In the wake of Donald Trump's upset victory last year, national Democrats found some solace in Texas, where Hillary Clinton won two congressional districts that Republicans usually carry. Those bright spots are now fueling an effort by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to topple U.S. Reps. Pete Sessions and John Culberson in 2018.
But the opportunities for Democrats may not stop there, according to new data from the Texas Legislative Council showing presidential election results in Texas broken down by state House and Senate districts.
In the state Senate, one Republican — Don Huffines of Dallas — is now representing a district that Clinton easily won, while two more — Konni Burton of Colleyville and Joan Huffman of Houston — are now sitting in areas that Clinton almost carried. In the House, 10 Republicans are now representing districts that Clinton won, while several more are now sitting in areas she came close to winning.
The question in those districts, like so many surrounding Trump's election across the country, is whether the dramatic swings in 2016 were meaningful shifts that could have implications in future elections. That question is particularly pressing for the 11 Texas Republicans now representing districts that voted for Clinton, all of whom are up for re-election in 2018.
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Among them is U.S. Rep. Jason Villalba, whose Dallas-based District 114 opted for Clinton by 9 points; in 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney won that district by 12 points. Villalba, a Trump critic, said he was not concerned about the swing, calling the 2016 election an "anomalous situation that will correct itself when we see a more traditional Republican candidate" at the top of the ticket in the future.
"It does not raise a red flag for me," said Villalba, who easily fended off a Democratic challenger. "Early in the election cycle, I was probably one of the only elected officials in the state who was willing to go against the party and say some things about the standard-bearer that were not taken well. ... And the reason I did that is because I know my district well."
Trump did not win any Democrat-held districts, indicating a possible opening for Democrats to play offense in 2018. While some Republicans — like Villalba — are treating the shifts in 2016 as outliers, Carol Donovan, who chairs the Dallas County Democratic Party, said they cannot be outrightly dismissed when combined with other encouraging signs for Democrats.
“There is a counterargument," Donovan said, pointing out Democratic straight-ticket voting was up in 2016 in Dallas County. "Obviously, you can’t just blow off the straight-party-ticket voting of Democrats with that kind of voting."
Donovan also expressed doubt that the political landscape for Republicans in 2018 would go back to the way it was before 2016. Texas Republicans, she said, appear to be "assuming that as long as Donald Trump remains in office, things will remain normal."
In addition to Sessions' district, Donovan said the party is already zeroing in on Huffines' district, which Clinton won by 5 points after Romney carried it by 15 points four years prior. Aware of the swing, Huffines' team does not blame Democrats for prioritizing the district — but also is not sweating 2018 quite yet.
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"We take it seriously, but it's not a hair-on-fire moment," said Matt Langston, a Republican consultant who works for Huffines.
While Huffines' district was the only GOP-held state Senate district that Clinton won, she almost carried two others. She came within a point of winning Burton's and Huffman's districts, which in 2012 went for Romney by 8 points and 20 points, respectively.
Among the 11 GOP lawmakers now sitting in districts Clinton won, almost all are in the Dallas and Houston areas, where Democratic gains factored prominently into Clinton's 9-point loss statewide — the narrowest deficit for a Democratic presidential nominee in Texas in two decades. A few of the lawmakers had close races in 2016, such as Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie, who held on to his seat by only 64 votes as Clinton went on to win his District 105 by 9 points.
Among House Republicans, Clinton ran up the biggest margin of victory in District 134, held by Sarah Davis of West University Place. Clinton carried the district by 15 after Romney did so by the same amount in 2012.
Davis' campaign anticipated Trump underperforming and ran a special mail campaign reaching out to Democrats, seeking to show them where Davis aligned with them on the issues. She ended up defeating her Democratic challenger, Ben Rose, by 10 points.
The shifts in 2016 are "not an indication whatsoever as to how the state rep will perform in the future, as evidenced by how the race went this time," said Eric Bearse, Davis' consultant. "This is the most highly educated district in the state. They go down the ballot and split their ticket more than any district in Harris County. They distinguish based on the candidate and not the party."
- Texas Democrats are starting to devise a strategy for the 2018 midterms.
- The DCCC has Culberson and Sessions in its crosshairs after the 2016 elections.