How long will Texas remain a GOP stronghold?

  • Demographic changes in Texas have been narrowing the GOP’s electoral advantage in recent election cycles.
  • With President Trump’s rhetoric turning away many suburban voters in Texas, GOP leaders worry their decades-long dominance in the state may soon end.
  • The stakes are high, as Trump (and subsequent GOP presidential candidates) lack a viable path to the White House without Texas’ electoral votes.

A prosperity problem?

As Republican messaging strategist Brendan Steinhauser tells it, Texas Republicans may soon become victims of their own success. 

“We are having so much success here economically, there’s so many jobs, there’s so much opportunity, it’s such a great place to live, we’re attracting people from all over the world,” he told the Washington Examiner in October.

Texas does indeed have a record of luring businesses away from states that are Democratic strongholds. In 2016, for instance, 1,800 companies left California, a deeply blue state. Of those companies, nearly 300 decided to relocate to Texas, according to the Dallas Business Journal.

This economic boom, Steinhauser argues, is the product of conservative economic policy under Republican leadership in the state. Many newcomers, however, are changing the state’s demographics to make victory less inevitable for GOP candidates in the longtime Republican stronghold. 

It’s been 19 years since Democrats controlled the Texas state House. The last time a Democrat sat in the governor’s office was 1995. The state has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1988.

The arrival of hundreds of new companies, paired with broader demographic changes in the United States, however, is resulting in an increasingly diverse electorate, one with more college-educated voters and a greater percentage of minorities. Within just three years, for example, the Hispanic population in Texas is projected to be greater than the number of white residents. That bodes well for Democrats, who tend to poll better with minorities and more educated voters.

Trouble at the top of the statehouse

With President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric turning away many suburban voters in Texas (especially women), many Republican lawmakers and leaders in the state are worried their 30-year dominance at the local, state, and federal level may be coming to an end within the next one or two electoral cycles.

This anxiety was perhaps most candidly captured by audio recordings of State House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Bonnen released earlier this month.

“With all due respect to Trump — who I love, by the way,” Bonnen said in a meeting with conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan in June, “he’s killing us in urban-suburban districts.”

In the recording, Sullivan acknowledged that Trump would turn out enough new voters to carry the state’s electoral votes at the national level, but he worried that these newly engaged voters would be the kind of “people who really don’t know — or care — what a state representative is.”

“It’s going to be real easy for that person — again, that person just coming out for Trump — to go, ‘I’m done,'” Sullivan said. “That’s my fear.”

The recordings also revealed that Bonnen offered media access in exchange for attacks against 10 Republicans in primary races, prompting dozens of GOP lawmakers in the Texas House to either called for Bonnen’s resignation or rescind their support for him. A week later, Bonnen announced he would not run for reelection in 2020, a blow to Republicans who only hold an eight-seat majority in the state’s 150-seat statehouse.

“Hotly contested” in 2020

Bonnen and Sullivan aren’t alone in their anxieties about their party’s future in the state. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican who won reelection in 2018 over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke by a relatively slim three points, has openly admitted the Lone Star state will be “hotly contested” in 2020.

“The two broad demographic trends that are occurring nationally are: number one, blue-collar working-class voters are becoming more conservative. That is turning Midwestern states more Republican,” Cruz told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast in September.

At the same time, he said, “suburban voters – in particular suburban women – have been moving left. That’s turning states with big suburban populations – states like Texas, states like Georgia, states like Arizona – much more purple.” 

While this shift helped Trump put new states in play for Republicans in the 2016 election, Texas, with its 38 electoral votes (a total expected to grow to 41 after the 2020 census), remains essential to his reelection bid — not to mention those of future GOP presidential nominees. 

“If we lose Texas,” Cruz concluded, “it’s game over.”

Other experts are more optimistic about the GOP’s future in Texas — at least on a statewide level. In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Republican strategist Karl Rove argued that Democrats’ increasingly aggressive positions on eliminating fossil fuels will give the Republican candidate an edge in future presidential contests because Texas owes much of its economic prosperity to the oil and gas industries.

“Energy-state Republicans in red Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and North Dakota, as well as purple Pennsylvania, Colorado and New Mexico must now make a forceful case that the Democratic energy agenda strikes at the heart of their states’ prosperity,” Rove wrote. “If they do, Texas won’t be all that’s red in 2020.”

Taking the threat seriously

With a standard-bearer like Trump at the top of their ticket, it remains to be seen whether Texas Republicans can engage both new and longtime voters and turn out the down-ballot vote around a policy-based platform such as the one Rove suggested. There’s no question, however, that the party is taking the threat of Texas turning blue seriously.

Dave Carney, a strategist who has advised Republican candidates in Texas for more than 20 years, told the Washington Examiner in August that he’s never seen Republicans engage in such “robust” preparations more than a year in advance of the next election. These preparations include a privately-funded operation to register new Republican voters in the face of an influx of Democrat-leaning voters.

The Trump Victory Committee, a joint effort of the Trump campaign at the Republican National Committee, has tapped influential players to lead its efforts in the Lone Star State. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is its honorary chairman in the state, and Taylor Mattox, a veteran of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s victorious campaigns, is working as state director.

The Texas GOP under chairman James Dickey also has field staff and a bolstered presence on the ground now Carney said.

With these renewed in-state efforts, Republicans have likely shored up their short-term future, but the party’s prospects beyond the Trump era are much less certain.

Grassroots Pulse covers public policy and political issues aimed at engaging highly-active policy makers, donors, and grassroots leaders at the forefront of the political process in America today.

Image Credit:  Carlos Delgado on Unsplash

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