Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
Speculate all you’d like, but there are ways to tell if 2018 will be an election year for the Democrats or one for the Republicans. Just examine a handful of swing districts and you’ll be able to see how the political wind is blowing this year.
Keep your binoculars on these races, each of which could be a bellwether of this election year: state Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville and state Reps. Victoria Neave of Dallas and Tony Dale of Cedar Park. A Democratic electorate — or an anti-Republican one — could be bad news for Republicans like Burton and Dale.
A conservative trend, on the other hand, would work against Neave, who serves in House District 107, which belonged to Republican Kenneth Sheets until she upset him in 2016. In that election, Neave had 836 more votes than the incumbent — out of 55,008 votes cast. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in HD-107, but Republican Greg Abbott beat Democrat Wendy Davis there in the 2014 race for governor. On average, Republicans outdid Democrats in statewide races by 11.5 percentage points in the district in 2014; in 2016, the Democrats running statewide had a 1.1 percentage-point advantage. It’s a swing district, with a slight Republican lean.
Dale’s Central Texas HD-136 is a little more Republican, but not by a lot. Clinton and Abbott both won there. Statewide Republicans had a 12.5-percentage-point edge in 2014 and a smaller one — 6.5 points — in 2016. Dale acknowledges the risks. “This district has always been on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of Republican voting strength,” he says. But he adds that he got a higher number of raw votes in his district in 2016 than Trump or Clinton or U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. It’s a Republican district, but not a lock.
Burton’s SD-10 is the closest thing the 31-seat Texas Senate has to a swing district. Trump edged Clinton (47.9 percent to 47.3 percent), and Abbott beat Davis by almost 7.5 percentage points. That last set of numbers is worth remark: Davis was the senator from SD-10 before Burton took the seat in 2014. The district’s numbers in the last two elections are similar to those in Dale’s district; this one is Republican, but it’s not a lock.
The three, taken together, will be useful in the political autopsies that take place after November’s general election. All other things being equal (they’re not equal: Neave will try to survive any political repercussions from drunkenly driving her car into a tree last June), the incumbents should all be taking the oath of office again in a year. But political winds are dangerous to down-ballot candidates like those running for the Texas Legislature.
“Lots of times, external things beyond your control impact your race,” Dale says. “The farther down the ballot you are, like I am, the stronger that is.”
In spite of the formidably partisan maps drawn for congressional and legislative districts by the Legislature — with the blessing, so far, of the federal courts — Texas still has a few genuine swing districts. Those are the political areas where election outcomes often turn on something other than the political parties of the candidates: qualifications, issues, turnout and so on.
Texas has 36 seats in the U.S. House, but only one swing district — the 23rd Congressional District that takes in most of the state’s border with Mexico and stretches from El Paso to San Antonio. It has flipped back and forth between the parties, and it’s currently held by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes. Non-presidential election years have been kinder to Republicans in that district, but in the last two of those, a Democrat held the White House. A bumpy midterm election for a Republican president could spoil Hurd’s benevolent breezes.
Remember the Tea Party surprise of 2010? Suppose Donald Trump gets the kind of midterm election Barack Obama got that year. Democrats dream of it, Republicans dread it, and honestly, years like that are relatively rare. But a number of incumbent Republicans in Texas represent districts the president lost to Clinton. In their defense, many of those local politicians were winning their districts in spite of Trump, but their voters have shown a willingness to trade red flags for blue ones.
A number of Republican incumbents in the Texas House have similar worries — that light or heavy Democratic winds could make things more difficult for them. State Reps. Linda Koop of Dallas, Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie, Morgan Meyer of Dallas, Angie Chen Button of Richardson, Jason Villalba of Dallas, Matt Rinaldi of Irving and Sarah Davis of Houston are examples.
The outcomes are invisible from this distance, but we’ll get hints along the way. Watch those bellwethers.