Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

National Democratic Redistricting Committee

The battle for the Lege is gonna be lit

Fasten your seat belts.

While the Texas Senate appears safe for Republicans, Clinton’s comments underscored the emphasis that some Democrats — both in Texas and outside it — are already putting on the fight for the majority in the state House, where their party is nine seats away from control of the chamber. Views vary on just how within reach the majority is for Democrats, but few disagree that 2020 will be a frenzied cycle for House races as Democrats work to protect — and potentially build on — their recent gains. Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing to take back seats and head off the worst-case scenario: a Democratic-led House heading into the 2021 redistricting process.

The early contours of the fight are taking shape in the wake of a legislative session that saw Republicans largely eschew divisive social issues for a bread-and-butter agenda following a humbling election cycle in which they lost a dozen seats in the lower chamber. There is also a new speaker, Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen, who appears intent on keeping the GOP in power by minimizing the kind of internecine conflict that has previously bedeviled the party.

“Everything is focused on redistricting,” state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said at a recent tea party meeting as he fielded questions about the demise of some controversial legislation this session. “There is nothing more important — not only to Texas, but literally the nation — than to make sure that we maintain the Texas House … going into redistricting because if you look at the nation — we lose Texas, we lose the nation. And there’s no other place to go.”

[…]

As Republicans have sought to get their own in order for 2020, state and national Democrats have been drawing up preliminary battle plans to take the House. Their path runs through a group of 18 districts — 17 where Republicans won by single digits last year as well as House District 32. That’s where Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, ran unopposed while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won by just 5 points.

Of course, Democrats have to simultaneously defend the 12 seats they picked up last year, some of which have already drawn serious GOP opposition.

The path is “tough but possible to flip the chamber,” said Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. “We feel like there are enough potential targets out there that nine is doable, but it is gonna take a lot of work and resources.”

The NDRC spent $560,000 in Texas last cycle, and Rodenbush called Texas “one of our top priorities for 2020.” It recently hired an Austin-based Democratic consultant, Genevieve Van Cleve, to oversee its advocacy and political efforts here as Texas state director.

Other national groups are zeroing in on Texas this cycle as a state House battleground. They include the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Forward Majority, a super PAC that injected $2.2 million into Texas House races in the closing days of the 2018 election.

The state Democratic Party is expanding its campaign and candidate services as part of what will ultimately be a seven-figure effort in House races. Over the past weekend in Austin, the party held a training for 55 people to become campaign managers in state House races.

[…]

Abbott’s political operation plans to go after Democratic freshmen, as do well-funded organizations such as the Associated Republicans of Texas.

“ART is focused on candidate recruitment earlier than ever this cycle,” ART’s president, Jamie McWright, said in a statement. “We are identifying qualified, knowledgeable candidates who are willing to tackle the state’s biggest issues in order to win back the seats Republicans lost in 2018.”

Republicans are particularly focused on the seven seats they lost last cycle that Abbott carried.

You can see the potential targets here. There’s really only one competitive seat in the Senate this cycle, and that’s SD19, which Dems ought to be able to win back. On the House side, the top GOP targets based on the given criteria are going to be HDs 45, 47, 52, 65, 114, 132, and 135. I’ll be surprised if they don’t expand their list beyond that, but those are the seats I’d go after first if I were them. On the Dem side, there are the nine seats Beto carried but that Republicans won, plus however many others where he came close. It’s very likely that a seat no one is worried too much about becomes more competitive than expected, thanks to changing conditions and candidate quality and other unforeseen factors. So far, no one other than Mayor-elect Eric Johnson has announced a departure, which is unusual; normally at this point in time we’ve had a couple of people say they’re not running again. Open seats are more likely to be a problem for Republicans than they will be for Democrats, but Dems don’t want to have to play defense when there are gains to be made.

At this point, the name of the game is one part candidate recruitment and one part raising money, which will be the job of the various PACs until the candidates get settled. In Harris County, we have two good candidates each for the main targets: Akilah Bacy and Josh Wallenstein (who ran for HCDE in 2018 and was the runnerup in the primary to Richard Cantu) in HD138, and Ann Johnson and Ruby Powers in HD134. In Fort Bend, Sarah DeMerchant appears to be running again in HD26, while Eliz Markowitz (candidate for SBOE7 in 2018) is aiming for HD28. We still need (or I need to do a better job searching for) candidates in HDs 29, 85, and 126, for starters. If you’re in one of those competitive Republican-held State Rep districts, find out who is or may be running for the Dems. If you’re in one of those targeted-by-the-GOP districts, be sure to help out your incumbent. Kelly Hancock is absolutely right: This is super-duper important.

