WASHINGTON — The decision former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke is about to make — whether to run for president, the U.S. Senate or nothing at all in 2020 — will surely reverberate across Texas. But regardless of what O'Rourke does, Democrats are planning a major Texas offensive to target lower-tier races that could could reset the table of Texas politics into the next decade.
Democratic gains from the 2018 midterms have translated in this cycle to higher-quality candidates showing a willingness to consider running for office, and national Democratic groups are signaling they are serious about committing money toward a continuation of their offensive strikes in Texas into the 2020 election.
“It’s one of our top opportunities in the whole country,” U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the House Democratic campaign arm, recently told The Texas Tribune.
The Democratic maneuvering and posturing over Texas right now is dizzying. No fewer than three high-profile Democrats — U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, former state Sen. Wendy Davis and Air Force veteran M.J. Hegar — are not ruling out challenging U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. U.S. House Democrats are planning an offensive in Texas — six seats in all — that has not been seen for at least a generation in the state, and a national Democratic group is looking to strengthen the party's hand in the state Legislature ahead of 2021 redistricting and reapportionment. And many Republicans, for their part, worry O'Rourke or former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro could end up on a national ticket in 2020.
What is happening here is a Democratic belief that their successes in Texas were not merely tied to O'Rourke outperforming expectations as a Senate candidate last year. Instead, Democrats suggest the numbers moved strongly enough in their favor that there is reason to spend in Texas, a traditionally cost-prohibitive state. There are all different groups and candidates looking to play in Texas. Working together, this could translate into a campaign not pinned on a single Democratic gubernatorial candidate like Bill White or Wendy Davis, but an all-out assault on Republican incumbents up and down the ballot.
Challenging Texas Republicans at the presidential or Senate level is a highly risky bet. To fully compete across Texas would cost a presidential campaign tens of millions of dollars that could be spent in a slew of smaller states, even if the scenario of a potential star Texas vice presidential candidate came to pass.
Cornyn, meanwhile, rolled out early campaign hires as a means to telegraph to Republicans that he is taking his race — and his place as the Republican leader on next year's ballot — seriously. Republicans take much comfort in the fact that while Cornyn is a high-profile Senate Republican, he does not have a polarizing presence back home on par with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. O'Rourke shattered fundraising records, and it's an open question whether any other Democratic candidate has the same kind of charisma or could raise that kind of money. But Joaquin Castro, Davis and Hegar all have viable fundraising bases that could at the very least offer some support down-ballot.
But in Washington, the Senate and presidential calculations for Texas are afterthoughts. The real game in town is increasing the Democratic numbers in the state's U.S. House delegation and laying the groundwork for an offensive over the next decade. Bustos, the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a former college basketball and volleyball player, has an oft-repeated mantra on her task to protect Speaker Nancy Pelosi's gavel: The best defense is a strong offense.
The DCCC recently released its list of its Texas targets: U.S. Reps. John Carter of Round Rock, Will Hurd of Helotes, Kenny Marchant of Coppell, Michael McCaul of Austin, Pete Olson of Sugar Land and Chip Roy of Austin. Until the 2018 election, the parties only seriously competed for Hurd's 23rd Congressional District over this past decade. But that all changed in November when each of these incumbents won his seat by a five-point margin or less.
“If you just want to stick to the numbers, not emotions, the numbers are all moving in our direction," Bustos said. "There are changing demographics. It’s becoming more suburban, and my guess is over the next two, four, six years, we are going to have a lot of successes as Democrats in Texas."
If Bustos follows through with serious ad money — a calculation that is still over a year away — there will be major congressional ad wars in all of Texas' major metropolitan areas on a scale not seen since at least 2004, when Republicans took out four Democrats in the delegation. Winning congressional seats also presents an opportunity for party building. For instance, it has not escaped notice that the two wealthiest neighborhoods with the most influential donors in Texas — Highland Park in Dallas and River Oaks in Houston — now have Democratic representatives, U.S. Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Houston.
