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Democrats' hopes of flipping Texas again fall short as Republicans dominate the state's 2020 elections
By Emma Platoff
When all those elections proved disappointing, Texas Democrats said 2020 would be the year, given record voter turnout, a once-in-a-century pandemic that grew out of control under Republican leadership and a highly controversial president.
But 2020 proved another disappointment for the state's minority party as Republicans remained dominant in Texas, appearing poised to maintain victories in all statewide offices and both chambers of the Legislature. In what has become a familiar refrain, Texas Democrats pointed to 2020's narrow losses as symbolic victories — signs that the state will one day change in their favor.
Though the margins in the presidential race were narrower than they have been in years, Democrats underperformed the high expectations they had set for themselves, particularly in a hotly contested battle for dominance in the Texas House. And a number of potential pickups for Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives seemed increasingly unlikely as the night wore on.
With his reelection still uncertain, Donald Trump carried Texas on Tuesday. The last Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Republican John Cornyn handily won reelection to his seat in the U.S. Senate, soaring past combat veteran MJ Hegar to notch a victory despite a late Democratic spending blitz on her behalf. Republicans held big leads in other statewide races for Railroad Commission, Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.
And the contest some in-state operatives had focused on as Democrats' best hope — the battle for a majority in the Texas House — appeared to end with a narrow victory for Republicans, leaving intact the party's advantage in the chamber.
As has become habit, Texas Democrats described their losses on Tuesday not as disappointments but as hopeful omens for next time.
"With every election, we're getting one step closer to that change," said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas.
"Although we came up short," Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said of the U.S. Senate race, "I am hopeful because we are marching towards victory."
"The work we did will move our state forward for years to come," Hegar said.
Republicans, meanwhile, were not shy about celebrating their wins.
Earlier this week, he had made a prescient, if provocative statement: "Democrats' dreams will be crushed again."
Abbott's top political strategist, Dave Carney, was blunter in an interview late Tuesday night. He said Democrats were massively underperforming expectations because "they buy their own bullshit."
"Here's the best standard operating procedure for any campaign: Stop bragging, do your work and then you can gloat afterward," Carney said, contrasting that approach with "bragging about what's gonna happen in the future and being embarrassed."
"Why anybody would believe what these liars would say to them again is beyond belief," Carney added. "How many cycles in a row" do they claim Texas will turn blue? "It's crazy."
Cornyn, speaking to media after declaring victory Tuesday night, dismissed Democratic spending in Texas, saying Democrats "had more money than they knew what to do with, so they ended up investing in a long shot in places like Texas."
Days before the election, polls showed a close race between Biden and Trump here — though neither candidate campaigned as if Texas were a battleground. Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate, made a last-minute swing through the state late last week, but neither presidential candidate had been in Texas in months.
The results Tuesday night showed a close presidential contest in Texas. Trump's lead in Texas was in the mid-single-digits early Wednesday morning, according to Decision Desk HQ — smaller than his 9-point 2016 margin, and about a third of Mitt Romney's 16-point victory here in 2012.
Even as Biden performed well in large suburban counties that used to be reliably Republican, he failed to notch wide margins of victory in some critical Democratic strongholds, massively underperforming Hillary Clinton in the mostly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley. For example, Trump was leading in unofficial results in Zapata County — where Clinton won with 66% of the vote in 2016.
Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, an assistant dean and politics expert at the University of Texas' Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, pointed to two major reasons for Biden's relative underperformance in the Valley: lower name ID compared with Clinton and limited door-to-door campaigning due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"The Valley is old school, and you need that grassroots mobilization," she said. "And there wasn't grassroots work, at least on the Democratic side, because of the pandemic. And arguably the GOP did have at least a bit more grassroots work because they had a different vision of public health."
"That to me explains the Biden underperformance: He really wasn't known, and then he didn't have the time to make it up," she added.
Trump, meanwhile, launched a Latino outreach initiative for his 2020 bid, she noted.
Republicans had hoped their willingness to knock on doors during the pandemic would give them an edge over Democrats, some of whom leaned on remote campaigning methods.
