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December 4th, 2018:

The changing tides in Central Texas

From the Statesman:

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

Six Democrats came within 5 points or fewer in six Texas races, including three districts in Central Texas where Republicans traditionally win easily.

Democrats now hold 13 of 36 Texas congressional seats.

“This is about persistence. This is about a long-term strategy. We did not make it in those races now, but we are further along than ever before,” Tom Perez, Democratic National Committee chairman, told reporters after the election.

Perez, political experts and several Texas Democratic congressional candidates credited Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke for energizing the electorate and driving up turnout. Whether O’Rourke will be on the ballot again in 2020 could affect outcomes down the ballot.

O’Rourke “inspired so many young people and new voters and established a baseline that is far higher,” Perez said.

O’Rourke, who lost to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, by 2.6 percentage points, is said to be pondering a run for president (along with as many as three dozen other Democrats), but has told his inner circle he is not tempted to run again for the Senate in 2020, when U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is up for re-election.

“Is Beto on the ballot for Senate or president?” Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said of 2020. “That’s a major question. That improves prospects for Democrats.”

But Kopser and other Democrats said there was more going on than an appealing candidate at the top of the ticket boosting down-ballot candidates with him.

“The Beto bump was very real, but I believe out of all the districts of the 36 congressional districts in Texas, we not only benefited from the Beto bump, but we added to it,” said Kopser, who ran in the 21st Congressional District, represented for three decades by retiring U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio. The district includes liberal enclaves of Central and South Austin, as well as parts of San Antonio and a swath of the deeply conservative Hill Country.

Kopser, an Army veteran who appealed to some GOP voters as a centrist who voted for Ronald Reagan, garnered 37,000 more votes than the district’s Democratic candidate in 2016, narrowing a 73,000-vote gap to less than 10,000. He lost by 2.8 points.

[…]

“What made the race so close was the fact that for too long people here in this district have only been presented with one real option. I grew up here, so I understand the values of this district and ran my campaign with an intentional effort to connect with voters in a transparent way,” Hegar said in emailed answers to questions from the American-Statesman. “We closed the gap by talking to people and being available to them for honest, transparent conversations, which is not something we’re accustomed to here.”

She said O’Rourke helped her campaign and she helped his: “We turned out voters who cast their ballots for him, and vice versa.”

“I am not ruling out running in 2020, and I do have several options that I’m weighing at the moment. I’m actively considering the ways in which I can best continue serving my country,” Hegar said.

[…]

Perhaps the biggest Election Day surprise was U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul’s close call in the 10th Congressional District, which stretches from Lake Travis to the Houston suburbs.

McCaul, R-Austin, the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, had skated to re-election by 18.9 points two years ago but this time won by just 4 points over Mike Siegel, a first-time candidate who was on leave from his job as an attorney for the city of Austin. McCaul won just 26.9 percent of the vote in Travis County.

“I think it was multilayered,” Siegel said of the reasons for his strong performance. “I raised more than $500,000. There were changing demographics with 25 percent of the district in Austin and Travis County.”

And he suggested that McCaul wasn’t used to competition: “There hadn’t been a substantial challenge since 2008.”

“The Beto effect,” he said, “was that excitement level he brought to the campaign. He definitely was a significant factor.”

“I’m very open to running again,” Siegel said. “I’m back at City Hall, and a lot of people are reaching out to me, encouraging me to run again.”

Even though she lost by nine, I’d include Julie Oliver and CD25 as a district to watch in 2020. Dems are going to have to make some progress in rural and exurban areas to really compete there, but after what we’ve seen this year you can’t dismiss the possibility. I’m sure someone will be up for the challenge.

Also on the “central Texas was a big key to Dem success in 2018” beat is the Chron.

“This is a major structural problem for the GOP going forward,” said Jay Aiyer, a political science professor from Texas Southern University.