Even so, while Bustos and the rest of the House Democratic caucus are talking a big offensive game, their first priority will be to get Allred and Pannill Fletcher re-elected — an outcome that is not assured at this early point in the cycle.
As for the Republican worldview, many members, staffers and strategists within the delegation are still feeling the sting from the losses last year of former U.S. Reps. John Culberson of Houston and Pete Sessions of Dallas. Multiple GOP sources in the Texas delegation say they are increasingly worried that some of the targeted incumbents are not taking these re-election races seriously or may end up retiring.
"It is more cautious. It is more contemplative," Marchant said of the Texas GOP processing of the 2018 midterms. "I think, in my case, we're going back and examining every precinct and discovering who turned out, who didn't turn out, who turned out we didn't expect to turn out, and we're finding that the Beto effect was very, very prominent."
"I've got a pretty good war chest, and I'm adding to it quickly, earlier, so that by June I will have a very good idea on the money I will have to spend," he added. "Our campaign will start maybe six months earlier."
That Beto effect is one of the most oft-repeated phrases in Republican circles these days. While Marchant is sending the message that he is preparing for the worst, there are a number of Texas Republican insiders who shrug off Democrats' 2018 gains as a one-off coattails effect from the O'Rourke Senate campaign. They assume the political environment will soon return to a favorable status quo.
All of this posturing between the two parties in Texas has national implications: Texas is integral to Republicans recapturing a majority. The Texas delegation is the largest Republican state contingent in the House GOP conference, and safe Texas Republican members also raise millions of dollars that they send on to the House GOP campaign arm and to vulnerable incumbents.
The 2018 midterms indicate that Republicans may not be able to draw their way out of trouble in the next decade. The current map is as good as it gets for the GOP, and even that map may not hold next year. The Republican fear is that if GOP incumbents lose their seats, it will be harder to oust a sitting Democrat via mapmaking.
There is another threat on the redistricting front: National Democrats are paying far more attention to the state legislative races as compared to this point 10 years ago. Democrats openly admit that Republicans outsmarted them on redistricting in the years leading up to the 2010 midterms. That year, Republicans gained seats in statehouses across the country — including in Texas — and would go on in 2011 to draw the most favorable U.S. House maps possible. Many political observers concluded the maps were so impenetrable that the GOP would control the U.S. House for the entire decade. That logic fell apart in 2018 amid the backlash to President Donald Trump, leading to the restoration of Pelosi to power.
Upon leaving office, former President Barack Obama focused much of his political energy on strengthening his party for 2021 redistricting. Along with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, he formed a group called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee that, as one of its missions, helps Democrats in state legislatures influence maps. The group has its eye on Texas.
"Texas is a priority for us as an organization," said NDRC spokesman Patrick Rodenbush. "We spent more than $500,000 there last year in statehouse races. We plan to continue to make Texas a priority ... politically, and we're looking to hire somebody to do advocacy work in the state. It was and is a target for us."
The likelihood of outright flipping the 150-member state House of Representatives — which now has 83 Republicans — is an incredible long-shot. But the larger aim is to strengthen the Democratic state House members’ negotiating position when the redraw takes place in 2021.
If Democrats end up creating a legislative deadlock on redistricting, they would still have a number of obstacles to landing a truly friendly map. The issue could end up in the Republican-dominated Texas Redistricting Board, which comprises the lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, speaker of the House and land commissioner.
But the looming redistricting is why some Republicans are so worried about their incumbents. For instance, there is already some chatter among at least four GOP delegation insiders that the best move would be to create one or two more safely Democratic seats in the urban areas. The idea is to pack Democratic voters into those seats and push the Republican voters into the surrounding Republican incumbents’ districts.
Scott Yeldell, a former Texas Republican consultant, puts the onus on individual candidates — even the ones in safe seats — to get out the vote during a general election campaign.
"The [Republican] vote is there; Texas is still a Republican state with a Republican majority of voters ... but if there's any member of the delegation sitting back on their heels, they're making a mistake even as early as February of the off-year in 2019," Yeldell said. Democrats, he added, are not sitting on their heels.