Judging from Donald Trump’s unpopularity in Dallas County, Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button should have been doomed this November.
Meyer and Button are the only two remaining Republican state House members in the state’s second-most-populous county, where former Vice President Joe Biden’s margin over Trump was nearly 32 percentage points.
The margins were slimmer in Button’s and Meyer’s districts: Biden won Button’s district by 9 percentage points and Meyer’s by 14.
Still, the two Republicans will be returning to the Texas House next year. According to unofficial vote counts as of Friday, Button eked out a win by 223 votes. (Her Democratic opponent, Brandy K. Chambers, conceded last week, saying she won’t call for a recount.) Meyer won by a larger, but still narrow, margin of 1,634 votes.
What appears to have been their lifeline was a willingness of some Texas voters to split their tickets, rejecting Trump but nonetheless pulling the levers for the Republican Party’s other candidates. And it may have been aided by lawmakers’ decision to eliminate straight-ticket voting in the state, starting with this year’s election.
“Republicans are probably breathing a sigh of relief that they didn’t invite people to take the easy way out” and do straight-ticket voting, said Sam Martin, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University. “The decision to end straight-ticket voting came at exactly the right moment for them.”
“It gives conservatives the opportunity to vote against Trump, but stick with their team,” Martin said.
Republicans weren’t the only beneficiaries of split tickets, however: State Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, and Eddie Morales Jr., who will replace state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, won their Democrat-held seats near the Texas-Mexico border after Trump carried each district by more than 50% of the vote share.
Their victories came after the Legislature voted in 2017 to eliminate the straight-ticket voting option. Republicans generally supported the idea, saying it could help produce better-informed voters. Democrats argued that the legislation would lengthen lines at the polls and make it harder to vote, disproportionately impacting voters of color. A back-and-forth played out in the courts this year when a federal judge moved to reinstate straight-ticket voting, but a panel on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against that and affirmed the state law.
It’s difficult to measure how much the change in law impacted down-ballot races. Voting data doesn’t show how many people who split their tickets this year would have done so even with the straight-ticket option — or how many voters who voted only in the presidential race would have automatically voted for that candidate’s party all the way down the ballot if given the option.
Straight-ticket voting had long been a popular option among Texas voters; in 2018, two-thirds of Texas voters used it. Meanwhile, split-ticket voters are becoming increasingly rare nationally, according to data from Pew Research. Heading into Election Day, just 4% of registered voters in states with U.S. Senate contests said they planned to support candidates from opposite parties for president and U.S. Senate.
But in Texas, 4% of registered voters amounts to roughly over half a million people. In a year when there was an unusual amount of competitive races up and down the ballot, those split-ticket voters might have proven pivotal in some cases. And there’s evidence up and down the ballot suggesting that ticket-splitting occurred — and grabbed the attention of the state’s politicians.
Near the top of the ticket, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn won reelection by a 9.8-percentage-point margin, notably higher than Trump’s 5.8-point margin for winning the state. In Dallas County alone, according to unofficial returns, Cornyn received 23,775 more votes. In the last two years when there was a presidential race and a U.S. Senate race at the top of the ballot — 2008 and 2012 — the margins of victory of the top two candidates in those races were nearly identical.
“Swing voters this time were the difference between a not-so-competitive and competitive race statewide,” said Steve Munisteri, a former Texas GOP chair. “But lower down the ballot, those swing voters probably helped decide the outcome in those individual races.”
Marcus Warren, a 38-year-old Fort Bend County resident, was one of those voters and cited Trump as his reason for splitting the ticket.
“I was never [for] Trump from the beginning,” he said, noting that he voted mostly Democratic this year, save for a few Republican judges in his district that he knows. Cornyn, by comparison, “has made votes that benefit Texas.”
“If the Republicans are going to be Trumpy all the time, I can find room in the Democratic Party as long as they don’t go full progressive,” Warren said.
