Democrats in Texas — and increasingly, Democrats outside our borders — are focused on winning the Texas House majority they lost in 2002. To do so, they must win nine more seats now held by Republicans.
That’s ambitious, because the political maps were drawn by Republicans. But in the 2018 election, the Democrats increased their numbers in the 150-member House by a dozen. That was more than careful forecasters in either party expected, and a number of those brand-new state representatives are now incumbents in hostile territory.
But there’s a lot of hype around what effect a Democratic majority might have — some of it, again, from outside the state’s borders. A Texas House with a Democratic majority wouldn’t solve the party’s redistricting problems or pass other bills the minority party would like to pass, but it would give Democrats a bit of leverage against what is now an overwhelming Republican advantage.
Republicans would like to claw back some of what they lost two years ago. But the Democrats, outwardly confident they can hold what they won in that election and add more to it, have targeted 18 districts where they think Republican incumbents are weak, for a number of reasons.
The presidential race at the top of the ticket looks close. Another way to say that: President Donald Trump isn’t as strong as a normal Republican incumbent ought to be in Texas. The last Republican presidential candidate to lose in Texas was Gerald Ford in 1976.
Demographics are changing in several Texas counties Republicans rely on. GOP candidates in places like Collin, Denton, Dallas, Fort Bend and Tarrant counties — an incomplete but illustrative list of formerly reliable Republican strongholds — didn’t used to face competitive general election races. Now, many of them are battling for reelection in districts that could, on a given election day, pick a winner from either of the major parties.
Maybe the Democrats can successfully storm the gates and regain the House majority they lost in the 2002 elections. Maybe the Republicans will hold them back. We’ll have an answer in November.
Changing the House majority won’t change the course of major legislation in a positive ways for Democrats, except to the extent that a Democratic House’s ability to kill legislation becomes a negotiating tool in conversations with the Republican governor and a state Senate with a GOP majority.
It takes three to tango. A law is a bill that passed both chambers and wasn’t killed by the governor. That’s presumably easier with Republicans in control across the board, though it’s worth pointing out that the Texas Legislature has passed an average of less than 23% of the bills lawmakers filed during the last 10 sessions.
With Democrats in control of the House, Republicans in the Senate and the governor’s office would have to be nice once in a while to get their way, maybe even passing something important to the Democrats. A majority would let Democrats into the club.
Newly drawn maps of political districts start just like any other bills. They need to pass all three gates: House, Senate, governor. Unlike other bills, they must pass. If the Legislature and governor don’t agree on congressional maps, federal judges step in, forcing them to try in special session, or taking over the crayons and drawing the maps themselves.
If there’s no legislative deal on maps for state House and Senate seats, depending on the timing, the maps are drawn either by the Legislative Redistricting Board or the federal courts. If the LRB gets the maps, the Democrats lose, because at least four of the five members — the lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and land commissioner — are Republicans. The fifth is the speaker, who in a Democratic House would probably be a Democrat. If the courts get involved, Democrats might get more favorable maps than the Republicans would draw. A better deal, if not a great one.
It’s not nothing, but it’s the difference between a small chance and no chance at all. That’s enough to have Democrats inside and outside of the state pouring money into statehouse races.
Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. He writes regular columns on politics, government and public policy.