People tend to broadly categorize states as being red states or blue states based generally off of how the state in question votes in presidential elections. If they go back and forth or are won by relatively thin margins the term purple state or swing state may apply. So how then should we label Texas?
If we are to look purely at who wins elections, at almost every level, then the answer is easy, solid red. The last time Texas voted Democratic for a presidential race was Jimmy Carter in 1976. The last Democratic governor was Ann Richards who lost re-election to George W. Bush in 1994. All statewide office holders are Republican, and both houses of the Texas Legislature are controlled by Republican majorities. At face value it would appear Texas is certainly in the red category, but not so much if we look deeper into the margins of victory and the trends.
Historically Democrats have dominated the politics of the Lone Star State. From the first presidential election that Texas participated in 1848 through 2016 Texas has voted Democratic (including Southern Democrat in 1860 and Liberal Republican* in 1872) twenty-seven times, compared to just fourteen Republican victories. Democrats have elected thirty-nine governors in comparison to seven Republican governors. The Texas Legislature has been more or less dominated by Republicans since the late 90’s and early 2000’s, although their strength in the legislature has fluctuated considerably as can be seen below.
Looking forward we may be able to see some possibilities from most recent Senate race. In 2018 Republican Ted Cruz won re-election to the U.S. Senate with 50.9% of the vote, where Democrat Beto O’Rourke won 48.3% and Libertarian Neal Dikeman won 0.7%. More Significant than the thin margin that an incumbent Republican senator in a seemingly red state won by, is where Cruz lost. O’Rourke won counties such a Tarrant (Fort Worth), Williamson (Round Rock), Hays (San Marcos), and Fort Bend (Katy). All of which went for Cruz in 2012 and are home to a significant and growing portion of Texas’ population. Of the Texas House of Representative districts, O’Rourke won more votes than Cruz in 76 districts, enough for a majority of the House.
What we can learn from all of this is that Texas could probably be described as a red state on the surface with growing blue population centers. As the coalitions of people that make up political parties change, Republicans have cause for concern if they lose ground in the suburbs. Their winning coalition for a generation has been the wealthy suburbs of Houston, Dallas-Forth Worth, and San Antonio, & the smaller rural counties that were once home to conservative Democrats. As the Republicans peeled off the rural counties from the Democrats in the 90’s and 2000’s, the suburbs may now find themselves up for grabs signaling a major shift that could mark the end Republican domination in Texas.
2020 and 2021 will provide much greater indications for the direction of Texas. In 2020 we have a Presidential, Senate, and state Legislature elections. We will see if the changes seen in 2016 and 2018 continue, becoming long term trends, or if O’Rourke was an outlier. 2020 will also be done without the option for straight-ticket voting. 2021 will bring about redistricting, a powerful tool typically wielded by those in power to maximize their advantage. Both parties are guilty when it comes to gerrymandering, Republicans have just been guilty more recently. If Democrats manage to win control of the Texas House of Representatives, which is no guarantee, then it is very possible that the Legislature will fail to agree on new maps, which then falls to the Legislative Redistricting Board, which consists of the statewide office holders (currently all Republicans). While gerrymandering may slow the bleeding for Texas Republicans in the short term, as Democrats learned in 2002 it doesn’t address their deeper problems which is an increasingly large part of their coalition that is walking away.
*The Democrats did not field a candidate in 1872, instead opting to nominate the Liberal Republican candidate Horace Greeley.