As expected, lesser-known — and less controversial — Republicans did better than Trump on the statewide ballot in Texas. Republicans running for seats on the state's two high courts, and the board that regulates oil and gas, each looked poised to win by a healthy margin. For the first time in years, Democrats had run contested primaries for most statewide races, including a crowded 12-candidate primary for the U.S. Senate race and competition for the nomination for nearly every judicial seat.
Democrats were also falling far short of expectations in U.S. House races. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had targeted 10 GOP-held seats this fall in Texas, though by midnight, they had no pickups to tout.
In one race — to replace retiring Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes — Democratic party leaders had started the cycle brimming with confidence that the seat would flip to them, especially after Republicans had to go through a seemingly endless nomination process. But before the night was over, the campaign of the Republican nominee, Tony Gonzales, was declaring victory.
"Not only did they underestimate me, I think they underestimated the district," Gonzales said in an interview late Tuesday night. "District 23 is just different — it is. You have to work your tail off to win the trust of the constituents and you have to work your tail off to keep that trust. TV ads, blanketing the airwaves, isn't enough."
But perhaps the most striking rebuke to Democrats' hopes on Tuesday night was their failure to regain a majority — or even move the needle much — in the 150-member Texas House, where they needed to pick up nine seats.
Even before the chamber's majority party had been determined, optimistic Democrats had declared their candidacy to lead it as speaker.
"Before the day is done, Democrats will take the Texas House," one candidate, El Paso Democrat Joe Moody, said Tuesday morning. By early Wednesday morning, it seemed clear they would not.
Democrats will get another chance to test their hopes in 2022, when statewide offices like governor and attorney general will appear on the ballot. It remains to be seen whether they can increase their power in the state.
"Is Texas on the route to becoming blue, or is Texas on the road to becoming a perennial battleground? That's a question I don't know the answer to," DeFrancesco Soto said. "But I do feel confident saying we are moving in the purple direction, and we may just stay stuck at purple."
Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.
Editor's note: Addie Broyles is a longtime food writer, who wrote for the Austin American-Statesman for 13 years. This piece was published in her weekly newsletter, "The Feminist Kitchen," where she shares stories about parenthood, grief, ancestry, self healing and creativity. Check it out here.
You know Bruce McCandless' most famous moment, but you probably don't know his name.
McCandless is the astronaut who, in 1984, became the first untethered astronaut in space. He's the guy on those posters, mugs, shirts and everything else NASA could sell with the image of his "leisurely waltz with eternity," as his son calls it in his new book, "Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space."
'Wonders All Around' is a new book by Austinite Bruce McCandless III about his dad, the astronaut Bruce McCandless II. (Bruce McCandless III)
I met McCandless III, who lives in Austin with his wife Pati, for a coffee a few months ago, thanks to the introduction from a mutual friend. As we talked about losing our dads, being writers and parents and living in Austin while still dealing with COVID, his dad's famous flight didn't come up, but the process of writing such an epic biography of a complex, only recently passed man was something worth unpacking over coffee.
I hadn't read the book yet, but over the next few weeks, I got to know the McCandless family in such a sweet way that I wanted to write a little about the book here to perhaps inspire you to seek out a copy of "Wonders All Around."
As much as this is a book about space, it's also a book about grief. And persistence. And stoicism. And masculinity and maternality.
The elder McCandless died in 2017, just a few years after losing his wife, Bernice, to cancer.
This passing of the torch from father to son left the younger McCandless inspired to take on this decades-long narrative. McCandless III sets the tone for the book with a memory of the family sitting around the dinner table at their home outside Johnson Space Center near Houston in the mid 1970s, when his dad, who joined NASA in 1966 at the age of 28, wasn't sure he'd ever actually make it to space.
