Just under a week separates us from Election Day, and we’re in for a hell of a ride. But some of the most important races may not be the ones you’re thinking of. State legislatures decide some of the most consequential laws in the everyday lives of citizens. That’s why I’ve spent the last two months looking in-depth into the most important individual state legislative races across the country.
In this week’s instalment of “Let the States Decide“, I’ll be looking at the second biggest state in the country, and taking a dive into one of the most consequential and publicized state legislavive chambers in the country. That is, of course, the Texas House of Representatives.
Before we begin, I want to make a small apology. Last week I said I’d be discussing the New Hampshire Senate. But I decided against it for two reasons. The first reason was democracy, the second is that I took a look at the races and I concluded that the chamber wasn’t competitive enough to write about. I’d consider Democrats to be likely to hold the New Hampshire Senate, and it will take a lucky break for Republicans to win it back.
Eighteen Years of Full Republican Control
Since Republicans flipped the Texas House of Representatives in 2002, state Democrats haven’t caught a break. They lost the State Senate in 1996, and the Governorship in 1994, and haven’t managed to break the Republican trifecta ever since. While they’ve had some close calls, this year may be their best chance yet to do so. Aside from competitive Presidential and Senate races, the State House may be an even better opportunity.
The other two parts of the trifecta are safe for Republicans. The governorship is not up until 2022 and Republicans hold a 19-12 majority in the Senate, with only one seat expected to be remotely competitive there. Therefore, the only hope for Democrats is the 150-seat House, and hope is what Democrats are full of. While expected to be uncompetitive in 2018, Democrats flipped 12 Republican-held seats, and they need just 9 more this year. Although he lost statewide, Beto O’Rourke won 76 House districts; a majority. The path to victory for Democrats this year is similar to O’Rourke’s, but with some nuances.
As usual, I’ll be listing the competitive seats. However, this time I’ll be categorizing them by county, in order to make it a bit easier to take in. I’ll mainly be focusing on Democratic targets, since they have a lot more room to grow than Republicans.
Of the twelve seats Democrats flipped in 2018, six were in Dallas-Fort Worth, four were in the Austin area, and two were in Harris County. Hillary Clinton won half of them, while Beto O’Rourke won all twelve. If Democrats wish to get enough seats to gain a majority, they can’t afford to lose any seats they currently hold. While Republicans are not favored in any of them, they have a small chance in some.
The best shot at a pickup for Republicans is the 132nd district in outer Harris County. Democrat Gina Calanni unseated incumbent Mike Schofield by 113 votes in 2018, and now Schofield is back for a rematch. Depending on the environment Schofield may have a shot, but Calanni now has incumbency and fundraising on her side, which may help her.
Other than this, the best opportunities to flip back seats are around Austin. The 45th and 47th districts were won by Erin Zweiner and Vikki Goodwin, respectively, in 2018. Carrie Isaac, the wife of the previous incumbent, is challenging Zweiner, while police officer Justin Berry is running against Goodwin. While Republicans may be confident in their recruits, these are some of the fastest growing areas in the country. As a result, these districts may be slipping away from them.
The most likely flip for Democrats is the 138th district. After incumbent Dwayne Bohac won re-election by just 47 votes in 2018, he decided to call it quits rather than face a tough re-election bid. This gives Democrats an excellent shot in an O’Rourke+6.3 district. The Democratic nominee is Akilah Bacy, and as of now, he is favored to defeat Republican nominee Lacey Hull.
Initially not thought to be a top opportunity for Democrats is the 134th district in central Houston. This is a district which Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton both won by double digits, and O’Rourke won it by 21.3 points. Despite being so blue, the district has stayed in Republican hands throughout this realignment. This is because Sarah Davis, the incumbent, is the most moderate Republican in the chamber. She is pro-choice, endorsed by Planned Parenthood, and has called for the resignation of Attorney General Ken Paxton. However, she faces strong opposition in Democrat Ann Johnson, a teacher who has raised almost a million dollars. Johnson released an internal poll in August showing her ahead of Davis by two points. Despite being an established name in Houston, this could be the year Davis’s support may break.
Another district worth mentioning is the 126th, although it’s definitely more of a longshot. While it has swung along with the rest of the county, the northwestern parts of Harris County have remained consistently Republican. Democrat Natali Hurtado would need to rely on the minority vote, which makes up about half of the vote in the district.
The drawing of the Dallas County state House seats is a classic example of a “dummymander”, or a backfired gerrymander. Despite being a consistently Democratic county, Republicans drew it to give them an 8-6 advantage. However, Donald Trump failed to win a single district in Dallas County after the suburban realignment. One seat flipped to Democrats in 2016, and five more flipped in 2018. If Democrats can flip the two remaining seats this year, they have a hope of gaining a 14-0 delegation.
