How Texas progressives’ blue dreams for their red state again became a hunt for the white whale of U.S. politics

Were Texas’ four largest urban counties, Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Travis, combined into a single state, it would be the nation’s 8th largest with 10.6 million. This emerging mega-region, hubbed by Austin, is set to surpass Greater New York City’s population within a decade. And last month it voted for Joseph Biden over Donald Trump by nearly 1 million votes

Blue plumes in urbanized Texas are growing but have yet to recolor Texas' red politics
Image: Votes by congressional district generated using davesredistricting.org

Once again, in the aftermath of the 2020 election, dreams of a Blue Texas remain just that – dreams. And thus, a Blue Texas remains the ultimate White Whale for Texas Democrats, and in fact Democrats nationwide, as turning Texas and its 38 electoral votes would remove a critical keystone for Republicans in the electoral college.

Of course, the dream of a Blue Texas does not stop at the quest for the White House. Texas sends two senators to Washington like every other state, as well 36 representatives, the second highest total only behind California’s 53. The Texas Senate, which Democrats have not controlled since 1996, has 31 seats and the Texas House holds 147 seats, which Democrats have not controlled since 2002.

Absent the dream of a Blue Texas, the reality of a Red Texas mounts tremendous pressure on city governments in the major Texas cities. For this is where both much of the state’s Democratic base lives as well as where Texas’ most difficult challenges are being met – from health care to education to the ravages of climate change.

In a piece last month, I detailed the critical role Texas cities, this blue sub-state must play in a red-dominate political landscape, in the fight for quality health care coverage. But city leadership in Texas has also shouldered much of the state’s efforts on fighting the climate crisis, providing livable and sustainable housing solutions, solving the transit problems brought on by traffic congestion and the absence of public transit, and walking the inescapable policy tightrope between booming growth and widening inequality.

As we entered the 2020 election, with hopes of Blue Texas blossoming as it has not in decades, observers in Texas and beyond pondered some important questions.

Would Joe Biden carry the state of Texas over Donald Trump, and be the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976? Could M.J. Hegar accomplish what Rep. Beto O’Rourke could not, and unseat John Cornyn for a seat in the Senate? Could Democrats take control of the Texas House, and have a real shot at influencing the way Texas organizes its congressional districts?

As we know now, at least as we stand in 2020. The answer is no. On all counts.

There was reason for hope in Democratic circles that 2020 might be the year that would bring change. In 2018, Democrat O’Rourke nearly overcame steep odds to defeat Republican Ted Cruz for a seat in the Senate, resulting in the closest senatorial election in Texas in 40 years – and only fell short by approximately 220,000 votes, or just over 2 percentage points.

O’Rourke’s accomplishments in his near defeat of Cruz are worth noting in more detail.

No Democrat has represented Texas in the United States Senate since Bob Krueger was appointed by Gov. Ann Richards in 1993 to a term lasted just six months. And no Democrat has won election to the Senate from Texas since the reelection of Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, who was also running alongside Democrat Michael Dukakis as his candidate for Vice President. O’Rourke nearly broke this nearly 30-year gap, despite being a relatively unknown political figure from El Paso who was facing the runner-up for the Republican nomination for President in 2016.

O’Rourke managed to flip Tarrant County, home of Fort Worth and long regarded as the most populous conservative leaning county in the United States, elevating concerns from the Republican side that the leftward shift of major Texas cities was threatening to overtake rural support in the rest of the state. O’Rourke was the first statewide Democrat to accomplish this feat since 1994.

O’Rourke managed to raise a staggering $70.2 million in campaign funds, and thanks in part to his tireless odyssey to visit and campaign in all 254 counties in Texas, delivered a robust down-ballot boost to other Democratic candidates at many levels.

Now we must ask the simple question with a complicated answer – what happened?

Let’s begin with the race for President.

Joe Biden did not carry the state as some thought possible, and was not particularly close, with Biden losing the state by about 650,000 votes, or 5.8 percentage points. Still, it was the closest a Democrat has come to the state’s 38 electoral votes since Bill Clinton in 1996, and an over 3 point improvement from Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016.

In Joe Biden’s favor, a few predictions were correct.

White, college-educated, suburban voters continued to move away from Trump. Texas continues to undergo a surge in population, especially in its cities. This rapid growth seems likely to favor Democrats, as much of it is centered on urban areas and drives the state’s demographics to becoming younger, more diverse, and more educated.

Voter turnout in 2020 in Texas shattered records, and even a few counties such as Hays, Collin, Comal, and Denton surpassed their 2016 turnout numbers during the early-voting period, and high rates of voter turnout are conventionally understood to favor Democrats. Especially if you ask O’Rourke, who promoted his phone banking campaign with the mantra – “Texas isn’t a red state. It’s a non-voting state.”

But even O’Rouke’s clever turn of phrase may not capture Texas’ sheer complexity that resists all binary descriptions. Take Kenedy County, population 414 and just north of the U.S. Mexico border. While tiny, the county is almost 80 percent Hispanic. It voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 president race, Democrat Hilary Clinton in 2016 and then faded back to red again this year to support Trump, making Kenedy County the only “Romney -> Clinton -> Trump county” in the United States.

As if to make Kenedy County’s point on easy assumptions, high turnout across Texas delivered for President Trump as well. Outside of the urban centers in the state, his support remained entrenched, and the demographic changes occurring in Texas cities were not enough to overcome that dedicated support.