"Our dinners were somber affairs. We ate around a rectangular Formica table in the breakfast nook. Tracy and I sat on benches padded with orange vinyl cushions. Mom and Dad occupied faux-Spanish style chairs with green felt upholstery. Despite the informal, Howard Johnson's-at-the-airport feel of the furnishings, there was a tension in the air that set in right around the time the frozen string beans started steaming. I had the feeling that my sister and I had forgotten to do something important, though I couldn't figure out what it was, or that judgment had been rendered on us and we'd been found guilty of … something — again, it was unclear what. Horseplay was prohibited. The TV and all sources of music or other frivolity were turned off, and singing was strictly forbidden. The only sound came from the aquarium pump. My father had a 100-gallon tank along the wall behind his chair. Sometimes the big plecostomus would attach itself by its mouth to the glass facing us, and I imagined it sucking all the oxygen out of the room."
Imagining what it must have been like to require oxygen to survive, not in outer space but in the living room with your family, sets up the story of the McCandless ancestors, including a guy who was killed by Wild Bill Hickok and the author's grandfather, who was an admiral in the U.S. Navy.
No pressure, Bruce.
It was fascinating to read about the 18 years that Bruce McCandless II worked for NASA before he finally had his first flight, which debuted the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a jet-fueled backpack that he and Ed Whitsett Jr. spent so many years developing. (That's the joystick-controlled machine he's wearing in that mind-bending poster that hung on millions of Americans' walls over the following decade.)
The author McCandless has the unenviable task of trying to put into words what that flight must have felt like. His dad flew 150 feet away from the shuttle Challenger, which would, of course, break into a million little pieces just a few years later.
When President Reagan called the shuttle to congratulate the astronauts that day in 1984, the command center set up a demonstration space walk to give the president a live view of McCandless through the shuttle window.
Bruce McCandless II, trains with Kathy Sullivan, right, in preparation to launch the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA)
The only problem was, there wasn't much fuel left. McCandless went out anyway, trying to stay within 10-15 feet of the spacecraft. He got into position and turned off the unit to preserve propellant. After the president said a few words and the video switched off, McCandless turned on the unit and "looked for the closest piece of the orbiter, pointed at it, put the hand controller in +X (and) got a sort of sighing noise as it accelerated in that direction." He ran out of fuel just as he grabbed onto a rail on the orbiter. Hand over hand, he brought himself back to the donning station.
It's that kind of suspense that made this book so thrilling to read.
There's space tension like when McCandless is operating as CAPCOM, the only person talking to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while they are walking on the surface of the moon, and his commander wants him to break protocol and call them back early, even though there are no signs of distress.
The book is also so touching. I cried while reading about the declining health of Bernice, who survived so many astronaut wife struggles over the years and at the end of her life remained a loving partner and mother.
Bruce McCandless was a Navy pilot who was picked to join NASA in 1966. His first space flight wasn't until 1984. (NASA)
It's easy to forget that McCandless II had an entirely other memorable historic moment—launching the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990—and this one seems to have struck an even deeper chord with McCandless III.
The Hubble launch was McCandless' second and final flight. He was 52 and had worked at NASA for 24 years.
McCandless II spends the last chapters of the book making a compelling case that his dad's work to fix and update the Hubble are among the greatest achievements to science. He continued to work on Hubble for another two decades after retiring from NASA through his work at Lockheed Martin.
Bruce McCandless, left, and the flight crew that launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. He was 52 years old. (NASA)
He was the "nuts, bolts, screws, and wires guy," the auto mechanic rather than the scientist, who kept the telescope going 340 miles above Earth for more than twice its life expectancy. The Hubble has been cited in more than 18,000 scientific papers and has revealed countless secrets and unsolved mysteries from around the universe and beyond.
"The size, shape, and sheer spectral weirdness of the images boggle the imagination and make prophets and dreamers of us all," McCandless writes toward the end of "Wonders All Around. "Some of us pay therapists to tell us we're important and unique. Then we check in with Hubble so the satellite can inform us just how galactically marginal we all are. The truth is somewhere in the middle."
What a beautiful reminder.
Austin FC looked to go 2-0 against the Colorado Rapids in their first-rematch since their breakthrough 3-1 victory in April. Instead, the club tallied yet another scoreless match at home as they lost 1-0 to the fourth-place team in the West.
