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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.

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One Comment

  1. Joel says:

    counting on i-35 growth to turn texas blue makes about as much sense as counting on hispanics.

    those people are moving here for jobs, not politics. and many immigrants to central texas are more republican than the people already here.

    also, too, where does perez get off commenting on anything in texas? like he has any idea or had anything to do with it.