HOUSTON — With the Democratic presidential debate just days away, there was excitement in the air at the Harris County Democratic Party's Monday morning staff meeting. But Chairwoman Lillie Schechter urged her troops to keep their eyes on the prize: November 2020.
"Everyone’s goal here is to turn Harris County darker blue and that we elect a Democrat to the White House," she said. "I just want to remind everyone that our focus is the November election in 2020."
"We have all of these awesome things that we are doing, the millions of events that we’re doing in September alone, we’re working on 12 different activities," she added. "All of those is to build up our volunteer army to make sure we win in November."
Just a few years ago, such talk would have sounded crazy. Harris County was for years a backwater of national Democratic politics. But as the political circus comes to town Thursday in the form of the third Democratic presidential debate, politicos here know that this won’t be their only moment in the sun in the 2020 election cycle.
The city has long been where many of Texas’ most prominent donors and biggest political personalities reside. But lately, it’s also been the site of a high-profile congressional swing seat. And after strong showings in recent elections, Democrats are hoping they can run up the margins to offset Republican strengths in rural areas — and at some point in the future put Texas in play in the presidential race.
The selection of Houston for this event is widely viewed locally as a consolation prize for missing out on the 2020 Democratic National Convention. But it remains an indication from the national party that the future of American politics is here, in Harris County.
"It's the belly of the beast," Schechter said in an interview. "This is one of the reddest states that we've had for decades now. ... If we can turn this into a blue stronghold, which is what we have been building up to, we can flip the state."
Ebbs and flows
Harris County is a unique political place in a strange political moment. It’s where a Democratic congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher represents U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican known for his hardline positions, in the U.S. House. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, another strict conservative, lives here as well, along with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who counts a Tea Party conservative former radio host as among her close friends.
Some of the biggest donors on both sides of the aisle call Houston home, and the Vinson & Elkins law firm is often a nerve center of candidates, future candidates, fundraising and political gossip.
Politics ebbed and flowed for 20 years in Harris County. Republicans regularly had good results, and even landslide margins over Democrats.
From 1994 through 2014, the GOP presidential, gubernatorial and U.S. Senate nominees carried the county by an average of about nine points. Some years were tighter, and George W. Bush and former U.S. Kay Bailey Hutchison won blowouts in the county. But there were two exceptions: The years Barack Obama was at the top of the ticket and in 2010, when Houston Mayor Bill White ran for governor. On those occasions, those Democratic standard-bearers carried the county.
And then Donald Trump happened.
The county returns completely inverted in 2016. Trump lost by 12 percentage points. Two years later, former U.S. Rep. Beto O''Rourke expanded the margin over Cruz to 17 points. Even Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez, who ran a weak campaign statewide, had a six-point victory in Harris County, which was once home to Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.
Going forward for Democrats, it’s not just about winning seats there up and down the ballot. It's about running up the margins.
A backlash to the backlash
Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to reverse the tide.
"Well, they say if you lose Harris County, you lose Texas. ... That’s the deal," said Charlotte Lampe, a Cypress precinct chairwoman who has been involved in the Harris County Republican Party for over 40 years. "If this turns, so follows Texas because we’re a big concentration of conservative voters."
The man in charge of Republicans’ efforts in Harris County is Paul Simpson, the county chairman. He and other local Republicans said the 2018 losses served as a wakeup call to the local activist class, and even political newcomers. In effect, they say they see a backlash to the Trump backlash.
“People are coming out of the woodwork to get involved," he said in an interview. "It’s kind of like 2010, after the Obama election. I was there. I’ve been around politics all my life. Harris County party for over thirty years."
"After the 2008 election, a lot of people got off the couch. And I see a lot of that happening as well. They’re coming in and going, ‘I need to do something. I can’t let this continue to happen.’ Across the state I think that’s true and in Harris County as well."
One of his key objectives is to recruit a diverse slate of candidates, and the effort bore results in what will likely be the most nationalized campaign in the county next year — the race for the Texas 7th Congressional District, currently held by Fletcher.
The longtime home of the late George H.W. and Barbara Bush, the district takes in wealthy areas within the city and stretches out toward the western suburbs. Democrats made no effort to compete for the seat for years. But then Hillary Clinton outpaced Donald Trump's there in 2016 and the party launched a full-bore effort that successfully took down Republican incumbent John Culberson last year.
The most organized Republican candidates seeking to win the seat back reflect the diversity goals of the party. Wesley Hunt, an Army veteran, would bolster the number of black Republicans in Congress after the pending retirement of U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, the only African American currently serving in the House. Former Bellaire Mayor Cindy Seigel would add to the number of Republican women in Washington.
But they would have to get elected first. And the current occupant of the district, Fletcher is a proven fundraiser and an on-the-ground presence around Houston who outpaced expectations last year when she defeated Culberson by five points.