Perhaps in the most devastating and for many, unforeseen defeats for the Democrats nationwide in 2020 happened in the Rio Grande Valley. The majority Latino counties in this region have long been reliable footholds for Democrats in the state. And although Biden managed to win many of these counties, he did so by much narrower margins than Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The explanation of this shift is difficult to ascertain, and will remain a challenging question for Texas Democrats as they work to retool themselves for elections in future cycles, but a few possible explanations are worth reviewing now.

One, the idea that right-wing populism is only effective at convincing and mobilizing rural white voters, is likely a false presumption, and a potentially catastrophic miscalculation by the Democrats. President Trump won the highest share of non-White support for any GOP Presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1960, and successfully improved upon his 2016 performance with Black voters.

Two, the Democrats simply may have taken support from Latino voters in the Rio Grande Valley for granted, and focused their efforts on winning this election elsewhere. It is clear that Democrats will need to clearly acknowledge the diversity in Latino communities in the state of Texas, and resist the assumption that Latino voter choice in Texas cities will mirror that of Latino voter choice in the Rio Grande Valley.

Rep. Henry Cuellar a Laredo Demoract, who convincingly won re-election to represent the 28th Congressional District in Texas which covers several counties in the Rio Grande Valley, has concerns about the messaging coming from his party and how it is received by Latinos in this region.

At face-value, messaging on “defunding the police”, progressive climate policies demonizing fossil fuels, and more relaxed immigration policies leave residents of these counties feeling left out or unrepresented, and Democrats did little to address these concerns with people living in this region, Cuellar recently told the news site Axios.

Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, who narrowly defeated his Republican challenger to represent the 15th Congressional District, despite losing nearly 10 percent of his support from just two years ago, echoed his colleague’s concerns about Democratic messaging in his region to the New York Times:

“Defund police, open borders, socialism — it’s killing us, I had to fight to explain all that,” he said last week.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, founder of Jolt, a liberal Latino organization told the Washington Post:

“Invest in Latinos everywhere. It’s complicated and not complicated … Spend money on Latinos. Speak to them early and make sure you understand the regional and cultural differences.”

Biden improved upon Obama and Clinton performances in parts of Texas where college educated people live, and that trajectory is one that the Democrats should be mindful of and continue to pursue. And Biden did carry forward O’Rourke’s success in Tarrant County, becoming the first Democrat candidate for President to carry the county since Harry Truman.

But the underperformance in many majority Latino areas is a cause for alarm, and requires immediate triage.

M.J. Hegar, the Democratic nominee for Senate, though considered by some to deliver a competitive challenge, lost to John Cornyn by over 1 million votes, or nearly 10 percentage points, and thoroughly underperformed Biden at the polls. Unlike O’Rourke or Biden, Hegar was unable to flip counties like Tarrant or Williamson (where Hegar is from originally), which are absolutely essential for Democratic hopes in any statewide race. This result is especially disappointing because her efforts to defeat Cornyn centered on winning over suburban votes, at the expense of working to engage the more progressive elements in Texas.

Perhaps of most consequence, Democrats failed to flip the nine seats that were required in the Texas House needed to give them the majority, allow them to put a Democrat in as Speaker, draw new electoral districts for the state, and break up the Republican ‘trifecta’ that has been maintained for the last 17 years.

“There is no doubt that Texas Democrats have work to do,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojoso said the day after the election. “We have tough questions to ask ourselves. There are significant challenges before us, and new solutions are required. The future of Texas is at stake.”

To conclude, Democrats must ask the tough questions to get a honest picture of why the dream of a Blue Texas, which seemed on the brink of coming true after O’Rourke’s improbable near-victory in 2018, remains so elusive. Again, this is a deeply confounding and complicated question, and developing answers will require a deep and collective introspection by the party. But we can start with a few important points.

One, shown by Cruz in 2018 and hammered home by Trump and Cornyn in 2020, rural Texas is as ruby red in support for Republicans as ever.

Though many rural counties in Texas are relatively unpopulated, they are numerous as they are nowhere else in the United States. If 216 most right-leaning rural counties in Texas were combined into a state, Trump would have won that state by 1.7 million votes.

If just Dallas, Travis, Bexar, Harris counties were combined into a state, Biden would have won that state by 912,084 votes. Biden’s gains in the most urban counties of Texas – the region often described as the states’ emerging mega-city or “Texas Triangle” — are a reason for optimism for the Democrats. But the stranglehold Republicans have on rural Texas presents a sharp incline for Democrats to overcome, and leaves little margin for error.

Two, Republicans retained control of the rule-making that will influence the outcomes of elections. The continuation of the Republican ‘trifecta’ in the state’s government, congressional districts will remain drawn to favor Republicans. Further, the elimination of straight-ticket voting in Texas, which was still implemented during O’Rourke’s run in 2018 and used by two-thirds of Texas voters in that election cycle, is certain to hurt down-ballot candidates, especially the already disadvantaged Democrats.

Three, as detailed above, the Democrats must improve their ability to reach uneasy voters that live outside of urban areas, and make sure they treat Latino voters as the diverse voting bloc that they really are. Without a successful campaign to transform the image of the party in the eyes of these voters, it remains likely that continued success in Texas cities will not be enough.

As we now know, Joe Biden did well, but did not carry Texas. M.J. Hegar was blown out. Democrats managed to hold the U.S. House of Representative seats they controlled going in, but a few were much too close for comfort. The Texas House did not come even close to flipping.

And thus, the status quo remains. The Republican ‘trifecta’ endures. And the burden to address many of the state’s greatest challenges will continue to fall on city leadership. The White Whale, a Blue Texas, remains elusive. But with reworked strategy, improved messaging, and commitment to taking no group of voters for granted – Democrats should remain hopeful, and continue to push onward.


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