Texas’s population growth has been dramatic in the urban and suburban communities along I-35, while areas that the GOP has long relied on in West Texas and East Texas are losing both population and voters. In other words, the base for the Democrats is only growing, while the GOP base is growing a lot less or even shrinking in some cases, Aiyer said.

[…]

Four years ago, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn won the I-35 corridor by nearly 350,000 votes over his Democratic opponent David Alameel. But O’Rourke carried those same counties by more than 440,000 votes. That is a nearly an 800,000-vote swing in just four years.

And the impact of the blue spine went well beyond O’Rourke’s race.

– Five Republican candidates for Congress in Texas, almost all of them big favorites, survived their races with less than 51 percent of the vote. All five of their districts are along the I-35 corridor, making them instant Democratic targets for 2020.

– In the Texas House, Democrats flipped 12 seats previously held by Republicans. Ten of those are along I-35.

-In the Texas Senate, Democrats flipped two seats, both along I-35. And they nearly took a third seat north of Dallas, where Republican Angela Paxton won just 51 percent of the vote.

Those results were no one-year fluke, says Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. He said even in 2016, Democrats could see how suburban and urban cores along I-35 were changing, which made the party get more aggressive in recruiting candidates there, even in districts that were thought of as solid Republican areas.

“The fundamentals of Texas are shifting,” Garcia said.

What’s changing I-35 is what’s changing the state, said Aiyer. The state is growing more diverse and more urban as people move to the major cities. As those cities become more expensive, people are moving to surrounding counties for cheaper housing and taking their political views with them, he said.

There is a clear trend line since 2014. That year, Cornyn won the I-35 corridor by almost 350,000 votes. Two years later, Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket won it by just over 115,000 votes. This year, O’Rourke won by an even bigger margin: 440,000.

In 2014, 11 of the 16 congressional districts that touch I-35 were held by Republicans, including 10 in which the Republican won 60 percent of the vote or more. This year, only two of those 11 Republicans topped 60 percent.

The main point here is that this corridor is a huge part of Texas’ population growth, and if that growth correlates with Democratic voting strength, then we really are in a competitive state. You can talk all you want about how Ted Cruz won big in the small counties. By its very nature, that comes with a limited ceiling. I’d rather be making hay where there people are.

Use that mandate in Harris County

Jay Aiyer pens an agenda for Harris County and its Democratic government.

First and foremost, flood mitigation has to be at the top of any list. Harris County has taken good initial steps to improve flood control infrastructure, and the passage of flood control bonds was badly needed. Those steps however, are only the beginning of what needs to be done. Development changes that prohibit growth and expansion in the floodplain, and ideas from experts like Rice University’s Raj Makand to impose a moratorium on new municipal utility districts until the region has a comprehensive plan for flood mitigation should be considered. Infrastructure development in Harris County — everything from toll road expansion to affordable housing construction should be factored into flood control efforts. Flood mitigation needs to be the county’s top priority.

[…]

The need for ethics and transparency is also required at the Commissioner’s Court itself. Unlike Houston City Council or the Texas Legislature, Harris County government remains largely shrouded in secrecy. The lack of broad transparency and pro-forma meetings results in a policy process that is largely kept behind closed doors. Commissioners have wide latitude in how business is conducted within their precinct, but that should be governed by a strong ethics policy that requires lobbyists to register and places limits on campaign contributions. A strong government requires one grounded in ethics and transparency.

Access to the ballot box and the integrity of voting process remains a major concern to all voters. Harris County needs a transparent and error-free voter registration process that works to actively register voters. Texas is eliminating straight ticket voting in 2020 and Harris County needs to start preparing for the longer lines and logistical strains that surround the longest electoral ballot in the country. This means expanding the number early voting locations throughout the county, as well as extending the hours of operation. Harris County also needs to follow other Texas counties and create election day voting centers that allow voters to cast a vote at location throughout the county — not just at a precinct.

