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In the run-up to Election Day, an influential Tea Party group seemed skeptical that a blue wave would wash over the state.
But after the votes were tallied Tuesday, the NE Tarrant Tea Party found that some of its favored candidates had nearly been swept away.
“Slaughtered … slaughtered … lost … lost … barely held on, but at least they won,” the group’s president, Julie McCarty, wrote to supporters Wednesday, ticking down a list of races. “We are rapidly becoming outnumbered. I don't know what tomorrow holds, but I don't like the pattern."
Though the GOP maintained its dominance of the Legislature and control of every statewide office, it was by almost all counts a tough night for her wing of the party. With the Democrats’ star senatorial candidate, Beto O’Rourke, at the top of the ticket, challengers running to the left of far-right — and often well-financed — candidates made nail-biters of races that had once been safe Republican wins.
In North Texas, ultra-conservative candidates backed by the Tea Party and its ideological ilk eked out surprisingly slim leads in a midterm election that brought record turnout and a level of Democratic enthusiasm not seen in years. On the statewide ticket, establishment Republicans like Gov. Greg Abbott and Comptroller Glenn Hegar won with wider margins than the more colorful incumbents for lieutenant governor and attorney general.
“I was shocked,” Austin lobbyist Bill Miller said. “There were a number of very conservative candidates who really narrowly won; I mean razor-thin margins.”
“I think the trend line to be more conservative next year than you were this year, that's going to be discontinued. The electorate spoke last night and said, ‘We've gone far enough and we want something a little more centrist,’” he said.
Nowhere was the pattern more evident than in North Texas counties, like Tarrant — the once ruby red Republican stronghold that went Tuesday to the Democratic upstart O’Rourke. It was there, around the Dallas-Fort Worth region, that a handful of districts flipped to Democratic control, including the seats previously held by uncompromisingly conservative state Sens. Don Huffines and Konni Burton.
State Reps. Matt Shaheen, Jeff Leach and Bill Zedler — staunch GOP incumbents who won previous contests with comfortable leads — barely survived this election night.
Even in a Plano district so solidly red that Democrats didn’t field a candidate there last cycle, “pistol packin’ mama” Angela Paxton was nearly defeated by a little-known challenger from the left. In 2012, the same district was won with a 28-point cushion by Angela Paxton’s husband, Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Political analysts say the results spell trouble for the no-holds-barred conservatism that has animated Republican primaries, especially with the success of Democratic challengers who this year campaigned on bread-and-butter issues like education and health care.
“The margins for the more combative and conservative Republicans were much smaller than that of the more pragmatic and more consensus-based Republicans,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor. “That says something to Republicans that is: When you have a candidate that doesn’t alienate people, your cushion is much larger.”
McCarty, the NE Tarrant Tea Party president, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Michael Quinn Sullivan, head of the deep-pocketed and hard-right Empower Texans group.
But in an email newsletter Wednesday, Sullivan said it “was a rough night for Texas Republicans.”
“Elections come and go; some candidates lose and some candidates win. Sometimes those losses and wins have nothing to do with the candidates themselves,” the newsletter said. “Legislatively, though, not much changes. The GOP holds commanding leads in Texas’ House and Senate.”
The lower chamber’s most conservative faction, the Freedom Caucus, may in fact gain membership next session, with the entrée of several new ideologically aligned candidates.
McCarty, in an email to supporters, attributed the election outcome to an influx of Democrats and “white guilt” invading the suburbs.
“It's not that we didn't work hard. It's not that folks didn't vote. Dems are moving in from out of state, lured in by short-sighted politicians. Dems are moving in across the border. Dems run our schools and universities and churn out more Dems,” she wrote.
“It was a wakeup call.”
The last time such a partisan shift swept the state Legislature was in 2010, during a midterm election that wrought a political bloodbath in the lower chamber. Nearly two dozen state House seats flipped to Republican control that year, in an election seen on the federal level as a referendum on the Obama presidency.
