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.
Expect some whiplash this week, Austinites: with an expected high of 103 degrees, Monday is predicted to be the hottest day of the year, but a midweek cold front is on the way to bring that first glimpse of fall.
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport could see its first 100-degree temperature this year on Monday as temperatures citywide are expected to exceed this year's record of 102 degrees.
The cold front arrives Tuesday afternoon to evening.#atx #atxwx #cbsaustinwx https://t.co/rQni6ug3y4 pic.twitter.com/PoFeHPYtnM
— Chikage Windler WX (@ChikageWeather) September 20, 2021
After a typical summery Tuesday with highs in the mid-90s, Wednesday will welcome the first signs of fall as a cold front drops lows into the 50s.
Expect more wind and a chance of rain come Tuesday with a 40% chance of scattered storms. The cold front, which should last through Friday, will bring drier, crisper air that could cause fire hazards on Wednesday.
Highs will be in the upper 80s and lows in the 50s and lower 60s for the front's final two mornings.
After near record heat today, a cold front arrives tomorrow! Hang in there South-Central Texas, we have almost made it. pic.twitter.com/yd9UbNo7hY
— NWS Austin/San Antonio (@NWSSanAntonio) September 20, 2021
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After months of speculation, a new report says political personality Beto O'Rourke is mulling a run for Texas governor that he will announce later this year.
Sources tell Axios the former congressman is preparing his campaign for the 2022 election, where he will likely vie for the position against incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. The only other candidate that has announced he will take on Abbott for governor is former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West—no Democrats have announced they are running as of yet.
"No decision has been made," Axios reports David Wysong, O'Rourke's former House chief of staff and a longtime adviser, said. "He has been making and receiving calls with people from all over the state."
A new poll from The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler shows O'Rourke is narrowing the gap between himself and Abbott's prospects for governor. In the poll, 37% said they'd vote for O'Rourke over Abbott, while 42% said they'd vote for Abbott.
Abbott has been in the hot seat due to his handling of COVID-19 and the signing of landmark legislation into law, including new abortion and voting rights laws; 54% of poll respondents voted they think the state is headed in the "wrong direction." Still, Texas hasn't had a Democrat as governor since the 90s.
O'Rourke's people-focused approach to the 2018 Senator race, which he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz, gave him a widespread following and many hoped he'd throw his hat into the ring since he said he was considering it earlier this year.
"We hope that he's going to run," Gilberto Hinojosa, the state chair of the Democratic Party, told Axios. "We think he'll be our strongest candidate. We think he can beat Abbott because he's vulnerable."
Austin rapper Jordi Esparza may not have won the 2021 Red Bull Batalla, the world's largest Spanish freestyle rap competition, but for a spirited two rounds, the 22-year old Mexican native looked like he had every right to.
On Saturday evening in Los Angeles, the event itself looked like Cobra Kai meets Star Search with graphics adding a very Batman Beyond aesthetic. Over a dozen rappers hoping to represent the U.S. in the international round of the competition took to the stage with in-your-face jabs at accents, sexual orientation and odors, among other things.
This was Esparza's second rodeo; he had placed third at the 2020 National Finals, automatically securing him a spot this year.
However, things were different this year. He was not nervous about the contest. Unlike in 2020, when he made his Red Bull Batalla debut, the anxiety of the event led him to "feeling so bad."
Affecting a casual calm, the locally-based landscaper said he just felt "so relaxed, so happy" and primarily wanted to "enjoy everything."
Choosing his first-round opponent, Esparza, whose stage name is Jordi, elected to go against LA-based Boss.
Esparza freestyled an attack on his opponent's weight and cholo style of dress.
Boss—bracketing his Latin freestyle with English appeals to the crowd—mocked Jordi's lack of education, made fun of how clean Jordi's shoes looked and suggested that Jordi just came back from a Footlocker.
That first round went to Jordi.
But his next opponent Eckonn would prove to be his undoing.
Eckonn compared Jordi to Hannah Montana, while Jordi soulfully explained that he had learned from the best.
Esparza's verbal dexterity is matched by a rattling rhythm and a game face that is as mawkish as it is mockish. The overall effect is that of an underdog with bite.
Eckonn beat Esparza in that round with the overall championship going to Palm Beach-based rapper Reverse.
However, Esparza was just happy to be there. He recently told Austonia going to the finals again was a dream come true—a pinnacle that he said he won't know how to top.
With his nimble jabs and sneaky prowess, honed from pop culture and the swagger of a young working man hungry to be more, Jordi Esparza is just getting started.