Hunt said he decided to run for Congress as he watched the returns on election night 2018.
"There was a sense around Harris County that it wasn’t going to be good," Hunt said. "I didn’t think we thought that it would be this bad."
"What we’re going to see in 2020 is an equal and opposite reaction," he added.
Siegel pointed to the national movement in the Democratic Party toward Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and erasing college debt as a reason for optimism in a city in which the medical and energy industries are supreme.
"The biggest difference is the Democrat party has gone off the rails. They’re trying to buy votes," she said. "I have friends who are independents and Democrats, and I think it scares them. This is not the Democrat Party from 10 years ago, or 20 years ago."
"They’ve always been liberal," she added. "But there was always some rational understanding of the principles that our country was founded on and this group wants to fundamentally change our country."
Fletcher has not endorsed Medicare for All or the Green New Deal. But it is already apparent that Republicans intend to tag down-ballot Democrats with the policies touted by national figures on the presidential stage and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
On Wednesday, Fletcher wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle essentially warning the Democratic presidential candidates on the debate stage to watch their tone.
“Houston’s present will be America’s future,” she wrote. “That’s why it is no surprise that the Democratic Party chose Houston to host a presidential primary debate.
“We want to see a pragmatic, thoughtful approach when it comes to our safety, in particular to common-sense gun safety,” she added. “We also want to see that approach when it comes to our energy future. … We want you to ask us what we can do to power the world and preserve the planet.”
Locally and elsewhere in the state, Republicans also have high hopes for U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw's future. The freshman congressman represents a district that snakes across the county, and he burst into the national scene with his social media presence, and more than one Texas Republican points to him as the future of the party.
"I'm going to stop banging my head against the wall"
That 2010 Republican comeback remains fresh on the minds of local Democrats, too.
"We started doing this infrastructure building, really, after the 2010 election, when we lost everything," Schechter said.
U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia felt it more acutely than most. In 2010, she was the first Harris County commissioner to lose re-election since 1974.
She eventually bounced back and is in her freshman term representing a mostly safe congressional Democratic district that covers the northeastern region of the county. She credits voter registration and a crowded Democratic ballot for the party’s recent success.
"It’s the Democratic growth,” she said. “Especially the Latinos that have been registered, and we’ve added to the voter turnout every single election."
"It’s also about how there are just so many more Democrats willing to put their name on the ballot," she added. "That creates enthusiasm. We’ve got more people excited about the election and the need for change."
Increased voter registration was no accident. Amber Mostyn, a local trial attorney and one of the most powerful donors in Democratic politics, became increasingly obsessed in recent years with voter registration metrics within Harris County.
"That’s from many broken hearts along the way," she said. "I’ve been involved in politics and for a long time, fell in love with candidates, fell in love with races, only to have my hopes dashed on Election Day. And after that happens many times, you start to say, ‘You know, I’m going to stop banging my head against this wall and figure out how we can do it differently and really try to figure out what’s happening here.'"
Some Republicans say the 2018 results are fixable, shrugging off the results as a result of straight ticket voting, which has now been eliminated by the Legislature, and the popularity of O'Rourke's Senate bid. Such a result was not an accident, Mostyn and others say.
"No. It was planned," she said. "This was work that we started in 2008 and have been working on almost every year since then, adding to the electorate. Registering voters, engaging them, getting them out to the polls, graduating them to become an engaged citizen."
One of the more delicate questions within Democratic politics in the last two years was what Mostyn's role would be going forward. Her husband, attorney Steve Mostyn, passed away in 2017. He was the more visible of the couple. In an interview this week, she said she intended to be as involved as ever.
"We did politics together,” she said. “It’s really, one of the things that we loved together. Steve was definitely more bold in politics than I was and I’m more ... involved in the nitty gritty of it. ... As I’m getting my feet back underneath me and trying to figure out where exactly I want that role to be, there’s some things I haven’t wanted to or been able to give up."
Much like the rest of Texas, Houston is in some kind of transition, and where it is headed remains unclear.
In addition to the presidential race and Congressional District 7, many eyes will also be on potentially competitive seats — held by U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, and state Reps. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, Gina Calanni, D-Katy, and Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston — that could influence whether Democrats hold onto the U.S. House and even possibly take control of the Texas House.
November's mayoral race will likely offer clues as to where the county is headed, but it is a non-partisan race. Both parties are anxious about the future, and both share a healthy respect for the other side. Republicans might need to take back this county to save the state, and Democrats recognize this.
"We never thought the Republicans were going to stop showing up," said Schechter. "They still exist. They’re still around. They carried the state, barely. But they’re still out there."
Disclosure: Amber Mostyn and Vinson and Elkins 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.