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Hey, Texplainer: Which recent election cycles have been the closest — and what does that mean in 2018?

Texas is a Republican stronghold, and that likely won't change anytime soon. Heading into 2018, however, several Democrats are pushing to unseat incumbents in several statewide races.

People voting in Houston on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.


Welcome to The Texas Tribune's "Texplainer" series, where we answer questions from readers like you. 

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Today’s Texplainer is inspired by a question from Texas Tribune reader Anthony Torres. 

Hey, Texplainer: Which recent election cycles have been the closest in Texas — and what does that mean for 2018?

It’s no secret that Texas typically votes red.

Texas last backed the Democratic candidate for president more than 40 years ago, when Jimmy Carter defeated Republican Gerald Ford by 3.2 percentage points. In the 10 elections since then, the state has been a reliable Republican stronghold.

While some thought the 2016 presidential election cycle would mark a change (there was even speculation that Texas could turn blue) Republican Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 9 percentage points in Texas. Though he earned the smallest margin of victory for a Republican nominee in Texas in two decades, it's not the smallest margin for a Republican since Carter's win.

In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton lost the state to then-President George H.W. Bush by 3.5 percentage points, in an election in which independent Ross Perot, a Texan, drew 22 percent of the state's vote.

The 2016 election marked a turn for Democrats, however, because Hillary Clinton won several counties typically considered reliably Republican. Despite long being considered a red county, Fort Bend went blue on Nov. 8 when Clinton won the county with an almost seven-point margin of victory.

It wasn’t just an electoral flip — it was a 13-point swing from the 2012 presidential election. This also marked the third presidential election in which the Republican presidential candidate did not win the county by double digits.

Harris Countythstatelargescounty, was another area that was undeniably blue for the 2016 presidential race, but it may be too soon to call these places battleground counties after just one election.

Aside from those areas, Republicans often defeat their Democratic challengers in presidential races pretty handily in Texas.

But presidential races aren’t the only elections Texans look forward to, especially with 2018 races right around the corner.

Currently Texas has a Republican governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House, attorney general, agricultural commissioner and land commissioner ... and the list goes on. A Democrat hasn’t won statewide in Texas in 23 years.

Heading into the 2018 races, Republicans still seemingly have the upper hand: Gov. Greg Abbott is running for re-election without a serious democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is running for re-election after a special session in which he garnered widespread support from the right for prioritizing a contentious “bathroom bill” and property tax measure, though neither bill ultimately passed.

Does this mean Democrats are giving up without a fight? Not quite.

Though underdogs, several Democrats have filed to run for statewide office. For example, Democrat Mike Collier intends to take a stab at unseating Patrick, and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke will challenge Ted Cruz for his U.S. Senate seat in 2018.

And while statewide office remains Texas Democrats’ biggest challenge, there are various races lower on the ballot that they are likely to remain competitive. And many Democrats have expressed hope that President Donald Trump’s unpopularity will make next year into a wave election that boosts Democrats in Texas and around the country.

The bottom line: Texas is a red state, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. But heading into 2018, some Democrats see new opportunities for winning some races, particularly if next year’s election is a referendum on Trump.   

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