As bad as it’s been for Texas Republicans lately, some members of the party are warning that 2020 could be even worse.
The rash of recent House GOP retirements is just the latest sign of a state party in distress: In last year’s midterms, Democrats flipped a pair of longtime GOP districts, a Democrat came within striking distance of a Senate seat, and more than 50 elected Republican judges lost their jobs. Democrats also gained ground in state legislative races.
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Changing demographics and a suburban revolt against President Donald Trump have turned Texas from a conservative bedrock to a major political battleground, especially for House seats. Once-safe congressional Republicans are facing competitive races for the first time in their careers — a potential harbinger of the GOP’s future in the state if they don’t adapt quickly.
“If the Republican Party in Texas doesn’t start looking like Texas, there won’t be a Republican Party in Texas,” retiring Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), who represents a key swing district, told POLITICO. Texas’ Latinos are on pace to become the largest population group in the state by 2022.
Last cycle was “without a doubt a wake-up call to most elected officials,” said Hurd. “Texas is indeed purple.”
It’s far from the glory days for Texas Republicans. For decades they had one of the most powerful, tight-knit delegations in Congress, boasting more chairmen than any other state. Most of them never had to sweat their reelection races. Much of the time, they had a native son in the White House.
“The Texas GOP took a little bit of it for granted,” said Rep. Randy Weber, a four-term Texas Republican.
Now, at least eight House seats are in play there, and Sen. John Cornyn is bracing for a competitive reelection race. It’s not out of the question that Democrats could make a play for the state’s 38 electoral college votes, which would all but clinch the presidency if they succeeded.
“Republicans need to be very concerned about Texas,” said Texas Republican Rep. Brian Babin. “Texas is definitely in play. We need to take this very, very seriously.”
Aware of the potential gains in Texas, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee opened an office in Austin in April and put six Republicans in the state on its 2020 target list. The DCCC has placed 10 staffers on the ground in Texas.
The campaign arm is treating Texas much the way it did California in 2018 — ripe for pickups. Democrats see the increasing diversity in the state, and frustrations with Trump in the suburbs over health care and immigration, as catalysts of a changing political landscape that could play in their favor.
Keir Murray, a longtime Democratic strategist in Texas, credits Trump for putting the state in play. Democrats expected the state would eventually start to move in their direction as more minorities moved there, but believed it was still five years away, give or take.
Trump, he said, has “accelerated the process.”
In 2018, 59 percent of female voters went for Democratic candidates, compared to 40 percent for Republicans. That change, coupled with “a browning of the suburbs,” said Murray, is a boon for Democrats.
Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni, who is running to replace retiring Rep. Pete Olson in Texas’ 22nd Congressional District, is focusing on expanding the electorate by engaging with minority communities he said are often overlooked.
“It’s very difficult to do a multicultural campaign, but I think that’s what we need to do in these urban [and] especially suburban areas where there is a huge amount of diversity,” he said. “Immigrants are usually talked about as an issue or an object, rather than talked to like voters.”
Texas Republicans are feeling the pressure but vowing to not be caught off guard. Big GOP donors have launched a new group, Engage Texas, which is planning to spend $25 million on registering new Republican voters in the state.
And some of the GOP lawmakers facing competitive reelection battles are ramping up early. Rep. Michael McCaul, who never had a tough race in his Austin-area district prior to last year, has hired a campaign manager and raised $900,000 in the first half of the year, the most he’s ever raised in a six-month stretch.
Several vulnerable members, facing their first difficult race in years, have called it quits. In addition to Hurd, Olson and Rep. Kenny Marchant — who both won reelection by less than 5 percentage points last year — announced their retirements in recent weeks. Olson’s exit opens up a competitive battleground in the Houston suburbs, while Marchant’s district is one of the most diverse in the country. Election forecasters have already moved both races to the toss-up category.
Republican Reps. John Carter and Chip Roy are also on Democrats’ target list. The GOP will also try to claw back the seats held by former Reps. Pete Sessions and John Culberson, two longtime Republicans who were wiped out in 2018.
“We have our work cut out for us,” Babin said. “It could be a toss up in some of these districts. I’m disappointed and sad to see some of my colleagues retiring. It certainly makes it tougher to hang on” to their seats.
In the Senate, Cornyn could be in for a bruising race. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s narrow loss to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 gave Democrats hope and Republicans anxiety. In one sign of potential concern about Democrats’ inroads in the state, Trump’s campaign is currently spending more money on digital ads in Texas than any other state.
Some GOP lawmakers and strategists think Democrats are getting ahead of themselves. Trump won the state by nine points in 2016, and Mitt Romney carried it by 16 points in 2012. Calls in the Democratic primary for a “Green New Deal” and Medicare for all, they say, are not going to play well in much of the state.
“Texans aren’t buying what they’re selling,” said Roy, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who is being challenged by former Democratic state senator and failed gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. But “we’re taking nothing for granted,” he added.
Republicans are grappling with a population surge in the metropolitan areas of Texas, which has changed the political winds and ushered in more minorities, liberals and young people.
“Theybring a different set of values, a different set of ideals. We’re not unmindful of this,” Weber said. “Republicans woke up because they understand what’s at stake.”
Hurd, the only black Republican in the House and the only GOP member to represent a border town, says he was able to hang on to his Hillary Clinton-won district by engaging early and often with the minority communities in his district.
But Hurd also acknowledged that it can be difficult for the party to appeal to young and diverse voters when the president is lobbing racist attacks at female lawmakers of color or disparaging Baltimore as a “rodent infested mess.”
“That kind of rhetoric hurts when you’re trying to take a message to a group of people. … Those words can overshadow the benefits that are actually happening for certain communities,” he said, pointing to low unemployment numbers among Latinos and African-Americans. “But you can’t share that story when you’re talking about whether or not you’re a racist.”