Austin now sits at the bottom of the Western Conference for the second week in a row and have been shutout for 9 of their last 11 matches.
At first glance, Austin looked to have a fighting chance as they took the pitch with their healthiest lineup in weeks. With just four players on the bench and a late-game surprise appearance by left back Nick Lima, who now sports a mohawk, the club had potential to break a 225+ minute scoreless streak and notch their first back-to-back wins against a team.
Instead, the club started fast but finished slow. Austin tallied just two shots on goal to Colorado's 6 as the team continued to struggle to find an offensive identity.
Colorado's Andre Shinyashiki got past even goalkeeper Brad Stuver in the 29th minute of play to give the away team the lead. Austin was unable to bounce back in the match.
There's hope on the horizon, however: Austin's three new signees, including $6.4m striker Sebastian Driussi, are projected to join the team next week.
It's all about the Lone Star State for Austin FC next week as they compete against Texas teams Houston Dynamo at home on Wednesday and FC Dallas on the road on Saturday.
79' Nick Lima is back!
Nick Lima back at RB for the first time in weeks! https://t.co/eln9IFyoMB— Claire (@partain_claire) August 1, 2021
For the first time since a tumultuous June 24 match, right back Nick Lima is back on the pitch- this time with a new look. The defender subbed in for left back Zan Kolmanic sporting a new mohawk haircut in the 79th minute of play.
STUUUUUUUU 🗣 pic.twitter.com/tRRyGxTooK— Austin FC (@AustinFC) August 1, 2021
Brad Stuver gets the crowd yelling his name after blocking Rapids star Michael Barrios' shot with a solo save. Just after, Stuver gets his fingertips on another Barrios ball just in time to get it off track and out of the way. Either save could get Stuver on the MLS highlight reel for today's match.
40' Redes' run for goal is stymied
Redes gets his closest look of the game as he reaches the nearly-unmanned goal, but he takes a tumble just before he strikes. A ref decision says no penalty kick will be allowed, and Redes slowly rises back up with a bit of a limp.
Austin still hasn't managed to tie it up, but Cap. Alex Ring came close in the 36th minute with a header that flew just a bit too high.
29' Colorado strikes first
Austin has been near goal more often than any match in recent weeks, but it's Colorado's Andre Shinyashiki who scores first at Q2 Stadium. Austin's two defensive strongholds Matt Besler and Julio Cascante can't react quickly enough to break his stride as Shinyashiki wins over a 1v1 battle with Brad Stuver. Colorado leads for the first time in the two teams' history.
Perez gets first start for Austin
No new signees on the pitch tonight. Head coach Josh Wolff is mostly sticking to what he knows, with Manny Perez and Rodney Redes being the exception. Redes started last week against Seattle for the first time in weeks after scoring in a friendly vs. Tigres UANL of Liga MX, while Perez will have his first start with Austin tonight.
Will recent signees play tonight?
The club has stirred up new hope by signing Argentine Sebastian Driussi with their most expensive contract yet a month after another striker signing in Moussa Djitte. Austin also welcomed their first true hometown player just a day later as they signed Austinite McKinze Gaines.
Austin FC hopes to answer their scoring woes with the three players as they head into potential rivalry matches against fellow Texas teams Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas, but they might not hold any merit for Saturday's Colorado rematch. Djitte is MIA after receiving a contract in late June, and Driussi is still waiting for the go-ahead to play as he watches the match in Austin. Gaines may not have to travel far to play with the team, but it'll still be at least a few more days before he plays in front of his hometown crowd.
While all three signees aren't on tonight's roster, there's still plenty of buzz that could drum up more excitement on and off the pitch.
La Murga marches to McKalla
Austin FC fan band La Murga de Austin teamed up with supporters' groups Los Verdes and Austin Anthem as hundreds marched to Q2 Stadium two hours before the match. Hundreds of fans filed in, home opener style, to celebrate the upcoming match with brass, bass drums and plenty of fanfare.
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