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Two years ago, Democrats were gearing up for a rare opportunity in modern times: capturing the Texas House majority.
But after they came up woefully short — and Republican-led redistricting reduced the number of competitive races — the battlefield heading into November is notably smaller.
Still, both sides see important stakes in the state House races this time around. While the majority is not on the line, the hottest races are unfolding in key areas that each party understands is critical to their growth for the next decade.
Look no further than the three districts that both Democrats and Republicans see as their highest priorities. Two of them are in South Texas, where Republicans are working to make inroads with Hispanic voters, while the other is in North Texas’ Collin County, a place emblematic of the fast-growing suburbs where Democrats have gained ground over the last few election cycles.
The GOP is especially serious about the two seats in South Texas — House District 37, a new open seat in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, and House District 118, a San Antonio-based seat that Republican John Lujan flipped last year in a special election. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group that works to elect Republicans to state legislatures, are announcing Monday that they are funding $360,000 in TV ads aimed at the two districts, a substantial opening salvo on the battlefield.
“Democrats are hemorrhaging support with Hispanic voters in South Texas because they have taken them for granted, but Texas Republicans are surging in these communities because they are offering a commonsense, freedom focused agenda that gives their constituents the opportunity to thrive,” the RSLC’s president, Dee Duncan, said in a statement.
Republicans currently control 85 seats in the 150-member House. It is a modest 10-seat majority, but due to redistricting, neither side expects the balance of power to tilt much either way even in their most rosy scenarios. It’s a frustrating reality for Democrats, especially as optimism rises at the top of the ticket, where Beto O’Rourke is posing a serious threat to Gov. Greg Abbott.
“It’s gonna be hard, I’m just gonna be clear-eyed about this,” O’Rourke said recently when asked about the potential for a Democratic majority in the Legislature. O’Rourke added there is an “extraordinary” lineup of statewide candidates, but the “state House districts are a little tougher because they have been so effectively gerrymandered.”
Still, he said, the gerrymandering is “not impossible to overcome.”
While Democratic candidates may not be able to argue this time that they are in contention for the majority, some are pitching the Legislature as increasingly important after the latest U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which have cemented the power of states’ rights.
“Now more than ever, we’re seeing the onus of a lot of large federally protected laws being put on the state legislatures due to the Supreme Court decisions we’ve seen over the past months,” said Frank Ramirez, the Democrat challenging Lujan again after losing in the special election. “All of these things are on the chopping block now.”
Millions of dollars are expected to pour in to HD-37 and HD-118 — the two South Texas seats — and then HD-70, the one in Collin County. President Joe Biden would have carried each of the three seats over Donald Trump in 2020 if the new redistricting maps had been in place then, but only by margins of 2 to 11 points, which gives them battleground status in the current environment, according to operatives. HD-37, which Republicans rammed into the map overnight during redistricting, is the closest on paper, with a Biden margin of only 2 percentage points.
Lujan is easily the most endangered Republican incumbent, but a few others can be expected to have competitive races, including Reps. Steve Allison of San Antonio, Morgan Meyer of Dallas and Angie Chen Button of Richardson. However, all three have had tough general elections before — especially Meyer and Button — and Republicans have faith in their ability to defend themselves.
There are also some additional open seats that the GOP will have to monitor, like the Houston seat where Republican state Rep. Jim Murphy is retiring.
On the Democratic side, the most endangered incumbent may be Rep. Eddie Morales of Eagle Pass, who represents a massive district covering most of the Texas-Mexico border.
As for the issues, the GOP messaging is set to take on a national tone, seeking to tap into Biden’s deep unpopularity in Texas, especially on border security and inflation. The House Democratic Campaign Committee said its candidates are focusing on “good jobs, strong public schools and access to affordable health care.”
“In contrast, Republicans are obsessed with banning abortion with no exceptions and making sure anyone can carry a gun with no training or license,” an HDCC spokesperson, Stella Deshotel, said in a statement.