Holder talks gerrymandering

The former AG was in town as part of his national activism on the topic.

Texas is “ground zero” in a national effort launching Saturday to ensure that every American’s vote counts in upcoming elections, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in Houston this week.

Holder, who led the Justice Department from 2009 to 2015 under President Barack Obama, is leading a project called “All on the Line,” ahead of the 2020 Census, focusing on a fight against gerrymandering expected with the redistricting process the following year.

[…]

The meeting in Houston was a small gathering that allowed for a dynamic conversation between Holder and leaders of organizations that helped to turn out voters in the midterm elections last year. Representatives of the Texas Organizing Project, the Texas Civil Rights Project, MOVE Texas, Texas Freedom Network, Houston in Action, and Battleground Texas were among those present.

Jolt, a youth organization that organized the Houston gathering, will launch “a major campaign with two different approaches,” said Amanda Rocha, the organization’s leader in Houston. One will be an online initiative focused on the importance of being counted in the Census, while the other will be “a door to door canvasing helping people understand what’s a stake and addressing their concerns,” she said.

Holder said it can be difficult to engage people on issues like redistricting and gerrmandering, which might sound “kind of wonky, kind of ethereal.”

“Well, if you care about a woman’s right to choose, if you care about voter suppression, if you care about criminal justice reform, if you care about climate, if you care about health care, the expansion of Medicaid, all of these things are determined at the state level and by these gerrymandered state legislators,” Holder said.

Gerrymandering is a tactic used by state legislators to draw the lines of electoral districts in a way that provides their party an unfair advantage.

Holder said a redistricting process should reflect the composition of the people in the areas drawn fairly, informed by the census results. But parties sometimes draw strangely shaped lines to guarantee dominance in their district, based, for example, on its racial composition as a predictor of voting patterns.

“We are trying to break up this whole gerrymandering. We want to make sure that, come 2021, we have a fair process,’ said Holder.

The purpose of the campaign is “not gerrymandering for Democrats, I want to make that very clear,” he said. “If we make this a fair fight between conservative Republicans, Democrats, progressives, Democrats and progressives will do just fine.”

What this comes down to is a goal for Democrats, in Texas and elsewhere, for 2020. We saw what happened following the 2010 elections when Republicans took control of state legislatures across the country, and drew districts for themselves that ensured their continued control even in closely divided states. The 2020 election is just as important, for the same reason. If you don’t have any control over the redistricting process, then redistricting is done to you, and there’s no reason to believe the federal courts as they now stand will do anything about it. The one thing Democrats in Texas can do is win control of the House. That’s a tall order, as it will take winning 20 seats, but there are lots of targets and Presidential year turnout should help.

I’ve talked several times about how Republicans are going to have some tough decisions to make about redistricting in 2021, given the results of the 2018 election and the likelihood of a similar election in 2020. Protecting their incumbents will be a challenge, especially given the assumption that will need to be made about the basic partisan composition of the state. All this presumes it will be Republicans making those decisions. Give Democrats a majority in the House and the calculus changes completely. That may be the only realistic path to a non-partisan redistricting commission going forward. The point of this activism by Eric Holder, and the main thing people should take away from these meetings, is that this is a primary goal for 2020, because it will set the stage for the decade to follow. If you need a reason to get ready to work as hard in 2020 as you did in 2018, this is it.

Two possible straws in the wind

Ken Paxton seems a little nervous.

Best mugshot ever

Less than 36 hours before Election Day, the race for attorney general is showing signs of competition that have been absent in just about every other statewide contest.

Republican incumbent Ken Paxton, who was indicted more than three years ago on felony securities fraud charges, has been running a relatively quiet campaign with the comfortable advantage of a GOP incumbent in a state that has not elected a Democrat statewide in more than two decades.

But now he is firing back at his Democratic challenger, Justin Nelson, with a new attack ad — the first one from Paxton that addresses the indictment — and getting a fresh influx of high-dollar campaign donations, signals that Republicans are not taking anything for granted in the race for Texas’ top lawyer.

