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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.
After a long, long year without live music, Austin has waited patiently for a return that has finally come. Festivals are planning returns and even venues that adhered strictly to safety protocols during the pandemic are feeling safe enough to gather again in person.
Starting in just a few short days, you can finally enjoy what makes Austin, well, Austin again. Here are a few of the live shows to look forward to.
Stubb's Waller Creek, 801 Red River Street
For the first time since the pandemic shut the iconic venue down forcing canceled and rescheduled shows, Stubb's BBQ is reopening its amphitheater to the public for concerts starting with a series of five sold-out Black Pumas shows, each with different openers, from May 26-30. It may be too late to catch Black Pumas this time around but Stubb's already has a host of other shows scheduled up through December. You can catch Surfaces, a College Station-based jazz-pop-hip-hop and vocals heavy duo known best for their song "Sunday Best," on Stubb's Stage on June 25 while tickets go on sale this Friday.
Next at Stubb's is electronic duo Louis the Child on July 28 and 29 on their "Euphoria Tour," followed by Umphrey's McGee on Sept. 9.
Mohawk Austin, 912 Red River Street
Likewise, Mohawk Austin has remained closed for more than a year since the onset of COVID-19, even tweeting "Thanks bro but we ain't gonna do it till it's safe," in response to Gov. Greg Abbott lifting all safety restrictions back in March. Starting May 27, Mohawk is officially back with Heartless Bastards and opener The Tender Things.
From there, Mohawk has an exciting lineup—Jukebox the Ghost will play on Sept. 10, Bully and opener Lightning Bug on Sept. 17, Big Freedia and Too Many Zooz on Oct. 4 and Beach Bunny on Dec. 14, with several talented artists in-between. Keep checking back though, Mohawk will continue to add shows and is currently planning on operating at 50%.
Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River Street
Though it is making a later comeback than Stubb's or Mohawk, the Frank Erwin Center will make a huge return on Aug. 14 featuring Tame Impala. If you missed their highly popular set at Austin City Limits Festival in 2019 or you want to relive it, this is the chance to do so. Plus, you get the added benefit of being able to see the stage, though you will still be watching with around 16,000 other spectators. Michael Bublé will have you swooning when he comes to perform on Sept. 20 and Chris Stapleton is taking his "All American Road Show" live on Nov. 4.
Nutty Brown Amphitheatre, 12225 US-290
Holding some socially distanced concerts earlier this year, the Nutty Brown Amphitheatre isn't stopping there with rap artist Ginger Billy playing two sets on May 7. Nutty Brown has a star-studded lineup ahead: Austin-based Bob Schneider on May 8 and other Austin favorite Shinyribs will grace the stage May 29. A little further down the line, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts will take over on Aug. 21 followed by Styx on Oct. 23.
Texas Performing Arts Center, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
If you prefer a little bit more visual appeal to go with your music, the Texas Performing Arts Center is reopening in-person after consistent online events. First up is Cody Ko and Noel Miller, a multi-hyphenated YouTuber-podcaster-comedian duo, who will perform their "Tiny Meat Gang – Global Domination," on July 31. Of course you can't miss The Beach Boys, coming to the theater on Oct. 24, or a two-week long production of Hamilton from Dec. 7-19. For all the young ones that have missed going out in-person, "Disney Princess—The Concert" is coming to the Texas Performing Arts Center on Feb. 6, 2022, performing timeless gems like "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast and featuring all their other favorite princesses. Tickets go on sale this Friday.
Remember to jump on those tickets–Austinites have been missing their live music!
- 11 ways to get your Austin live music fix online - austonia ›
- Austin City Limits is holding in-person festival in 2021 - austonia ›
- Austin live music venue Mohawk announces May reopening - austonia ›
- Some Austin live music venues reopen to smaller crowds - austonia ›
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For Marco Silvestrini, gelato takes him back to his childhood when he and neighborhood kids in a small Italian town would end their day at the local gelato shop. It was part of what made some of the best memories for him.
He's since been offering that same experience for the past seven years with his artisanal gelato shop, Dolce Neve, in Austin, alongside his sister and her husband.
Leo Ferrarese, Marco and Franscesa Silvestrini run Dolce Neve. (Dolce Neve)
While gelato always played a big role in Silvestrini's life, it wasn't in his plans to take on a business with his favorite treat. After a few years in New York working as a management consultant, he felt he was missing out on something. "I decided to take a step back and started thinking, what could... I do to make society better and happier, even just for a moment," Silvestrini said.
He thought back to his childhood and the role gelato played in it and wanted to offer the same experience to Americans.
Once he had the product idea down, it came down to location. Growing up among farmers in a small community in Central Italy, Silvestrini knew he wanted a slower pace of living than New York, so he asked around. The answer he got: "Austin." The only thing he knew about what would become his future home was it had a Formula 1 track.
But after visiting once, he felt a great sense of community he didn't feel in The Empire State. "I felt it was not just a good place for a concept like mine, but also a good place to live because at the end of the day, you cannot just think about your business," he said.
"Dolce Neve" translates to "sweet snow." The shops offers 12-18 flavors at a time. (Dolce Neve)
Similarly, his sister Francesca Silvestrini was experiencing the same feelings while studying for her Ph.D. in Ohio before teaming up with Silvestrini. She went back to Italy to be properly trained in making gelato while Silvestrini focused on the business plan. They brought Leo Ferrarese, her husband, onboard and opened their first shop on South First Street in January 2014. The rest is history.
On the menu, you'll find various traditional and innovative flavors that rotate out. Some of the staples include chocolate, 100% vanilla from Madagascar and salted caramel. Other rotating or seasonal flavors include whiskey and pecan, organic cantaloupe sorbet, goat cheese and pecan, almond custard and tiramisu. They've created over 300 flavors together in the span of the business.
So what's next for the shop? Lately, Silvestrini has been thinking a lot about that. With two locations in Austin, one in Houston—he's just not sure if expanding more is the right move. Maintaining a quality product and good service is of utmost importance that he's not willing to sacrifice.
"In order to be happy, it's not about making money, it's about being an integral part of the community," Silvestrini said. "There have been so many cases in which I think what I did today really made a difference in somebody's life."