Analysis: Watch the Bottom of Texas Ballots for Political Change — Not the Top

click to enlarge Voters waiting in line to cast their ballots at Lion's Field in San Antonio. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Voters waiting in line to cast their ballots at Lion's Field in San Antonio.
Don’t measure the political color of Texas by the wins and losses at the top of the ballot this year. The more interesting changes are local and regional, best viewed through congressional and legislative results.

A change in the political tide will fill the basement before it reaches the roof.

Those contests are less expensive, and they’re more politically efficient, too, concentrated in smaller areas where local trends are more important than overall statewide trends. Examples are everywhere: Democrats have won congressional and legislative seats even as the Republicans have swept every statewide election since 1994.

The state remained red in 2018, but Texas Democrats increased their congressional and legislative numbers.

That year’s statewide results were much tighter than they’ve been in previous elections. Challengers like Beto O’Rourke, Mike Collier and Justin Nelson came within a few percentage points of victory. But U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton prevailed, and the Republicans swept the top races.

Those results got a lot of attention in both parties, but the substantive changes were farther down the ballot. Democrats picked up two Texas congressional seats held by Republicans, setting the table for serious challenges in another six or seven districts in 2020.

Republicans want to keep their streak going. They won the state for their presidential candidate in 1980 and have repeated that performance every four years since then. Lloyd Bentsen, who gave up his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1993 to become secretary of the Treasury, was the last Democrat from Texas elected to serve there.

If the race for U.S. Senate in Texas isn’t really in play, is Texas really in play?

The resources Democrats devote to that race in particular will indicate their seriousness about taking the state.

More likely — and more economical, which is the point — they’ll pick and choose the congressional and legislative races they think they can win, hoping those local victories carry a statewide race along.

This is bottom up, not top down. One measure of that is, and will be, the relative interest in Democratic U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar, on one hand, and in the races for congressional and legislative candidates below her on the ballot.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn had $14.5 million on hand at mid-year, far more than Hegar, his challenger. She had about $900,000. That’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, as she was tangled in a runoff at the time. Now that she’s the nominee, she has to catch up. Watch the numbers in September. She’ll have some help from the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, but she entered the final stretch of this election cycle at a financial disadvantage.

The Texas Democrats running for the U.S. House, on the other hand, are ahead. In their mid-year fundraising reports, compiled by the Texas Tribune, those Democrats had a $7.5 million advantage over Republicans this year; at the same point four years ago, the Republicans had a $20.9 million advantage.

Statewide races in Texas are expensive. The state has more than a dozen and a half media markets — the virtual distribution points for commercial and political advertising. None of the states adjacent to Texas has a third as many. You could run a statewide political campaign in those four states — New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana — with about the same resources it would take to run one race here.

It doesn’t make financial sense to do battle in the most expensive territory if doing so takes away from winnable fights elsewhere. If you have the money to do both, it doesn’t matter, but Michael Bloomberg, the New York billionaire who ran for president, isn’t in the contest anymore.

Texas has 36 congressional districts. It’s a lot cheaper to contend in six to nine of those than in all 36. There are 150 seats in the Texas House, but the vast majority of those are safe for the incumbents. The control of the House could go to either the Republicans or the Democrats, but neither needs a statewide vote to control things. They’re really fighting over — and this is a generous estimate — only 20% of those districts.

Sure, winning statewide this year would be a huge public relations victory for the Democrats. It might persuade out-of-state political candidates, consultants and donors to spend more money here in the future. There’s plenty of evidence that the 2018 results already attracted some of that interest.

Until the election returns are in, money is the metric to watch. After the election, the big headlines will be about the top of the ticket. But if you want to know where Texas falls on the red-to-blue political scale, look a little lower on the ballot.

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