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Two years ago, Democrats were gearing up for a rare opportunity in modern times: seizing a majority in the Texas House.
But after they were woefully short — and the Republican-led redistricting reduced the number of competitive races — the battlefield heading into November is markedly smaller.
Still, both sides see high stakes in the State House races this time around. While the majority aren’t in-game, the hottest races are happening in key areas that each party says are critical to their growth for the next decade.
Look no further than the three districts that Democrats and Republicans consider their top priorities. Two of them are in South Texas, where Republicans are struggling to make inroads with Hispanic voters, while the other is in Collin County, North Texas, an iconic suburban location. fast-growing where Democrats have gained ground in recent election cycles. .
The GOP is particularly serious about the two South Texas seats – House District 37, a new seat opened in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, and House District 118, a San Antonio-based seat that Republican John Lujan overthrew. last year in a special election. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group that works to elect Republicans to state legislatures, announce Monday that they are funding $360,000 in television ads aimed at the two districts , a substantial opening salvo on The Battlefield.
“Democrats are bleeding support for Hispanic voters in South Texas because they take them for granted, but Republicans in Texas are growing in those communities because they offer a common-sense freedom-focused agenda that gives their voters the opportunity to prosper,” the RSLC president said. , Dee Duncan, said in a statement.
Republicans currently control 85 seats in the 150-member House. That’s a modest 10-seat majority, but because of the redistricting, neither side expects the balance of power to tip much in either direction, even in their most optimistic scenarios. It’s a frustrating reality for Democrats, especially as optimism rises to the top of the ticket, where Beto O’Rourke poses a serious threat to Gov. Greg Abbott.
“It’s going to be tough, I’m just going to be lucid about it,” O’Rourke said recently when asked about the potential for a Democratic majority in the Legislative Assembly. O’Rourke added that there is an “extraordinary” slate of candidates statewide, but that the “State House districts are a little tougher because they’ve been so effectively manipulated.”
Still, he said, gerrymandering is “not impossible to overcome.”
Although the Democratic candidates may not be able to claim this time that they are in contention for a majority, some are portraying the Legislature as increasingly important after the latest Supreme Court rulings. United States, including the reversal of Roe v. Wade, who cemented power. state rights.
“Now more than ever, we’re seeing a lot of great federally protected laws being forced down on state legislatures because of the Supreme Court rulings we’ve seen over the past few months,” said Frank Ramirez, the Democrat. challenging Lujan. again after losing in the special election. “All those things are on the chopping block now.”
Millions of dollars are expected to flow to HD-37 and HD-118 — the two South Texas seats — and then to HD-70, the one in Collin County. President Joe Biden would have won each of Donald Trump’s three seats in 2020, but only by margins of 2 to 11 points, giving them battleground status in the current environment, officials say. HD-37, which Republicans shoved onto the map overnight in the redistricting, is the closest on paper, with a Biden margin of just 2 percentage points.
Lujan is by far the most threatened Republican incumbent, but a few others can be expected to have competitive runs, including Reps. Steve Allison of San Antonio, Morgan Meyer of Dallas and Angie Chen Button of Richardson. However, all three have already endured tough general elections — especially Meyer and Button — and Republicans are confident in their ability to hold their own.
There are also a few additional open seats the GOP will need to watch, such as the Houston seat where Republican State Rep. Jim Murphy is retiring.
On the Democratic side, perhaps the most threatened incumbent is Rep. Eddie Morales of Eagle Pass, who represents a massive district spanning most of the Texas-Mexico border.
As for the issues, GOP messaging should take a national tone, seeking to capitalize on Biden’s deep unpopularity in Texas, especially on border security and inflation. The House Democratic Campaign Committee said its candidates are focused on “good jobs, strong public schools and access to affordable health care.”
“In contrast, Republicans are obsessed with banning abortion without exception and ensuring that anyone can carry a weapon without training or a license,” HDCC spokeswoman Stella Deshotel said in a statement. communicated.
With the primaries over, candidates of all races are sounding notes of independence and bipartisanship. Mihaela Plesa, the Democratic candidate for HD-70, said in an interview that it was important for representatives to come to Austin and “not just be another vote for the party line.” His Republican opponent, Jamee Jolly, said she was optimistic he intended to appeal to Biden voters in the district, which he would have carried by 11 percentage points.
“I think a lot of people picked Biden because they didn’t like the Republican option. I know that’s a fact because I have friends who have said that,” Jolly said, adding that her friends found Trump “divisive” and that she would legislate as “much more of a unifier, a seeker of solutions”, reaching across the aisle.
Plesa said the No. 1 issue she hears about is public school funding, along with worries about “social wars” breaking out in the classroom. But she said she also heard a lot about abortion after the Roe v. Wade, which triggered a no exceptions ban in Texas. Jolly said her focus is now on “how we continue to support maternal health care”.
The candidates were also not fully aligned on how to prevent the next school shooting, a particularly salient topic after May’s massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Jolly said his priority was “to toughen up[ing]campus rather than new gun restrictions. Plesa said she is also discussing school hardening with voters, but also supports gun proposals like raising the age to buy an assault rifle.
In its drive to create a new battleground in South Texas, the GOP is banking on Biden’s unpopular presidency, both on the border and on the economy.
“It’s very difficult for the valley here,” said Janie Lopez, the Republican candidate for HD-37 in the Rio Grande Valley, referring to the low median income in the region. “The Biden administration, the way they’re handling things, it’s hugely unpopular right now here in the Valley.”
Lopez’s Democratic opponent, Luis Villarreal, doesn’t entirely disagree. He said “there’s a lot more to be done” on the border by the Biden administration and all elected officials need to listen more to border communities about the best solutions. Villarreal also wants to see the federal government take a bigger cut of the tab for the state’s massive border security efforts.
Further out in South Texas, Republicans face a savvy Democratic incumbent in Morales, who has at times shown independence from his party. Trump raised his district by 8 percentage points in 2020, and it was redrawn to be a district that Biden would have hypothetically raised that year by 5 percentage points.
Morales stayed behind when House Democrats broke quorum last year on the new election law, and he opposed Biden’s decision earlier this year to end Title 42, the policy of the Trump era that allowed border officials to quickly deport migrants due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking Thursday in San Angelo, Morales said the United States is currently abetting drug cartels and smugglers “because nothing is being done.”
“I’ve been, as a Democrat, one of those opponents of some of the actions that the White House has taken,” Morales said, “but more importantly…it’s not just the fault of the White House and it’s not just this president or the previous one.” Congress has failed to act, he added, and that has been true throughout several presidencies.
Morales drew a well-funded GOP challenger in Katherine Parker, an Alpine businesswoman who easily outranked Morales on their latest campaign finance reports. In a statement, she scoffed at the idea that he broke with his party, noting that he financially supported “two of the most radical Democrats around, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke.”
As for Ramirez and Lujan, this is a rematch after battling in last year’s special election. Lujan has been here before: He won the South Side San Antonio seat in a special election in 2016, only to lose it months later in the November election. This time, the neighborhood is less blue thanks to the redistricting.
Lujan said the biggest difference for him was the lack of direct voting. He said he remembered well in 2016 an older woman approached him at a polling place and told him she wanted to vote for him but hated Trump and therefore voted Democrat .
Ramirez said a lot has changed since the special election, pointing to the two major events this spring that galvanized Democrats: the Uvalde school shooting and the overthrow of Roe v. Wade. And he said Lujan had shown a lack of leadership in office, refusing, for example, to say how he would have voted on the controversial election law.
“District 118 – I have no choice but to reach out to the other side,” Lujan said. “I’m not that far-right candidate.”
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