Analysis: Political climate changes in Texas congressional districts

BY Ross Ramsey

When political consultants were scouring the state’s 2016 election results two years ago, they found three Texas congressional districts where voters had kept Republican incumbents in office while also favoring Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

Those districts became targets, and two of those three incumbents are no longer in Congress.

Now there are new results to pore over, courtesy of the Texas Legislative Council, and a new list of possible targets for the next election. Unlike two years ago, not all of the imperiled incumbents are Republicans; there are also a couple of Democrats in the congressional delegation in seats where the other party could prevail under the right circumstances.

Three Republican members of the delegation — U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul of Austin, Will Hurd of Helotes and Kenny Marchant of Coppell — won in districts where U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz lost to Beto O’Rourke (though Cruz won statewide). Six more Republicans — U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw of Houston, Van Taylor of Plano, Ron Wright of Arlington, Chip Roy of Austin, Pete Olson of Sugar Land and John Carter of Georgetown — represent districts where Cruz won.

The good news for some of those officials is that while Cruz was having a hard time in their districts, statewide Republican candidates were, on average, winning. On the other side, Cruz didn’t prevail in any of the districts won by Democratic congressional candidates.

None of the congressional districts that were in the Democratic column in 2016 moved to the Republican side, but two moved in the other direction: CD-23, barely a red district in 2016, was barely a blue one in 2018, and CD-32 slightly favored Democrats in 2018 after showing Republicans a 10.7-percentage-point advantage in 2016. The first, represented by Hurd, was drawn as a swing district and was, until recently, the only one on the Texas map. The other is now represented by U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, who defeated Pete Sessions. The writing was on the wall there, too: Clinton narrowly defeated Trump in that district in 2016.

CD-7, a Houston district now represented by U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Democrat, was the third district on the previous election cycle’s target list — a district held by a Republican incumbent but won by Clinton. But that district’s voters, on average, remained just on the Republican side of the partisan line last year: The average Republican beat the average Democrat in statewide races by 0.2 percentage points.

All three of those districts will be on anyone’s preliminary 2020 list — and would be there no matter which party’s candidate won the last election. They are all balanced enough to go to either a Democrat or a Republican, depending on turnout, the political tenor of the election year and the quality of the candidates.

Add CD-24, where Marchant is the incumbent, to that target list. He won re-election. Statewide Republicans won in that district by 4 percentage points, on average. Trump won by about 6, but O’Rourke won by 3.5 percentage points.

One big difference between the 2016 and the 2018 elections in Texas was the overall strength of Democratic candidates. Republicans won every statewide race in both of those years, but the margins were very different: In 2016, the Republican candidate beat the Democratic candidate by an average of 14.1 percentage points. In 2018, that dropped to 7.3 percentage points.

You can see that difference in each year’s marquee race. Trump beat Clinton in Texas by 9 percentage points. Two years later, Cruz beat O’Rourke by 2.6 percentage points.

And the 2018 results carry a caveat. Voter turnout was extraordinarily high for a midterm election in Texas, and it was a big year for Democrats in Texas and nationally. It’s interesting if it turns out to be a trend, but it’s not a trend unless the pattern continues.

But it’s always that way; every election is different. The plotters and schemers can see some signs of strength and weakness in the 2018 results — which districts they’ll have to defend, which ones might be ripe for attack. That’s a start.