Nelson, a prominent Austin attorney, has made Paxton’s legal troubles the basis of his campaign and the main focus of much of his advertising — posting billboards around the state featuring Paxton’s mugshot, commissioning a rolling billboard he calls the “Mugshot Mobile” and even sending campaign staffers dressed as Paxton in prisoner garb to frolic on the Capitol grounds in a Halloween stunt. Yet most consequentially, Nelson has spent significantly to air TV ads informing voters all over the state that their attorney general is under indictment.

The anti-Nelson push from Paxton’s campaign suggests that the Democrat’s jabs have been successful in getting something most other Democratic statewide candidates have been aching for: the GOP’s attention. Except for the blockbuster U.S. Senate battle between incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, Republican statewide officials have largely ignored their Democratic challengers, let alone gone negative on TV against them.

“Nelson has successfully raised the profile of the race to a level where Republicans began to be nervous that people who vote straight-ticket Republican may cross over in this race as they learn more about Ken Paxton,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “While they’re still counting on it, they don’t have 100 percent confidence.”

Paxton also got a cash injection from Greg Abbott. As I said before, this may just be an abundance of caution on Paxton’s part. The official reason, asserted by the political scientists, is that Paxton doesn’t want to win by a wimpy single-digit score. And maybe that is all it is. But I feel pretty confident saying he wouldn’t be asking for handouts from Greg Abbott if he didn’t think he needed the help.

Meanwhile, there’s Democratic money coming in, too.

A Democratic super PAC focused on state legislative races has injected $2.2 million into a slew of Texas House contests in their closing days.

The group, Forward Majority, is using the money to help 32 Democratic candidates, many of them challengers in GOP-held districts who have not been able to match the financial backing of the incumbents. A large majority of the funds are going toward digital ads targeting the Republicans as beholden to big donors and corporate interests, with a couple of spots tailored to specific lawmakers.

“We are staging this late intervention because we believe there is a unique window of opportunity for first time candidates to take down several entrenched Republican incumbents on Tuesday,” said Ben Wexler-Waite, a spokesman for Forward Majority.

[…]

Forward Majority was launched last year by alumni of Barack Obama’s campaigns with the goal of retaking state legislatures across the country before the next round of redistricting in 2021. Texas is one of six states the group is targeting this cycle as part of a nearly $9 million push.

In Texas, Forward Majority began seriously spending in its targeted races just a couple weeks ago. Its latest filing with the Texas Ethics Commission, which covered Sept. 28 through Oct. 27, shows the group spent $1.1 million. The rest of the $2.2 million has come since then, Wexler-Waite said.

Forward Majority is not the only seven-figure force for Democrats in Texas House races this cycle. The House Democratic Campaign Committee has raised $1.1 million this cycle, fueled by six-figure donations from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The HDCC is currently waging an $800,000 digital ad campaign in the most competitive seats.

The list of races in which this PAC is spending money follows. It ranges from the ones that have been the focus of attention all along, to those that should have had more attention all along, to the stretch goals and the more speculative investments. I couldn’t tell you the last time we did something like this – pretty sure it wasn’t this redistricting cycle – so I’m just happy to see it happen. We’ll see how sound an investment this turns out to be.

A little effort for redistricting reform

It’s a start.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, is making a quarter-million-dollar investment in Texas to help Democrats here flip a number of state House seats in November.

The money represents one of the largest single contributions that the House Democratic Campaign Committee has ever received, according to its chair, El Paso state Rep. César Blanco, who said the investment “puts us in a stronger position to pick up more seats in the House.”

House Democrats, who currently control 55 out of the 150 seats in the lower chamber, are heading toward November targeting the 11 GOP-held districts — most of them traditionally Republican — that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, with an emphasis on the Dallas area. They are also looking at several Republican-controlled districts across the state where Clinton came close to winning.

Blanco said the value of growing the Democratic caucus by even just five members could increase its influence in the race to replace outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. A larger caucus could also have implications for inter-chamber relations next year.

