Texas Republicans Face Tough 2020 Election After a Rocky 12 Months

click to enlarge Firebrand former congressman Allen West recently unseated James Dickey as head of the Texas GOP. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / GAGE SKIDMORE
Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore
Firebrand former congressman Allen West recently unseated James Dickey as head of the Texas GOP.
John Cornyn had an important message for Texas Republicans.

"I'll be blunt — because I know I'm among friends here," the U.S. senator told delegates to the virtual state GOP convention last weekend. "Republicans are facing the greatest electoral challenge we've faced in the last five decades."

There was one problem with Cornyn's speech, though: Delegates could not entirely hear it. The convention livestream was cutting back and forth every few seconds between Cornyn and a committee meeting that was happening at the same time.

It was one more technical mishap for a convention that was full of them. But Cornyn's obscured warning was also thick with irony: As Texas Republicans prepare for their most important election in a long time, new problems seem to keep getting in the way, making an already challenging road to November even rockier.

Democrats had made it known since the beginning of this election cycle that Texas would be a top battleground for them, and this time last year, the state's Republicans had ample reason to be optimistic. They had just come off a state legislative session that was light on intraparty conflict and heavy on the kind of policy achievements — property tax reform, public education funding — that they could sell to general election voters.

But in the months since, the party has had to weather a series of unwelcome distractions, from the scandal that brought down state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen up through the disastrous convention that saw the ouster of state GOP Chairman James Dickey. Now Texas Republicans are embarking on a general election clouded by President Donald Trump’s polling collapse nationally and an intractable pandemic that has bruised even the state’s most popular GOP leader, Gov. Greg Abbott.

"I think all campaigns are moving forward right now with caution knowing that there's a lot hanging over our heads," said Jordan Berry, a Texas GOP consultant, pointing to a "global pandemic, media often misrepresenting the situation, small businesses being closed and a general feeling that we're on the wrong track."

"I don't think it's any one thing," Berry added. "I think it's a combination of things, but it's better that we know it now so we can find ways to correct than finding this out in mid-October."

Some Texas Republicans have a blunter assessment. George Seay, a Dallas businessman and longtime Texas GOP fundraiser, said the state is becoming more competitive earlier than it should be because Texas Republicans, much like the Democrats who controlled the state before them, became "fat, happy, lazy and bored" — as well as consumed by internecine feuding.

"I think that if Democrats are successful, it won’t be because Texas suddenly got really liberal," Seay said. "It will be because normal Texans who don’t pay attention to this will be sick and tired of Republican mediocrity at best."

The month-to-month distractions started with the secret recording scandal that forced Bonnen into retirement — and sidelined a speaker who was set to play a leading role in defending the House GOP majority. Bookending the period was the convention, which the party struggled mightily to pull off virtually after its all-out push for an in-person gathering failed in the courts. But in between, public relations nightmares persisted — a state representative who complained his primary challengers were running against him because they were Asian, a spate of county party chairs who spread conspiracy theories about George Floyd’s death on Facebook, a podcast outtake in which staffers for the hard-right group Empower Texans joked about Abbott’s wheelchair use and disparaged him with profanity.

While Republicans doubt those episodes will be top of mind for voters in November, they nonetheless have given Democrats plenty of fodder and inhibited party unity during a cycle that demands it.

By contrast, things have generally gone the right way for Texas Democrats in recent months. With a national spotlight shining bright on them, they have been able to drive a narrative that they are mostly on offense, from the presidential race on down, and have mostly kept intraparty squabbling confined to individual races.

Texas Republicans are not without their own bright spots. After a 2018 wake-up call, they say their candidates are more attuned than ever to not taking anything for granted, and Cornyn's battle-ready campaign has especially heartened GOP operatives. They have put a renewed emphasis on nuts-and-bolts party functions like voter registration and candidate recruitment. And in many of their battleground seats, the candidates preferred by national and state GOP leaders as the most viable made it out of their primaries and runoffs.

