It seems like a perennial prediction. Almost every election cycle, Democrats get their hopes up that maybe this time their candidate can pull off an upset in the Lone Star State. So far, for more than two decades, they’ve been disappointed.
I’m a Georgian, both by birth and current residence, but I did spend a lot of time in Texas. After having lived in both, I can see a lot of similarities and links between the two states.
The relationship between Georgia and Texas goes way back. A great many of the Texas settlers were from Georgia and at least five of the Alamo defenders were from Georgia. Col. James Fannin, commander of the Texican garrison that was massacred at Goliad, was a Georgia native and a graduate of the University of Georgia [Go Dawgs!]. Another Georgian, Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar, succeeded Sam Houston as the second president of the Republic of Texas. Texas returned the favor in the Civil War when the Texas general, John Bell Hood, played a major role in the defense of Georgia from General Sherman’s Union army.
Today, the two states share many similarities as well. Both saw their political landscape shift from Democratic to Republican during the 1990s and both are seeing a large influx of new residents owing to their friendly business climates and growing urban areas, not to mention actual climates that feature very mild winters. We won’t talk about the summers in both states.
For a long time, both states were tantalizingly close, yet just out of the grasp of Democrats. Then came 2020 and the infamous Georgia runoff in which Democrats ran the table and pulled off two upset Senate victories. Prior to this year, Georgia had not had a Democratic senator since Zell Miller left office in 2005. We have to look back two years earlier, before the retirement of Max Cleland in 2003, to see the last time that Democrats held both of Georgia’s Senate seats.
As a kid in Georgia, I can remember when Democrats dominated the state government. At one time, Republicans couldn’t get elected dogcatcher in most of the state. In recent years, the opposite has been true.
Texas looks very similar. The last time Texans voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was Jimmy Carter in 1976, but we only have to look back four governors, to Anne Richards in 1995, to see the last Democrat in the governor’s mansion. Bob Krueger, the last Democratic senator from Texas, lost his reelection bid in 1993. Both states have seemed very red in recent years, but both have also gone blue within not-too-distant memory.
To see how Democrats might prevail in Texas, it is helpful to look at the Georgia upsets. In the Senate runoffs, there was no single reason that Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler lost. Instead, there were several factors that created a perfect storm for the incumbents.
One of the most obvious factors was that Republican turnout dipped. The Atlanta Journal reported that 725,000 Republicans who voted in the general election did not show up for the runoff. There are several possible reasons for this including the fact that Donald Trump was not on the ballot and that many Trump partisans were saying that voting was pointless in the runoff because Democrats would just steal the election anyway. It may also be true that a lot of these people didn’t vote because they were on their way to Washington to take part in the Stop the Steal rally and insurrection the next day.
An analysis by FiveThirtyEight points out that Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock outpaced Joe Biden with black voters. In the high turnout election, lack of motivation for Republican voters and high engagement among Democrats, minorities, and moderates who opposed Republican attempts to throw out the Electoral College results led to a net gain of about 2.5 percent of the vote for the Democratic Senate candidates over their general election performances.
The high Democratic turnout can be traced in large part to Stacey Abrams. Abrams lost the gubernatorial race in 2018 to Republican Brian Kemp. Following that loss, she started a voter registration organization called Fair Fight. Abrams’s group registered more than 800,000 new voters in the Peach State before the general election and another 76,000 before the runoff.
In Georgia, as with most states, Democratic strongholds are in the cities. If you look at a map of the runoff results, there is a lot of red, and the urban areas of Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, and Savannah are easily identifiable blue islands.
The key to understanding the election results is that that there are a lot more voters in those small blue areas than in the vast expanses of red. Out of a state population of 10.6 million, the Atlanta metro counties alone account for 5.9 million people, more than half the population of the state. The votes of the blue cities offset a lot of rural counties.