Like the 134th district in Houston, the 108th is very urban and has shifted from a safe Republican district to a reliably Democratic one, at O’Rourke+15.1. Based in central Dallas, it is majority white. The Republican incumbent, Morgan Meyer, held on narrowly in 2018. Meyer faces his 2018 opponent Joanna Cattanach again. While Meyer is a fundraising machine, Cattanach is raising impressive numbers. Meyer is certainly a strong incumbent, but partisanship may win out in the end.
The other Republican-held seat in Dallas County is the 112th in Garland. Since it’s not as blue as the 108th district, at O’Rourke+9.6, it may be an easier hold for Republicans, but it’s one to watch nonetheless. The 2020 race is another rematch, between incumbent Angie Chen Button and Democratic challenger Brandy Chambers. Despite her strength in fundraising and as a candidate, Button only won in 2018 narrowly. Now Chambers is raising jaw-dropping numbers, and she may have a good shot at winning this seat and putting Democrats one step closer to the majority.
On the flipside to Dallas County, Republican gerrymandering has held up relatively successfuly in Tarrant County. So successfully, in fact, that despite winning the county, Beto O’Rourke only won three out of ten districts in the county. All is not lost for Tarrant Democrats however, as two seats remain competitive.
In the northeastern part of the County, containing Bedford, Euless, and Hurst, the open 92nd district is looking competitive. Senator Ted Cruz won the district by 2.5 points, and incumbent Jonathan Stickland won by a similar margin. With Stickland retiring, Democrat Jeff Whitfield and Republican Jeff Cason are vying to take his place. Whitfield is running on his military background and kitchen-table issues, whereas Cason is attempting to revive the district’s conservative roots. Whitfield is a moderate Democrat and has the support of Republican Todd Smith, who represented the seat before Stickland. Candidate quality and fundraising may hand this race to Whitfield, despite partisan lean.
The 96th district in southern Tarrant County shows similar properties to the 92nd. It too is an open seat and was won narrowly by the incumbent in 2018. Incumbent Bill Zedler is retiring, and the Cruz+0.1 district is up for grabs. However, Republicans have a strong recruit in Mansfield mayor David Cook, who originally intended to run a primary challenge from the left against Zedler. Democrat Joe Drago is running a decent campaign but is lagging behind Cook financially. This is a longshot target at worst for Democrats, but they may still have a significant chance.
There are three more districts which Cruz won by narrow margins, and that the incumbent representatives won by high single digits. The 93rd, 94th, and 97th districts take in different parts of the county but have a lot in common. Although all three have incumbents running, all of them have strong Democratic recruits. Sociologist Lydia Bean, community leader Alisa Simmonds and veteran Elizabeth Beck are running on the Democrats’ side. These three women should hope to cut back on the 2018 margins of the incumbents. If they can do so, they have a decent shot of winning.
Bexar County has shown a similar success story to Dallas County for Democrats in recent years. After flipping three seats in 2016, Democrats now hold all but two seats in the county. The 122nd district is heavily Republican and thus safe for them, but the 121st district is a key flip opportunity. While O’Rourke won the district by 0.4 points, Republican Steve Allison won the open seat by high single-digits against Democrat Celina Montoya. Both Allison and Montoya are running again, and while Allison’s decisive victory in 2018 may show that he’s clearly favored, there are signs of a competitive race. Although Montoya lagged behind in fundraising in 2018, she is showing strong numbers and enthusiasm this time around. So I’m not counting out a Montoya victory just yet.
The rapidly growing northern suburbs of Dallas are interesting to watch. Although heavily red, it has seen its Democratic strength increase drastically in recent years. In particular, two Plano-based seats were won by O’Rourke and almost flipped in 2018. This year shows mixed signs for Democrats.
The more likely of the two seats to flip is in the 66th district in the western half of Plano. Like other districts in the state, this district is seeing a rematch of the 2018 race. Sharon Hirsch came within a point of unseating incumbent Matt Shaheen while O’Rourke won the district by 5.7 points. With fundraising far better for Hirsch than it was in 2018, and with a large portion of new voters in the Plano electorate, everything seems to be going Hirsch’s way this time around.
The 67th district is similar in a lot of ways. Taking in Allen and the rest of Plano, the district was won by O’Rourke by 5.5 points. However the differences between these two races lie in candidate quality. Republican incumbent Jeff Leach has amassed a lot of cash, having raised a million dollars this cycle alone. Lorenzo Sanchez, the Democrat, while raising a decent amount of money, may be seen as left-wing. He defeated a more moderate candidate in Tom Adair, who some thought to have been a better fit for the district. However, Sanchez has roots in the district and has made education a priority, which may resonate with voters. This, combined with the aforementioned growth in voters in Collin County, may boost him towards a victory. But for now, I see it as a tossup.