“The trajectory over the last 20 or so years is for members of both parties who are in the middle of the ideological spectrum to be picked off by more conservative or more liberal members of their party,” said Joshua Blank, with the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics Project. In Texas, "this election seems to be the first indication of a pushback against that trend.”
Take candidates who have courted some of the most controversy in recent years.
Conservative hardliner Matt Rinaldi, who called Immigration and Customs Enforcement on protesters in the Capitol last session, lost to a Democratic challenger in Irving.
Republican incumbent Ron Simmons, who authored polarizing “bathroom bill” measures in 2017, fell in Carrollton.
And few winners faced a more precarious path to victory on Tuesday than state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, one of the most prominent members of the Texas House Freedom Caucus. After winning with 55.6 percent of the vote in 2016, 63.6 percent in 2014, and 80.7 percent in 2012, Stickland failed this year to win more than 50 percent in his Bedford district.
He told The Texas Tribune on Thursday that he dodged a bullet: “It was a wakeup call.”
“I think it was a regional thing, I really do. There were a lot of establishment guys that went down in Dallas County as well; it was the entire Republican ticket," he said. That said, "it certainly caught us by surprise to be honest with you. My efforts were focused on other areas where I thought people were vulnerable and I basically did no campaigning in my district at all."
An analysis of campaign finance reports compiled by Chris Tackett, who tracks political spending, shows that regular funders of hard-right candidates sank about 3.5 times more money in the last five months into candidates that lost than that won. Tackett, who runs a campaign finance website, included in his analysis contributions made by the anti-abortion organization Texas Right to Life's political action committee, the Empower Texans PAC, that PAC’s nine biggest donors, and the group’s affiliated Texans for Fiscal Responsibility PAC. It also counts contributions made by the campaigns of primarily far right-funded candidates.
Jones, the Rice political science professor, said that the mobilization of Democratic voters made re-election tougher for Republicans up and down the ballot. But turnout also brought a new competitiveness to the general election that could augur a shift to favor centrist candidates, he said.
“The salad days for the Texas Republican Party — where whoever wins the primaries, has their ticket punched for election in November — those days are perhaps fading,” said Jones. “What we saw this election is that when the elections get tighter, when … that blue wave rises higher, candidate quality begins to be far more important and it was the better candidates, the candidates that were able to appeal to a larger range of voters and who didn't repel voters, who had the most success within these bluer counties.”
There’s perhaps no better encapsulation of the right’s performance this election than the emails sent by McCarty, the head of the influential NE Tarrant Tea Party group.
Weeks before the election, she exhorted supporters to vote “RED all up and down the ballot,” save for in a “couple races that are considered by many to be the exception to the rule.”
The two candidates who earned the group’s ire were Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Giovanni Capriglione, a relatively moderate Southlake representative who once enjoyed support from Tea Party Republicans. On Election Night, as uber-conservative candidates in the area notched narrow victories, Bush cruised to re-election with a margin exceeding 10 points.
Capriglione, whose district abuts Stickland’s, pulled off a 39-percentage-point-win.
The districts differ demographically. But Stickland said he's still heeding the election's results.
“Look, I still have my same principles,” he said. “But a lot of times, it's the way that you talk about your principles and the way that you pursue your agenda. I think that I very clearly need to speak with a lot more people in my district, specifically folks that maybe felt disenfranchised this last election, and figure out what they care about and figure out how we can make Texas better together.”
“Republicans need to do a better job messaging our vision for Texas,” he said. “I think this is a one-off. However, Beto was a very strong candidate and I think we need to realize that personality seems to be just as important as policy now and the likability of a candidate is important. People need to be able to present a positive message to the constituents and the voters.
“I think Beto did a good job. I completely disagree with him on his policy, but I think he inspired a lot of people,” Stickland said. “That's something Republicans haven't talked about in a while. So we're going to have to make some adjustments.”
Disclosure: Rice University, the University of Texas at Austin and Bill Miller have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.