There is a similar situation in Texas. The Lone Star State has a number of growing urban areas with vast expanses of sparsely populated prairies in between. Looking at the election map from 2020, there are splotches of blue around Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and along the Mexican border (which defies a lot of claims about border violence fueling Republican votes), but the state’s rural counties are a sea of red.
The question is what it would take for the balance to shift between the urban areas and the rural counties. I have a few ideas on that.
First, it would take further expansion of the cities. That is already happening. Austin, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Frisco, a Dallas suburb, are among the fastest-growing cities in the country. Not all of the new residents will be Democrats, but a lot of them will be. And as the state government slides further to the fringe right, the temptation will be stronger for new residents to vote blue.
Second, it will take a decline in Republican turnout. This could either be caused by Republican voters staying at home or shifting toward the Democrats. There are any number of factors that could cause such a shift. For example, Republicans could lose faith in the system as they did in Georgia or a bad Republican candidate could lead to a situation where Democrats are more motivated than Republicans.
If this sounds like a long shot, it isn’t. The Texas Republican vote has already been suppressed over the past three election cycles. Politico notes that Mitt Romney won the state by 16 points in 2012, but Donald Trump only won by nine points in 2016. By 2020, Trump’s margin of victory was down to less than six points. It remains to be seen whether the decline was associated with Trump, himself a weak candidate, or other factors.
Ted Cruz had an even closer call in his 2018 reelection campaign. A strong challenge by Beto O’Rourke to the unpopular incumbent gave Cruz a win by only about 2.5 points, showing the importance of candidates who can excite the party faithful and get them to the polls while not scaring off independents and moderates.
Greg Abbott won his election that year by double digits, but the Texas governor is now underwater in polling. Many Texans are unhappy with how Abbott handled the last winter’s severe winter storm and its associated power outages as well pandemic policies that have played to the anti-vax and anti-mask Republican base. There are also other controversial laws passed by the Abbott Administration such as the radical abortion bill that empowered anyone to sue abortion clinics and an anti-CRT bill that may have accidentally required that teachers give equal time to racists. A new poll shows Matthew McConaughey leading Greg Abbott by eight points.
It’s possible that disillusionment and dissatisfaction with Abbott, the likely Republican candidate for governor next year, will push some fence-sitters towards the Democrat or make Republicans decide to stay home in an off-year election. While national tribal political identities count for a lot these days, elections can still hinge on local issues and bad candidates. See Virginia for more details.
Texas Democrats also need their own version of Stacey Abrams. There are likely a lot of untapped voters that Democrats could register to aid in their quest for an upset. Abrams has established a model for getting these voters to the polls that Texas Democrats would do well to follow.
Finally, Texas Democrats need a good candidate. They need a candidate that takes the local landscape into consideration. They need a candidate that won’t necessarily set progressive hearts aflame on Twitter, but who will inspire voters to pull the lever in Texas. That means a relative moderate who won’t inspire fears of gun confiscations and who is difficult to tar with the socialist label. We’ve seen the disconnect between the Twitterverse and real voters in many past elections. Real voters win every time.
Texas has disappointed Democrats in the past, but the size of the prize keeps them coming back. If Texas turns purple or blue, it would be a strategic coup that would make it almost impossible for Republicans to win nationally. Until that happens, however, the Lone Star State will represent, as Texan H. Ross Perot put it, “a giant sucking sound” towards which a lot of Democratic resources disappear.
I’m not going to make any predictions, but I will say that political leanings are not an immutable characteristic for either an individual or a state. Both Texas and Georgia shifted from reliably Democrat to reliably Republican in the not-too-distant past. They could shift back as political winds change.
One of the easiest ways to accomplish that shift is for state leaders to forget that they represent all of the voters of the state and not just the party base. Taking moderates for granted and going too far to the right could provoke a backlash that shifts the electorate toward a centrist Democrat. That’s especially true if veering to the right affects the wallets and wellbeing of Texas voters.
Texas Republicans should remember that pride goeth before the fall. Georgia Republicans learned that lesson last January. (Or did they?)
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