Current Events: There's reason for San Antonio progressives to celebrate the last election cycle

Beto O'Rourke lost and Texas remains red, but there were plenty of victories elsewhere on the ballot.

Current Events: There's reason for San Antonio progressives to celebrate the last election cycle
Sanford Nowlin

Editor's Note: Current Events is a column of opinion and analysis.

For San Antonio-area progressives — and even moderates — last Tuesday, Nov. 8's election results were dispiriting to watch as they rolled in.

After leaning hard right on just about every issue he could, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was rewarded with an 11-point victory over challenger Beto O'Rourke. What's more, every statewide office in Texas remained red — including that of Attorney General Ken Paxton, who faces a securities fraud indictment and an FBI investigation into claims he abused his office.

Democrats will no doubt spend the months trying to figure out what went wrong and how to retool their messaging. But here's the most basic assessment: Texas' rural counties keep breaking for the GOP. The state's much-vaunted demographic changes just aren't moving fast enough to collapse the state's so-called "red wall."

Even so, this election was about more than Abbott and the statewide ticket — even though the consensus among political observers is that O'Rourke's presence on the ticket energized Democrats enough to bring local victories in urban areas.

Indeed, there were wins for SA-area progressives to celebrate. Let's run them down.

1. The midterms were an irrefutable rebuke to Trumpism.

Nationally, the midterms were a history-defying event. On average, the party holding the White House loses 40 seats in the first cycle after a presidential election. Not so this time. Not even close. The Senate didn't flip, and at press time, it even looked like there was an outside possibility the House might stay in Democratic control.

"Right now, Donald Trump is about two feet shorter than he was before Tuesday night," Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said. "I don't think you can see the outcome as anything else but a strong rebuke for the former president."

2. Republicans proved they couldn't buy votes from South Texas Latinos.

After Joe Biden underperformed in parts of South Texas, Republican pundits predicted big wins with Latino voters along the border this cycle. Nope. Despite flooding the airwaves with tens of millions of dollars in attack ads, the best the GOP could do was win Texas' 15th Congressional District, which had been redrawn to make it far more Republican-friendly. Despite massively funded challenges, Democrats U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, 28th District, and Vicente Gonzalez, 34th District, both won their races.

"Tonight, Texas Republicans will tell you that picking up TX-15 shows that they're gaining ground with Hispanics in South Texas," Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said as the results rolled in. "Let me be clear: that's complete bullshit. The facts of the matter remain that Texas Republicans literally redrew TX-15 to be less Hispanic and more white — and they redrew it to become a district that was statistically guaranteed to go Republican."

3. Marijuana reformers had a big day, and more are in the works.

During the midterms, five Texas cities voted to decriminalize low-level pot possession. Ground Game Texas — the progressive organizing group behind Austin's recent decriminalization vote — worked with local activists to put similar initiatives on the ballot in Denton, Elgin, Harker Heights, Killeen and San Marcos. And voters in all five cities approved. 

That's encouraging for the organizers of a San Antonio petition drive who are also working with Ground Game Texas to collect the 20,000 signatures needed to let local voters decide whether to amend the city charter to decriminalize weed. Expect similar initiatives to sprout up across the state.

"I think those votes bode well for San Antonio," said Ananda Tomas, executive director of police accountability group Act 4 SA, one of the organizations spearheading the local drive. "I think San Antonio voters are ready to decriminalize and have been ready to decriminalize for some time now."

4. Dems won big in San Antonio — and in other big Texas cities.

On election night, two of the most-watched Bexar County races went to Democrats. Peter Sakai decisively won his bid to follow outgoing Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, also a Democrat.

Reform-minded Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales was reelected over an opponent who regurgitated the same tough-on-crime rhetoric used by Republicans through the rest of the country this cycle.

In less-noticed Bexar election outcomes, Democratic candidates replaced the county's four remaining Republican district judges in the contest, leaving Dems in control of every one of its judgeships.

No red wave came to Texas' other big Democrat-controlled cities either. In one of the most-watched challenges in a major urban area, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo — considered a Democratic rising star — beat down a Republican opponent backed with an unprecedented war chest. That same seat was held by the GOP just four years ago.

The outcomes of those local races suggest that while Texas isn't yet purple, that day is coming, Jillson said.

"The future of Texas lies in the growth of its major cities and in its Hispanic and Asian populations," he said.

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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