Plus, Republicans have all the built-in advantages that continue to make Texas a red state on paper — control of every statewide office and majorities in the congressional delegation and at the Texas Legislature. While Democrats have made inroads over the past two election cycles, the last time a Democrat won statewide was 1994.

Regardless of the Texas GOP's best-laid plans, though, Trump looms over everything — and perilously so. While he won Texas by 9 percentage points in 2016 — the smallest margin for a Republican presidential nominee in the state since 1996 — he appears headed for a narrower win this fall — or the once unfathomable: becoming the first Republican presidential nominee to lose the state since 1976.

Virtually every Texas poll since Biden emerged as the presumptive nominee has found him within the margin of error with Trump, including a Quinnipiac University survey released Wednesday that gave Biden a 1-percentage-point lead.

"This is a real race," U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said during his speech at the state GOP convention.

Trump's campaign remains upbeat in its Texas prospects, confident that its organization in the state is far superior and skeptical that Biden will ultimately make a genuine play for the state. Biden's campaign launched its first general-election TV ads in the state last week, and while they marked a notable and relatively early investment, the size of the buy was not remotely close to what it would take to seriously compete this fall in Texas.

In a statement for this story, Trump Victory spokesperson Samantha Cotten said the president's reelection effort is "lightyears ahead of Joe Biden and Democrat's non-existent campaign in the Lone Star State." And during a state-of-race briefing Friday with reporters, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien dismissed the idea that Texas was in play, taunting Democrats over their growing optimism about the state.

"I would love — I would invite the Biden campaign — to play in Texas," Stepien said. "They should play hard. They should go after Texas really, really heavily, spend a lot of money in the Dallas and Houston media markets. ... I'll even buy their first ad."

While few Republican operatives have reached the point of openly warning that Trump could lose Texas, they are increasingly concerned about his margin of victory — and whether it will be enough to prevent a down-ballot disaster. The Texas House majority is on the line — a crucial fight ahead of the 2021 redistricting process — and national Democrats are pushing to flip seven U.S. House seats in the state.

Seay called Trump's down-ballot effect his "No. 1 concern, big time."

Cornyn's campaign helps with some of the heartburn. Determined to avoid Cruz's closer-than-expected 2018 race, Cornyn began building out his reelection campaign within weeks after that election, and he has since amassed a $14.5 million war chest. He has led potential Democratic opponents by comfortable margins in every poll this year, and the Democratic nominee against him, MJ Hegar, had to go through a protracted nominating process and is vastly underfunded by comparison.

Still, Cornyn has shown little separation from Trump — who endorsed him early in the cycle — and regularly registers in polls as unknown to a significant amount of voters for someone who has been holding or running for elected office in Texas since the 1980s. That continues to give hope to Democrats, even as Hegar remainsin an uphill battle.

Most of the action, though, lies further down the ballot.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting seven U.S. House districts here and has named five of the nominees in those districts to its Red to Blue program for top contenders. Democrats also have to defend the two seats they picked up in 2018 — held by Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas and Lizzie Pannill Fletcherof Houston — though they believe the rapidly changing political terrain in each district and the strength of the incumbents make them well positioned for reelection.

While some GOP incumbents, like Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, have earned recognition for making early preparations to run the race of their lives, the situation is clearly more dire in other Republican-held seats, especially when it comes to fundraising. In three of the seats the DCCC is working to flip, Democrats already have vastly more cash on hand than their Republican opponents, two of whom had to get through runoffs. In one extreme case — the 22nd Congressional District — Democratic nominee Sri Preston Kulkarni has more than 40 times cash on hand than the GOP's candidate, Troy Nehls.

The most consequential down-ballot fight, however, is for the Texas House, where Democrats are nine seats away from the majority. Republicans are hoping to flip back some of the 12 seats they lost in 2018, but even then, Democrats are working with a wide offensive battlefield, targeting at least the 17 seats where Republicans won by single digits in 2018.