Like neighboring Collin, Denton County is the exemplification of a rapidly growing Texas suburban county. It’s still a Republican stronghold but it has shown good signs for Democrats. Democrats flipped one suburban seat in 2018, and are aiming to flip another. This is the 64th district, which contains the culturally diverse college town of Denton. While the district is Republican-leaning in character, it swung heavily in 2018, going to O’Rourke by 0.5 points. This is considered the longest shot of all O’Rourke-won districts, although Democrats are hopeful about their candidate, Angela Brewer, and her shot at beating incumbent Lynn Stucky.
Fort Bend County
Sticking with the theme of rapidly growing suburbs, but this time going back into the Houston area, Fort Bend County will be one to look at. There are two competitive districts here, the 26th and the 28th.
The 26th will be the more competitive of the two. Rick Miller, the incumbent, is retiring after making controversial comments. This Sugar Land-based district is O’Rourke+1.6, and the rapidly growing and diversifying nature of the district may help Democrat Sarah DeMerchant, who faces Republican Jacey Jetton. While DeMerchant remains underfunded, she may hope to appeal to minorities, specifically Asian Americans, who make up about a quarter of the district’s population.
The neighboring 28th district is more of a longshot target. The seat was up earlier this year in a special election. Democratic hopes were crushed when Republican Gary Gates beat Democrat Eliz Markowitz by double digits. However, that election showed very low turnout, and turnout on Tuesday is expected to be anything but low. Markowitz, who is challenging Gates again, will need to rely on the changing electorate in her district to close the gap in this Cruz+3.1 district.
Bell and Lampasas Counties
The only competitive district in a non-suburban area is the 54th. The diverse town of Killeen, which could have gotten a Safe Democratic district, was instead split to benefit Republicans. Despite this, Democrats still have a shot in the 54th, which joins most of Killeen with deep red Lampasas County. Ted Cruz won this district by 1.2 points and Republican Brad Buckley represents it. Democrat Keke Williams is taking on Buckley and is giving him a run for his money. In the end, this race will come down to minority voters, whom Williams may be able to sway.
Path to Victory
In other articles I’ve listed targets in order of likelihood of flipping, but for the sake of organization I’ve switched to a geographic breakdown. For clarification, I’ve made a list. Of the seventeen competitive Republican-held seats, the order of likelihood of flipping, from most to least likely, is as follows:
138th, 66th, 108th, 112th, 134th, 26th, 67th, 92nd, 96th, 54th, 121st, 64th, 97th, 93rd, 94th, 28th, 126th
This is just my own subjective opinion, but I think that Democrats are favored, at least narrowly, in the first eight of these districts, and Republicans are favored in the other nine. If Democrats do pick up eight seats, that would make the chamber a 75-75 tie. This would be something of a win for Democrats, but it would result in a somewhat chaotic political environment in the State Capitol. To win an outright majority, they would most likely need to win either the 54th, 96th or 121st district. For Republicans, holding the 67th or 92nd district would probably secure the majority. These are the five races I believe are most important for deciding control.
Overall I’d say the chamber very narrowly favors Republicans. Republicans have better chances in districts where they’re favored than Democrats have in theirs. Picking up nine seats will be an impressive feat for Democrats, but the path to victory is absolutely there.
The Texas House of Representatives: What’s at Stake?
A lot. Texas is very conservative historically, and their laws back that up. The Texas Republican Party recently elected former Congressman Allen West, a controversial firebrand, as their chairman. Under West, the party will seek to pass tighter abortion restrictions and strengthen the right to bear arms, along with many other goals. Without a majority in the House, they will no longer be able to pass those goals into law, and House Democrats will be able to use their leverage to limit their power, which will impact the livelihoods of the 29 million (and growing) residents of the state. It would also become harder, but not impossible, for Republican-favored maps to be drawn in redistricting.
If Republicans keep full control, they will be able to more easily lock Democrats out of control in the state for years, and maybe even decades. They could also deprive Democrats of up to six congressional seats that they would have otherwise won.
Election Day is just around the corner, and it’s looking like it will be jam-packed with hotly contested races. Make sure to keep a close eye on the state of Texas, and all of it’s downballot races.
Just one more installment of this series is left (at least for now), and it should come out very soon. This will be covering the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, which should be interesting to watch. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment, email me, or send me a direct message on Twitter.