Texas Elections 2018

Analysis: In Donald Trump’s midterm, Texas voters tap the brakes

Texas Republicans had a tough election this year, losing more seats than expected and winning statewide races by much thinner margins than normal. Blame the president.

President Donald J. Trump at a MAGA rally at the Toyota Center in Houston on Oct. 22, 2018.
Texas Elections 2018

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke in the race for U.S. Senate. View full 2018 Texas election results or subscribe to The Brief for the latest election news.

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We all know about the Ted-and-Beto showbiz section of this week’s elections, but the attractions of that race don’t fully explain the results.

This was all about Donald Trump.

Midterms are report cards for presidents; ask Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Holding an election halfway through a presidency gives voters a chance to adjust their representation. And in Texas this year, those voters moved the dial a bit to the left, both by electing Democrats to replace Republicans in the state Legislature and in Congress, and by whacking the electoral margins Texas Republicans have come to expect.

The normal go-tos for a Republican statewide candidate were wobbly. Republicans either lost or under-performed in places like Collin, Denton, Williamson and Tarrant counties. Those are places the GOP relies on to offset the blue voters of Dallas and Houston and Austin and San Antonio. The voting there made for unexpectedly close statewide races and wiped out many downballot Republicans who would have been fine in a normal year.

Look, a win is a win, even if it’s only by a few votes. Congratulate the shaken Republican winners. But the message from voters — Republican voters, in particular — was clear.

Turn down the volume.

Texas Republicans didn’t add a single human to their statehouse ranks. Texas Democrats added 14, along with a couple of members of the congressional delegation. And it was a night of close finishes for many of the winners.

Call them the “barelies” — the people who just eked by. They include new Democratic members of the state Senate and House who overtook Republicans and wriggled their way in. And they include some Republican incumbents in the House who weren’t expected to be in trouble.

A question to be answered in January, when the Legislature convenes for its regular session: Will those electoral scares mute some voices, or will the full-throated conservatives who won new terms come back in full force?

The first indication will come before the start of the session, as the 150 members of the House decide who will replace the outgoing Joe Straus as speaker. In light of the election results, it’s likely to be someone more moderate, like Straus, than not. The noisy conservatives who have clamored for more red meat and less moderation got beat — or beat back. Moderate Republicans did better with voters than the hardliners.

And although every single statewide Republican who was on the ballot won, each of the repeaters — from Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott on down the ballot — won by a smaller margin this time.

Some other notes on the elections:

• Texas elected four statewide officials who will belong to a little-known committee that is important exactly one time every decade: the Texas Legislative Redistricting Board. It’s the five-member panel that makes redistricting maps when the Legislature and the governor cannot, and includes the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, the attorney general, comptroller and land commissioner. They’re all Republicans, and what it means is that the GOP will maintain its ultimate power over the next set of political maps in Texas. Redistricting will follow a 2020 census, meaning it will be a central bit of business for the 2021 Legislature. While most of those legislators will be elected in 2020, the statewide officials on the redistricting board were elected this week: Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, Glenn Hegar and George P. Bush. The House will be choosing a speaker in the next few weeks.

• The Texas Senate operates with a supermajority rule that requires three-fifths of the senators to consent to bring legislation up for debate. If you don’t have the numbers, you can’t bring a bill to the floor. In most cases, that’s not a partisan thing. But when it is, the Republicans don’t have any wiggle room. With the elections of Beverly Powell of Fort Worth and Nathan Johnson of Dallas, two Democrats have replaced two Republicans in the upper chamber, leaving the GOP with a 19-12 majority. That just happens to be three-fifths of the 31-member Senate, and it means one Republican defection on any given issue would force a bipartisan negotiation to bring up legislation.

Democrats also picked up two seats in the congressional delegation, with Colin Allred of Dallas and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Houston defeating longtime Republican incumbents Pete Sessions and John Culberson, respectively. The 36-member delegation is still red, however, with a 23-13 Republican advantage. That is, unless a recount in the nail-biter Will Hurd-Gina Ortiz Jones congressional race overturns the current result and moves Hurd’s seat to the Democrats.

More people voted — over 8.3 million — than have ever turned out for midterm elections in Texas. About 72 percent of those votes were cast before Election Day. And instead of one in three voters turning out, the norm in these races, more than half of the registered voters took part this time.