Part of the improving voting means replacing the outdated machines. The current click-wheel electronic voting system is outdated and slow in handling our long ballot. Harris County needs to invest in modern, verifiable voting machines that can provide confidence in the electoral process while allowing voters to exercise their vote quickly and efficiently. County government has historically worked to make voting more difficult and cumbersome, and these reforms would be a good first step in reversing that.

Finally, Harris County should also revisit initiatives around the expansion of early childcare. In 2013, the well-meaning pre-K training initiative “Early to Rise,” which called for a ballot initiative to expand pre-K training programs, was strongly opposed by outgoing County Judge Ed Emmett and the Republican majority of Commissioner’s Court. While that initial plan was limited in scope, the idea of a regional approach to expanding early child care is one that needs to be explored. Research indicates that investing in early education initiatives are the best way to mitigate the effects of poverty and improve long term educational outcomes. A countywide program may be the smartest long term investment that Harris County could make.

I endorse all of Jay’s idea, which he proposes as a first-100-days plan, and I’d add a few things of my own, none of which need to be done immediately. One is for Harris County to be a more active partner with Metro, and to be fully engaged in the forthcoming transit plan and referendum. There are a lot of ways the county can contribute to better transit, and with everything Metro has going on now, this is the time. Two, continue the work Ed Emmett started in consolidating services with Houston and other cities, and make non-MUD governance a part of that development reform Aiyer outlines. Three, figure out what the office of the Treasurer can and should be doing. Incoming Treasurer Dylan Osborne has his own ideas, of course, but my point is that back in the 90s Commissioners Court basically neutered the office during Don Sumners’ term. Maybe now the time has come to restore some actual power to that office. Other counties have Treasurers, perhaps we should look to them to see if there’s a good model to follow.

I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas. (The parts that I cut out for this excerpt talked about criminal justice and bail reform, some of which have been going on.) Reviving the pre-K proposal is especially something we should all get behind. The point is, there is much that can be done, and no reason to feel restrained by “we’ve always done it that way” thinking. If it’s a good idea, let’s talk about it and figure out if we can make it work. It’s a new era in Harris County.

Whatabout that styrofoam?

Texas’ favorite fast food chain is being asked to make changes to how it serves its food.

Activists are pressuring San Antonio-based Whataburger to end its use of foam cups and containers in favor of materials friendlier to the environment.

More than 50,000 people have signed a petition calling on the popular fast-food chain to stop using polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam, in its cups and food containers, Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger said.

The petition was delivered Monday to Whataburger’s San Antonio headquarters and to restaurants in Austin and Corpus Christi by representatives for Environment Texas, Surfrider Foundation’s Texas Coastal Bend chapter and Care2.com.

“We think that they can find a good solution that meets customers’ needs but moves away from such harmful products,” Metzger said outside Whataburger’s headquarters on the North Side.

Whataburger, which has more than 800 stores in 10 states, said it is looking at alternatives to Styrofoam cups “that keep drinks at the right temperature, but we have a lot to consider from a quality and supply perspective when meeting our customers’ expectations.

“In the meantime, we continue to urge customers to properly dispose of our cups,” the company said in a statement.

[…]

McDonald’s pledged to phase out foam cups by the end of the year. Dunkin’ Donuts said earlier this year it would replace its foam cups in favor of double-walled paper cups by 2020. Starbucks Coffee Co. announced plans in July to eliminate the use of single-use plastic straws in favor of strawless lids or straws made from other materials by 2020.

“Companies are very conscious of their brand,” Metzger said. “They’re, of course, wanting to keep their customers. And that’s why I think we’re going to see companies like Whataburger hopefully join the ranks of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts and do the right thing here.”

Whataburger is talking to Environment Texas and the others about this, as they should. It’s a simple request, for a clear purpose, to do what others are now doing. Whataburger may have some questions, and they would surely need to phase in a change like this over time, but I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn’t want to do it. I hope they make that decision soon.