When Hillary Clinton came to Houston last month for a local party fundraiser, she spoke forcefully about the opportunities that await Texas Democrats in 2020. Yet instead of promoting the U.S. Senate race — or even the half dozen congressional seats that national Democrats are targeting — she focused a little farther down the ballot.
"When I look at Texas, I see the future," the 2016 presidential nominee told Harris County Democrats. "I see a path to drive record turnout in 2020. And if we can do that, you can take back the state House. You can take back the House and maybe even the Senate."
While the Texas Senate appears safe for Republicans, Clinton's comments underscored the emphasis that some Democrats — both in Texas and outside it — are already putting on the fight for the majority in the state House, where their party is nine seats away from control of the chamber. Views vary on just how within reach the majority is for Democrats, but few disagree that 2020 will be a frenzied cycle for House races as Democrats work to protect — and potentially build on — their recent gains. Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing to take back seats and head off the worst-case scenario: a Democratic-led House heading into the 2021 redistricting process.
The early contours of the fight are taking shape in the wake of a legislative session that saw Republicans largely eschew divisive social issues for a bread-and-butter agenda after a humbling election cycle in which they lost a dozen seats in the lower chamber. There is also a new speaker, Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen, who appears intent on keeping the GOP in power by minimizing the kind of internecine conflict that has previously bedeviled the party.
"Everything is focused on redistricting," state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said at a recent Tea Party meeting as he fielded questions about the demise of some controversial legislation this session. "There is nothing more important — not only to Texas, but literally the nation — than to make sure that we maintain the Texas House ... going into redistricting because if you look at the nation — we lose Texas, we lose the nation. And there's no other place to go."
First things first
Before Republicans can fully focus on November, though, they must get through primary season, typically the most consequential part of the cycle in a traditionally red state. This primary stretch has been off to a more muted start than usual, with few credible challengers to incumbents emerging during or immediately after the session — or even speculation about them.
Of course, the unity among Bonnen, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has set a much different tone coming out of this session versus the contentious 2017 sessions. In the aftermath of those sessions, Abbott took the remarkable step of backing primary challengers to GOP House members who had crossed him, which he has indicated he will not do this time.
Bonnen has taken particular interest in protecting GOP members from primary challenges that could prove counterproductive in preserving the majority. Early in his speakership, he counseled Abbott against getting involved in primaries again and even visited with Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman whose largesse fuels the biggest-spending groups that help primary opponents.
Recently asked by reporters what he discussed with Dunn, Bonnen replied, "Not wasting money on primaries."
Still, hardline conservative activists have bitterly panned the session, pointing to the failure of priorities such as further restricting abortion and cracking down on voter fraud. Whether those complaints translate into viable primary challenges is an open question.
It could depend on how Republican members use the coming weeks to characterize the session to constituents back home, according to one GOP consultant who regularly works with primary challengers.
"Republican lawmakers would do well to admit to their Republican constituents that this session fell short and that the media’s acknowledgment that conservative issues were avoided is accurate," said the consultant, Luke Macias. "The more Republican lawmakers attempt to portray this session as a huge win for conservatives, the more they increase their likelihood of having a primary challenge to deal with."
As Republicans have sought to get their own in order for 2020, state and national Democrats have been drawing up preliminary battle plans to take the House. Their path runs through a group of 18 districts — 17 where Republicans won by single digits last year, as well as House District 32. That's where Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, ran unopposed while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won by just 5 points.
Of course, Democrats have to simultaneously defend the 12 seats they picked up last year, some of which have already drawn serious GOP opposition.
The path is "tough but possible to flip the chamber," said Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. "We feel like there are enough potential targets out there that nine is doable, but it is gonna take a lot of work and resources."
The NDRC spent $560,000 in Texas last cycle, and Rodenbush called Texas "one of our top priorities for 2020." It recently hired an Austin-based Democratic consultant, Genevieve Van Cleve, to oversee its advocacy and political efforts here as Texas state director.
Other national groups are zeroing in on Texas this cycle as a state House battleground. They include the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Forward Majority, a super PAC that injected $2.2 million into Texas House races in the closing days of the 2018 election.
The state Democratic Party is expanding its campaign and candidate services as part of what will ultimately be a seven-figure effort in House races. Over the past weekend in Austin, the party held a training for 55 people to become campaign managers in state House races.
How will Republicans respond?
While Bonnen and other top Republicans appear to be taking seriously the stakes of 2020, it remains to be seen whether there will be a centralized effort to defend the majority next year, either through Bonnen's campaign, an allied group or a new entity. Generally speaking, Bonnen's GOP predecessor behind the gavel, Joe Straus, relied on a top political adviser, Gordon Johnson, who worked with a regular group of consultants while helping guide Straus' campaign funds to a web of allied political action committees.
Bonnen entered the speakership without a consistent political consultant or cadre or campaign advisers — things he never needed while easily winning reelection back home cycle after cycle. That has set off some jockeying among Texas GOP operatives to get in on what will surely be a lucrative endeavor to help keep Republicans in the majority.