Here’s what the NRDC has to say about Texas. $250K is not nothing, and it’s always nice to see national Democratic money flow into Texas instead of the other way around, but it’s not that much in the context of a dozen or so races. Honestly, it might be put to better use on the lower-profile and second-tier races, or in districts where there’s also a competitive Senate or Congressional race going on that’s already doing GOTV. Like I said, it’s a start and I’ll gladly take what they have to give, but let’s maintain some perspective. It’s still a drop in the bucket compared to what the Republicans’ moneybag overlords can and will spend.

Abbott’s anti-anti-redistricting task force

Alternate title: Dude with deep pockets gives Greg Abbott a wad of cash to stop those evil Democrats.

As Gov. Greg Abbott sounds the alarm about Democratic efforts to influence the post-2020 redistricting process, he is being backed up by a new super PAC led by a key ally.

The super PAC, #ProjectRedTX, has quietly raised a half a million dollars — from a single donor — as it looks to ensure Republican dominance in Texas through the next round of redistricting. Those efforts are ramping up as the state prepares to defend its current congressional and state House district maps before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The group is being helmed by Wayne Hamilton, Abbott’s 2014 campaign manager, according to a person familiar with the effort. Hamilton, a former longtime executive director of the Texas GOP, has been involved in politics for the past three redistricting cycles.

“Our Mission is to create and support effective efforts to secure Republican representation in redistricting across the state,” the super PAC says on its website. “This mission includes making expenditures to support candidates. Additionally, we will provide support for redistricting effort with expert demographers, statisticians and legal counsel.”

[…]

The super PAC was formed in April of last year but did not show any activity until more recently. At the end of January, it reported collecting two donations — $200,000 in November and $300,000 in December — from a single person: Michael Porter, a retiree from the tiny Hill Country town of Doss.

See here for the background. This dude has written a big check to Greg Abbott before, and I’m sure he’ll do it again the next time Abbott sends him a scary email. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee in Texas

Let’s say I’m hope but verify on this one.

Former President Barack Obama and members of his administration are ready to take another shot at chipping away at Republican domination in Texas.

A new group headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder and with the public backing of Obama is targeting Texas among 11 states in which they are determined to change the redistricting process to assure more competitive state House and Senate races in the future.

“In 2011, Republicans created gerrymandered districts that locked themselves into power and shut out voters from the electoral process,” Holder said in announcing the National Democratic Redistricting Committee’s electoral targets earlier this week.

“By focusing on these state and local races, we can ensure Democrats who will fight for fairness have a seat at the table when new maps are drawn in 2021,” he added.

And Harris County will be a big part of the plan. State Democrats have already highlighted more than 20 seats in the Texas House that Hillary Clinton either won over Donald Trump in 2016 or lost narrowly — a list the new NDRC group is well versed in, said Kelly Ward, executive director of the group.

Ward said her group hasn’t made specific targets yet, but said after the primaries in March they will begin to hone in on more specific targets.

[…]

[Manny Garcia, the Texas Democratic Party’s Deputy Executive Director] said state Democrats welcome the attention from national groups. He said the recognition from group’s like Holder’s only offers further vindication of the progress Texas Democrats are making.

In 2011, the Texas House had 101 Republicans and 49 Democrats. Since then, Democrats have gained 6 seats and have hopes for more in 2018. In the Senate, though Republicans have a 9 seat edge, Garcia said picking up just two seats would have a big impact on how the Senate operates.

Currently Democrats have few procedural tools to slow down the Republican agenda in Austin. But with two additional seats, Democrats would have enough votes to force Republicans to have to listen to them.

It all sounds good, but this isn’t the first time we’ve heard from a big-name group of former Obama staffers with big ideas and the promise of major resources, so I trust you’ll forgive me if I refrain from swooning just yet. They’re saying the right things, and the fact that Senate races are in the discussion is a positive, but we’ll know it when we see it if this is a real and serious thing.

On a broader note, I think a promise of a better and less-partisan redistricting process would have some appeal to less-partisan voters. Since the ouster of Sen. Jeff Wentworth, it’s Democrats who have taken up the thankless task of filing a bill for a non-partisan redistricting committee. Such a bill is highly unlikely to go anywhere without a Democratic majority, and of course once there is a Democratic majority the urge to use the process for our own benefit will be strong. Maybe things would be different this time, and who knows, if you get enough people to campaign and win on a fair-and-less-partisan redistricting process they may actually act on it once elected. It’s worth a shot.