On the other side, some Texas voters appeared to vote for Trump and then cast their ballots without voting in other races. That trend was especially apparent in South Texas, where Trump performed surprisingly well. According to unofficial returns, Trump became the first Republican to win Zapata County in decades after winning 2,032 votes there, compared with 1,820 for Biden. The drop-off in the next race on the ballot was substantial. Democrat MJ Hegar received 1,816 votes — four fewer than Biden’s losing effort — but the Republican Cornyn only received 1,453. Other counties along or near the border showed similar drop-offs for Republicans beyond Trump.
The elimination of straight-ticket voting “makes every candidate and, by nature, the party, focus on every race, and it makes every candidate make the case to the voters,” said former state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, who anchored the bill eliminating one-punch voting. “You get the best candidates that way, and hopefully you’ll get better elected officials.”
The 2020 general election was the state’s first in recent history without an option for voters to check one box to vote for every candidate from a single party, but Election Day came as polls showed Trump’s support plummeting in the suburbs, where many key down-ballot races were based. Behind the scenes, Texas Republicans displayed increased worry about down-ballot Republicans. In 2019, a secret recording of outgoing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen laid bare the GOP’s anxieties about the president: “He’s killing us in urban-suburban districts,” Bonnen told a Republican activist in late June.
In Meyer’s and Button’s races, Simmons said, campaigning without the option of straight-ticket voting gave each the opportunity to make their individual cases to voters rather than rely on the name at the top of the ticket.
Democrats, by comparison, were bullish on winning enough seats to take hold of the Texas House and encouraged fellow members to vote for their party up and down the ballot. In 2018, Beto O’Rourke was at the top of the ticket and Democrats had a 12-seat pick-up. If Democratic candidates for the state House had won nine additional seats in 2020, they would have flipped the lower chamber. In the end, state Rep. Sarah Davis, who represents a perennial swing district in the Houston-area, was the only incumbent House Republican to lose reelection; her loss for the GOP was offset by Mike Schofield, who won his rematch against state Rep. Gina Calanni, D-Katy, after losing his Harris County seat in 2018.
The Democrats also had high hopes for flipping a number of U.S. House seats in Texas, but they didn’t end up winning any new ones.
Still, the 2018 election provides a lesson in what can happen when a candidate, rather than the political mood, drives ticket-splitting. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz ended up beating O’Rourke by nearly 3 points that year, while Republican Gov. Greg Abbott defeated his Democratic challenger, Lupe Valdez, by about 13 points.
“I don’t really have any empirical evidence of this, but I think some of this has to do with people tired of Washington, D.C., politics,” said Derek Ryan, a GOP voter data expert. “It might be that people like the Republican candidates at their local level and what’s going on in Austin, but in 2018 and 2020 were sort of fed up with everything happening federally.”
In the last two major election cycles in Texas, candidates and party leaders have shown increased concern about moderate Republicans who have supported a Democrat at the top of the ticket but voted Republican the rest of the way. Some voters have viewed this as a recipe for compromise, while others have been repelled by the Republican candidates running for the top job.
In perhaps an indication of how Democrats view the impact of removing straight-ticket voting, at least two members of the party have already filed legislation for next year’s legislative session that would reenact the practice.
“I think Texas should trust voters and allow them the option to vote based on their partisan beliefs,” said state Rep. Art Fierro, D-El Paso, in an interview. “And it’s just an option. Voters don’t have to vote straight ticket if they don’t want to. They can go through each and every person on the ballot. That’s always been an option.”
How those voters who split their tickets vote in the future could be important for state politics. If they stick to Democrats at the top of the ballot, Texas could continue to become more competitive more quickly. If they return to Republicans, they’ll prove one more hurdle to Democrats’ dreams of flipping the state.
For Warren, the Fort Bend County voter, it all depends on how Republicans act over the next few years.
“If Republicans just block everything Biden does, I will just start voting straight Democrat,” he said.
Carla Astudillo contributed to this report.
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