot Democratic candidates in a unique election, the polls are premature and possibly flawed, etc., etc., etc.  Nonetheless, these data, taken together, offer more encouragement for the Democrats to campaign here this year, and a greater need for the Republicans to find more ways to widen their base and get out their vote.

And so, too, do the long-run demographic trends.  Anglos are the bedrock of the Republican Party of Texas, giving Trump 70% of their vote in 2016.  But Anglos only double in population once every 50 years.  Since 1990 they’ve shrunk as a percentage of the population from 64% to 41%.  In contrast, Latinos, who gave Hillary Clinton 61% of their vote are doubling once every 25 years, and now constitute 42% of the population, up from 24% in 1990.  African Americans, about 11% of Texas’s population, gave 85% of their vote to Clinton, who also won 72% of the vote of the small (c5%) but growing group of Asian-American voters in Texas.  In short, the most Republican voting block in Texas is shrinking relative to the Democratic blocks.

Of course, the Texas GOP remains the dominant party in the state and will probably continue to win most statewide elections for the next few cycles.  But the evidence so far indicates that the Democrats are coming increasingly close to statewide victories in Texas, and may actually begin winning some offices this upcoming decade.  Any political strategist, regardless of his party affiliation, who fails to see the signs of the times and react accordingly, whether out of hope or fear, is guilty of gross political negligence and malpractice.  For better or worse, Texas is edging back into the spotlight of national politics, and both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates may soon once again believe Texas is worth fighting for.


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.

1 Comment

  1. The article should have said that Republicans came to within 3 points of winning Texas in three of the last 4 presidential elections in which the Democrats carried the state. Kennedy in 1960, Humphrey in 1968, and Carter in 1976 each carried Texas by a narrow margin. Only Johnson in 1964 carried his home state in a landslide.

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