Two lessons this runoff election taught us: voter turnout – or lack thereof – means the “blue wave” we were all told is coming, isn’t; and moderate Republicans winning Texas House races puts a bigger spotlight on the speaker’s race next legislative session.
Voter turnout was down across the board. On the Republican side, two of the runoff victors won with just over 2,000 votes. In a state where each district consists of more than 167,000 Texans, those numbers are miniscule.
As low as voter turnout was for Republicans, voter turnout for the Democrats was worse – and could spell disaster in November.
The largest vote-getter in the Democratic House runoff election was Sheryl Cole in a hotly contested race in East Austin – and she won District 46 with 4,967 votes, or roughly 3,000 fewer votes than the biggest Republican vote-getter, Cody Harris in District 8. That margin seems wider when you learn that five of the 14 Texas House runoff election victors won with fewer total votes than the margin between Harris and Cole.
The big-ticket item for Democrats in this election was the gubernatorial runoff between Lupe Valdez and Andrew White. This election could have been a key signal for Democrats — and the party’s future in Texas. Valdez checks a lot of boxes for the social issues being pushed by her party, and White represents a younger, fresher look.
With the future of the Democrat Party on the line, their base showed little interest. Even with a gubernatorial race on the Democrat side, the Republicans cast about 500,000 more votes.
The Democratic runoff election for governor had the fewest ballots cast since 1920. While the population of Texas swells, Democratic support statewide appears to be waning. In 1920, 449,000 democrats voted in the gubernatorial run-off. In 2018, only about 415,000 did.
With Valdez winning, we are almost guaranteed a social wedge issue strategy.
The Democrats tried running for governor on social issues four years ago. Wendy Davis succeeded — in turning Texas even more red. In Rick Perry’s final gubernatorial election in 2010, he beat the Democratic challenger by over 10 points. Davis lost to Greg Abbott in 2014 by more than 20 points. Those margins could expand this November as Valdez has yet to show a penchant for running – well, anything — while Abbott has shown real leadership, both in the Hurricane Harvey aftermath and in the wake of the Santa Fe school shooting. Oh yeah — and Abbott is sitting on roughly $43 million, while Valdez is struggling to pay her property taxes.
Democrats are pinning their hopes on Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke and his ability to bring out the Latino vote — even though his ancestry is Irish. His opponent, Ted Cruz, won over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas in 2012. “Beto” won’t be enough.
So, what does this mean for Texas politics in the next legislative session? State leadership will remain unchanged – with the glaring exception of speaker. With Joe Straus stepping down, all eyes will be on the Texas House speaker’s race.
Some House members have been looking to show voter repudiation of Abbott, and these moderate victories could give them that opportunity. They’re upset with him for interjecting in primary races — and for endorsing opponents of incumbents. They will not want to give Abbott a conservative ally as speaker.
However, lost in the debate is that the Republicans don’t have to elect a speaker from the conservative wing to move right. The Republicans currently hold a 95-55 member majority in the House. Contrast with 2010, when the makeup was 75-73, and the Democrats will have a hard time flipping enough votes to have the success of 2009, when Straus was first elected by the Democrat bloc and a handful of Republicans. Although angered by Abbott, Republicans must also be cognizant of his high approval ratings.
If the Republican caucus votes together, their speaker choice would likely not come from the so-called Freedom Caucus. However, the House would likely move rightward, as the new speaker would not be as beholden to Democratic leadership.
The blue wave’s crash proves Texas is not turning blue anytime soon. The real question is how far right the state moves.
Brannan is principal of the Brannan Firm. He was appiointed commissioner of Texas Workers’ Compensation by two governors.