"We've been sounding the alarm for months all across the county about how competitive Texas is, from the top of the ballot all the way down," Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, said in an interview. "For us, Texas is a top priority. We're gonna spend several million dollars and spend whatever it takes" to defend the House majority.

Chambers said there is "absolutely a path" for Democrats to flip the House. As for Trump's impact down-ballot, Chambers said he expects the president to carry Texas but that the RSLC is focused on holding the House majority "regardless of what his margin is."

"We just can't sit back and say Donald Trump's success is going to determine our success and leave it to chance," Chambers said, noting there are House districts that strong candidates could carry while Trump loses.

Throughout down-ballot contests, state and national Republicans believe they have nominated a more diverse and uniquely qualified crop of candidates than usual. They point to contenders like Will Douglas, a Black pharmacy owner in Dallas who is challenging freshman state Rep. Rhetta Andrews Bowers, D-Garland. The district is one of Republicans' tougher targets to reclaim in November — Bowers won by 7 points in 2018 — but Douglas is waging a robust challenge, easily outraising Bowers over the past year.

In an interview, Douglas said he is running a campaign relentlessly focused on jobs and the economy, appealing to blue-collar workers in the district who are looking for a local advocate "regardless of what's happening at the top of the ticket." Douglas pointed out that Trump lost the district by 2 points in 2016 while its Republican state representative at the time, Cindy Burkett, won it by 10.

"So we know that we have voters who are engaged that do the research, do their homework," said Douglas, who spoke last month at a police reform roundtable that Trump held in Dallas. "They’re not just going in and voting straight ticket. ... We know that there’s gonna be people that don’t necessarily like President Trump's demeanor but also understand the importance of having their local officials reflect their values."

In addition to candidate strength, Texas Republicans were encouraged — at least earlier in the cycle — by a renewed focus on traditional party functions like voter registration. The state party launched a drive last year to register 100,000 new Republicans, and some of the state’s biggest Republican donors plowed millions into a super PAC also focused on registration.

The results have been mixed. While the state party hit its goal early last month,the political action committee shuttered this spring, citing obstacles created by the pandemic. And Democrats are also prioritizing registration, both through their state party and third-party groups like Beto O’Rourke’s Powered by People, which started its efforts much more recently and claims to have registered “nearly 50,000 likely Democrats so far.”

In any case, at least in down-ballot races, Republicans believe their Democratic counterparts have tacked too far to the left and been too willing to nationalize contests. That latter factor was especially relevant, Chambers said, when state Rep. Gary Gates, R-Richmond, won overwhelmingly in a special election earlier this year that drew massive amounts of out-of-state attention.

Beyond politics, the next few months are filled with uncertainty for Texas Republicans. There is no end in sight to the pandemic, and Abbott, the face of the state's response, has seen his approval ratings drop amid harsh criticism from ascendant Democrats and growing discontent from a still small — but vocal — segment in his own party.

Still, Republicans largely trust him, according to polls, and no Republicans in battleground races have split with him on the coronavirus response. His handling of the pandemic registered 72% approval among Republicans in the Quinnipiac University survey, even as voters overall delivered a split verdict.

On top of everything else, Texas Republicans are having to adjust to a sudden change in leadership at their state party. Allen West, the firebrand former Florida congressman, unseated Dickey on Monday in a resounding defeat that undoubtedly has implications for the final few months of the general election.

While Dickey had been hobbled by the botched convention, he had otherwise run on strongly positioning the party for November through fundraising, candidate recruitment and voter registration. West, meanwhile, ran on a broader platform of confronting Democrats more aggressively and attracted support from those who believed more needed to be done to hold fellow Republicans accountable.

In an illustration of the intraparty tensions still persisting as Texas Republicans barrel toward November, West used his final pitch to delegates to rail against the "tyranny that we see in the great state of Texas, where we have executive orders and mandates, people telling us what we can and cannot do, who is essential, who is not essential." As of Friday evening — more than four days after West took over as the state party leader — the governor still has not publicly acknowledged his victory.

Disclosure: George Seay and Facebook have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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