State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

It’s been such a long time since Texas Democrats have been able to sing “Happy Days Are Here Again” without irony, as I suspect they remember it as being in a minor key. Yet San Antonio State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) is optimistic, especially about turning his chamber blue.

What’s more, he’s putting his money where his optimism is.

“I feel so good about it that I recently donated $100,000 to our House campaign committee,” he said.

You can look it up on the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee’s July 15 finance report. You’ll find page after page of contributions ranging from $5 to $25, and a few $1,000 gifts. Then there’s Martinez Fischer’s $100,000 taken from a political action committee he funds with his abundant campaign funds.

“I think there is something to be said about voter enthusiasm,” he said, which is what all those small contributions measure. He’s also counting on the well-recognized shift in suburban voters.

Texas suburbs, especially suburban women, helped Democrats pick up 12 seats in the House two years ago and figure to play a major role in whether they gain the nine seats necessary this year to get a majority. Exhibit A, Martinez Fischer says, is Collin County, the traditionally Republican home of Plano and other affluent Dallas suburbs.

In 2014 only one Democrat bothered to file in the county’s five State House races, and she won only 28 percent of the vote. In 2016, all five races featured Democratic challengers, but the closest one lost by 17 percentage points.

Two years later in 2018, four of the five challengers broke 40 percent. One lost by 2.3 points.

Then there was former teacher Sharon Hirsch. She trailed incumbent Matt Shaheen by just 0.5 points or 391 votes.

Hirsch may be considered the front-runner this year. Democrats almost always turn out more voters and do better in presidential election years. In the first half of this year, she has out-raised Shaheen $218,639 to $46,000.

The Texas Democratic Party in December announced it was targeting 22 House seats held by Republicans in which Beto O’Rourke came within 10 points of Sen. Ted Cruz. Conveniently in nine of the districts O’Rourke actually led Cruz.

O’Rourke’s biggest margin was in a Houston district with a Republican legislator that he won by 21 percent. His slimmest winning margin, by 0.35 percentage points, came in former Speaker Joe Straus’s district anchored by Alamo Heights. Republican Steve Allison beat Democrat Celina Montoya by 8 percentage points in 2018 and has to be considered the favorite in this year’s rematch. But Montoya is running a very aggressive campaign and shouldn’t be counted out. So far this year she has out-raised Allison $91,000 to $73,190. However, he has $113,077 on hand, compared to her $61,000 balance.

I would put the Democrats’ chances of taking back the State House of Representatives as better than the fulfillment of either of their two other dreams — beating President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn — though recent polls show Trump and Democrat Joe Biden running even and a large “undecided” cohort in the Senate race.

But what if the Democrats win the Texas House? How much difference would it make?

One of the points I’ve seen made in the national media is that it would prevent the Republicans from gerrymandering legislative and congressional districts in the wake of the 2020 census. But that is wrong.

The Texas Constitution includes a provision, passed in 1951, for what happens if the Senate and House of Representatives can’t agree on lines for legislative seats. The lines are then drawn by the Legislative Redistricting Board which includes the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, the attorney general, the comptroller, and the commissioner of the General Land Office. Since the only office in play this November is the speaker, he or she would have little impact on the likes of Republicans Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, Glenn Hegar, and George P. Bush.

Martinez Fischer, however, thinks it may be possible for the Legislature to agree on lines.

“Lawmakers are probably not as trusting for a third party to draw their districts,” he said, suggesting that a Democratic House and a Republican Senate might compromise by agreeing to the plans each came up for their own members.

I’m skeptical. I think there would be a strong temptation for Republican leaders to try to take back the House through creative redistricting.

And no matter what plan the Legislature or the redistricting board come up with it will almost certainly end up in federal court. There, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear, severe gerrymandering for political (as distinct from racial) purposes is perfectly acceptable. Martinez Fischer suggests, however, that a Democratic House could, through witnesses at hearings and floor debate, build a record that would make lawsuits more feasible.

Redistricting isn’t the only issue for the new Legislature. Martinez Fischer was in the last Democrat-controlled House in 2001. He said on many issues Democrats and Republicans could cooperate. He’s right.

Elections make a difference. As I’ve noted before, the 12-person pickup by Democrats in the House two years ago made the “bathroom bill” magically disappear and goosed the Legislature into passing major school finance reform without the Texas Supreme Court forcing the issue.

Martinez Fischer even imagines the House being able to push the issue of taking advantage of the Affordable Care Act by expanding Medicaid, which he suggests might pressure Republicans to go along.

Maybe, but I think that is a dream deferred – at the very least until the 2022 election when the governor is on the ballot.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.