One thing Bonnen has made clear is that he does not want members campaigning against each other — or else there will be consequences. But even in that pronouncement, there are lingering questions, like what the policy means in practice and whether it is enough to rein in the usual troublemakers — like Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who spent six figures out of his own campaign account last cycle to intervene in House contests beside his own, including primary challenges.
During a NE Tarrant Tea Party meeting Monday — appearing alongside Hancock and Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth — Stickland was defiant when asked about Bonnen's insistence that members stay out of their colleagues' races.
"I don't care what he says," Stickland said, drawing applause and laughter. He went on to criticize Bonnen's policy as "really poor judgment," "really short-sighted" and "one of the dumbest comments I've heard anyone say."
Of course, just because Bonnen has drawn a line in the sand for his members does not preclude GOP allies from filling the void. Abbott's political operation plans to go after Democratic freshmen, as do well-funded organizations such as the Associated Republicans of Texas.
"ART is focused on candidate recruitment earlier than ever this cycle," ART's president, Jamie McWright, said in a statement. "We are identifying qualified, knowledgeable candidates who are willing to tackle the state’s biggest issues in order to win back the seats Republicans lost in 2018."
Republicans are particularly focused on the seven seats they lost last cycle that Abbott carried.
Bonnen's pronouncement seems to have had an impact on some Democratic members, who have been more muted about the possibility of the House flipping than their allies outside the Capitol. During a Tribune event Monday in McAllen, Reps. Bobby Guerra and Oscar Longoria, both of Mission, responded unenthusiastically when asked if Democrats have a chance to take over the House.
"I don't know," Longoria said. "I guess the voters will decide, and at this point, you know, our speaker is Speaker Dennis Bonnen."
And in a statement for this story, Rep. César Blanco of El Paso, chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, kept the focus on defending the gains that Democrats made last year, when the HDCC largely played offense.
"This session was clearly a change from last session," Blanco said, noting the different set of issues that were prioritized in Austin. "A priority for us is to make sure that our 67 incumbents are reelected because more Democrats in the House lead to better policy outcomes for Texas."
Will voters reward school finance and property tax overhauls?
Heading into the general election, Republicans are confident that the issues are on their side after they ended the session with long-elusive wins on school finance and property taxes. One of the most endangered GOP incumbents, Rep. Morgan Meyer of Dallas, said school finance and property taxes are "without question the top two issues" for his constituents.
"They're very pleased with what we've done," Meyer said, characterizing the initial feedback he has received since returning from Austin. "They're telling me, 'We couldn't be happier that y'all focused on important issues to our district this session, and thank y'all for doing that."
Yet Democrats involved in state House races do not see those issues as entirely political winners. Republicans, they say, will have to answer for how they can guarantee long-term, sustainable funding for the landmark laws as well as why they sided against many local officials on the property tax measure, which limits how much revenue cities and counties can raise without voter approval.
"What Mr. Meyer supported is something that the district did not want to be supported, especially the city of Dallas," said Joanna Cattanach, the Democrat who came within 220 votes of Meyer last year and is challenging him again. On the school finance law, Cattanach asked, "What's going to happen in 2021? Because they did not write a check to fully fund the system. ... Who is really going to be there to be a public education advocate?"
One of the national groups is already building the case that House Republicans should not be rewarded on school finance. The State Legislative Accountability Project, the nonprofit arm of Forward Majority, has prepared a report arguing House Republicans "flip-flopped" on school funding after they "created the very problem they are now trying to solve." The report targets Bonnen and 10 vulnerable members, some of whom were in office in 2011 and backed the Legislature's more than $5 billion cut to public schools.
Regarding more recent history, Democrats plan to pressure GOP lawmakers over the sales tax swap that the Big Three — Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen — unsuccessfully pushed this session to buy down property taxes. The proposal would have raised the sales tax by 1 percentage point, and various analyses found it would have hit poor Texans the hardest while benefiting the wealthy and businesses the most.
The state leaders have kept the sales tax swap on the table for future sessions and discussed it as recently as Wednesday, when Abbott said the idea could return if voters demand further property tax relief.
"Every single Republican needs to be asked: Do you support raising the sales tax?" said Manny Garcia, the state Democratic party's executive director, adding that Democrats would be "happy to have that conversation" in 2020. "This was a policy that was going to punish regular, everyday Texans."
To be sure, Republican challengers are also starting to sharpen their lines of attack against House Democrats, focusing on their failure to support the "born-alive" abortion bill and a constitutional amendment that would make a state income tax all but impossible. And the GOP candidates looking to take back the 12 seats that Democrats won last year received instant fodder last week when Rice University's Mark Jones released ideological rankings in the House that showed the dozen freshmen were in the more liberal half of the Democratic caucus.
Vulnerable Democrats are also gearing up to explain their no votes on the priority property tax legislation, Senate Bill 2, whose substance, they say, does not match the sweeping promises made by Republican leaders.
"This was supposed to be a property tax reform bill, and there was a lot of pressure to just vote yes because it’s political expedient or it will look wrong and the other side will beat you up for that — and I welcome that," said state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston. "What they have done is not going to lower property taxes any; it’s not going to change the fundamental model any."
Disclosure: Todd Hunter has been a financial supporter 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.