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Election Day showed Texas is purplish red

November 16, 2018

Texas politics has changed. Both parties now need to take Texas voters seriously.

The state did not experience the jolt of an improbable win by Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke — he lost by 2.6 percentage points — but the lack of a blockbuster headline obscures a very real shift in the electoral landscape of Texas.

The results of the recent election show that Democrats made significant gains throughout the state. Once reliably red, Texas has taken on a purple hue, and the rest of the country should pay attention because Texas seems to be up for grabs.

Although Gov. Greg Abbott’s win over Lupe Valdez was never in doubt, it was much closer than the polls predicted. He won by 13 points, about eight points closer than the polls suggested and about eight points closer than his victory over Wendy Davis four years ago. Republicans had a clean sweep in other statewide races, but their average margin of victory was down from 23 points to seven, including three races with a margin smaller than five points.

In races for the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats also did much better. They held the 11 seats that they won in 2016, including two open seats. Of the 25 seats that the Republicans won in 2016, Democrats were able to defeat two incumbents, Pete Sessions and John Culberson, and one race remains too close to call. In 2016, the Democrats did not even bother to field a candidate in eight of these districts, including the one held by Sessions.

Among all 25 races, the Democrats did, on average, 27 points better. Setting aside the two seats that flipped and the one race that is too close to call, nine Democratic candidates kept the Republican victory margin to fewer than 10 points. Of those, four races were within five points. Some of these closest races were on everyone’s radar screen, such as M.J. Hegar’s challenge to John Carter, but few thought that Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, was in any real danger.

The Democratic tilt was also felt in the Legislature. Democrats knocked off two Republican incumbents in the Texas Senate and won a total of 12 additional seats in the Texas House. Although Republicans still have a comfortable majority in both chambers, the margins are small enough that the Democrats will be more than a token opposition.

And then there’s Beto. Since Democrat Lloyd Bentsen last won a Senate seat in 1988, the Democratic candidates, on average, lost by 22 points. The slimmest margin during that time was 12 points in 2002 when John Cornyn beat Ron Kirk for the seat vacated by Phil Gramm. Not only did O’Rourke do better than any Democratic Senate candidate since then, he got the most votes ever for a Democratic candidate in the state. The Democrat with the second most votes in Texas history, incidentally, was Justin Nelson, who lost the 2018 attorney general race to Ken Paxton.

There are a few clear lessons coming out of Election Day. First, Democrats performed remarkably well in the state’s urban centers and in the suburban areas. As our metropolitan areas grow and spread, Republicans should pay attention to these voters if they want to stay relevant. It’s also clear that Democratic gains weren’t confined to the cities. Patrick Svitek of The Texas Tribune notes that six counties in Texas that were won by Donald Trump in 2016 flipped to O’Rourke in 2018: Brewster, Hays, Williamson, Nueces, Tarrant and Jefferson.

This leads to our second point: Both parties should compete everywhere. Democratic candidates were no doubt buoyed by a popular Senate candidate, but their success was possible because they fielded serious candidates up and down the ballot, and then campaigned in every corner of our massive state. Dedicated candidates and staffers poured their hearts into long-shot races, and Texas politics is better off for their efforts.

Both parties should be credited with boosting turnout in Texas, which grew from 4.6 million voters in 2014 to 8.3 million in 2018. The voice of our engaged and diverse electorate will only get bigger as our booming economy attracts more people to our state.

The electoral landscape of Texas changed on election night, and it’s time for both parties to take us seriously.

Sean Theriault is a professor of government at the University of Texas Austin. Bethany Albertson is an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.

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