With the primaries over, candidates across the races are sounding notes of independence and bipartisanship. Mihaela Plesa, the Democratic nominee for HD-70, said in an interview it was important for representatives to go to Austin and “not just be another vote for the party line.” Her Republican opponent, Jamee Jolly, said she was optimistic she would appeal to the Biden voters in the district, which he would have carried by 11 percentage points.
“I think a lot of people chose Biden because they didn’t like the Republican option. I know that for a fact because I have friends who have said that,” Jolly said, adding that her friends found Trump “divisive” and that she would legislate as “much more of a convener, a solutions-seeker,” reaching across the aisle.
Plesa said the No. 1 issue she hears about is public school finance, along with concerns about the “social wars” that are erupting in the classroom. But she said she is also hearing a lot about abortion after the Roe v. Wade decision, which triggered a ban without exceptions in Texas. Jolly said that her focus is now on “how we continue to support maternal health care.”
The candidates were also not fully aligned on how to prevent the next school shooting, an especially salient topic after the May massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Jolly said her priority was “harden[ing]” campuses rather than new gun restrictions. Plesa said she is also discussing school hardening with voters but she also supports gun proposals like raising the age to buy an assault rifle.
In their drive to make a new battleground out of South Texas, the GOP is banking on Biden’s unpopular presidency, both when it comes to the border and economy.
“It’s very difficult for the Valley down here,” said Janie Lopez, the Republican nominee for HD-37 in the Rio Grande Valley, referring to the low median income across the region. “The Biden administration, how they’re handling things, it’s extremely unpopular right now down here in the Valley.”
Lopez’s Democratic opponent, Luis Villarreal, does not entirely disagree. He said “there’s a lot more to be done” on the border by the Biden administration and all elected officials need to listen more to border communities about the best solutions. Villarreal also wants to see the federal government pick up more of the tab for the state’s massive border security efforts.
Farther up in South Texas, Republicans face a savvy Democratic incumbent in Morales, who has shown an independence from his party on occasion. Trump carried his district by 8 percentage points in 2020, and it was redrawn to be a district that Biden hypothetically would have carried that year by 5 percentage points.
Morales stayed behind when House Democrats broke quorum last year over the new elections law, and he opposed Biden’s decision earlier this year to end the Title 42, the Trump-era policy that allowed border officials to rapidly expel migrants due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking Thursday in San Angelo, Morales said the United States is currently incentivizing drug cartels and human smugglers “because there’s nothing that is being done.”
“I have been, as a Democrat, one of those opponents to some of the measures that the White House has taken,” Morales said, “but more importantly also … it’s not just the White House’s fault and it’s not just this president or the previous one.” Congress has failed to act, he added, and that’s been true throughout multiple presidencies.
Morales has drawn a well-funded GOP challenger in Katherine Parker, an Alpine businesswoman who easily outraised Morales on their latest campaign finance reports. In a statement, she scoffed at the idea he has broken from his party, noting he has financially supported “two of the most radical Democrats there are, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke.”
As for Ramirez and Lujan, it is a rematch after they battled in last year’s special election. Lujan has been here before: He captured the seat on San Antonio’s South Side in a 2016 special election, only to lose it months later in the November election. This time, the district is less blue thanks to redistricting.
Lujan said the biggest difference to him is the lack of straight-ticket voting. He said he remembers well in 2016 that an older woman came up to him at a polling place and said she wanted to vote for him but that she loathed Trump and thus voted straight-ticket Democratic.
Ramirez said much has changed since the special election, pointing to the two major events this spring that have galvanized Democrats: the Uvalde school shooting and overturning of Roe v. Wade. And he said Lujan has shown a lack of leadership in office, declining, for example, to say how he would have voted on the controversial elections law.
“The 118 district — I have no choice but to reach out to the other side,” Lujan said. “I’m not that far-right candidate.”
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