Texas voters have spoken. They said they like the status quo.
They favored the incumbent president, sent an incumbent senator back to Washington, and made little change in their U.S. House delegation. They added only one Democrat to the State Senate and soundly defeated an aggressive Democratic push to turn the State House of Representatives blue.
They kept every statewide office – from the judges of the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals to the membership of the Texas Railroad Commission – in Republican hands. No Democrat has won statewide office since 1994, when Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock was elected along with a Democratic attorney general, comptroller, and land commissioner.
So Texas voters want to keep things just the way they are? No, of course not. The election results did not tell us what voters want, just how divided they are.
It was because Texas voters are so closely divided that so many races were contested so fiercely. A record amount of money was spent in Texas in the past few months, filling the airwaves and social media with a flood of negative ads, some of which included actual facts.
It was probably the bitterest political battle since Reconstruction, when people were shot for disclosing the wrong political sympathies. Obscenities peppered political discourse, including hats and yard signs with this decidedly South Texas witticism: “ChingatuMAGA.” (If you don’t know, don’t ask.)
Both sides see the election as perilous. One president would destroy our democracy by embracing authoritarianism, the other by embracing socialism. With a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, neither result is likely, But there still are major differences, including on vital and contentious issues such as climate change, policing and racial tension, and dealing with COVID-19.
Depending on lingering vote counts and threatened litigation, the choice of president will make a great difference, including here in Texas. Texas government for the next two years, however, is settled and portends little change. Had the Democrats been more successful – if they had won control of the state House of Representatives – it would have had a modest impact.
They would, for instance, have been able to block the most aggressive gerrymandering of Congressional districts but not of the state Legislature. Under a Texas law that covers state, but not federal, offices, if the two houses can’t agree to a redistricting plan, the task is assigned to a five-member board. That board would, however, consist of four Republican officials and the Democratic speaker of the House.
Most noticeably, a Democrat-controlled House also could have blocked bills out of the conservative Senate that Democrats found objectionable. Many of those have already been blocked over the last decade by House speakers who wanted to save moderate Republicans from controversial votes that would harm them whichever way they went.
There will be a minor change in the state Senate. Democrats picked up one seat when San Antonio Democrat Roland Gutierrez defeated Republican Pete Flores of Pleasanton, who won the traditionally Democratic seat in a 2018 special election.
Gutierrez presents a minor problem for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who largely controls the Senate. Senate rules used to require a two-thirds vote of the 31-member body to approve any bill. Patrick easily persuaded Republican senators to change that rule – by a simple majority vote – to 60 percent. Gutierrez’s election pushes the Democratic presence to just over 40 percent, but Patrick said last January that if necessary, he’d get Republican senators to lower the requirement to a simple majority.
Even if Democrats had achieved their dreams Tuesday and delivered Texas to Joe Biden, defeated U.S. Senator John Cornyn, and won control of the Texas House, it would not likely have immediately changed the fundamental political architecture of Texas. The Republican primary would have remained, at least statewide, the domain of the far right.
Gov. Greg Abbott would still feel the need to take care of the “base” and fend off a challenge by Patrick.
Republicans would still choose an attorney general like Ken Paxton, even if Paxton lost his office by being convicted on one of his felony indictments. (He would lose his law license, but the state constitution doesn’t require our attorney general to be either an attorney or a general.)
Land Commissioners like George P. Bush would still feel the need to defy their family tradition and embrace the likes of Donald Trump. And we still could have an agricultural commissioner like Sid Miller who has posted phony online tropes such as that a Texas apartment complex forced a tenant to take down his American flag for fear of offending Muslims, a doctored photo showing President Barack Obama smiling while holding a T-shirt featuring Che Guevera, and a report that Lady Gaga pledged in 2017 to cover her face until President Trump was “fired.”
Last week I asked a highly regarded Republican activist who would be considered center-right whether Democratic success in Tuesday’s election might result in a path opening up for a moderate Republican to win statewide in the Republican primary.
No, he said firmly and without hesitation, after asking for anonymity (which tells you something). He said he expects the Republican Party to remain the party of Trump for years.
That is likely to change in Texas when Democrats start winning statewide, and even then it would take a while.
That day appears to be on the horizon. Four years ago Trump carried Texas by nine points, the closest race since Bob Dole bested Bill Clinton by six points in Texas in 1996. This year the margin shrank further, to about Dole’s margin.
Some experts have been predicting a purple Texas for decades. They may be right, but if the wind is at the backs of Democrats, it’s a light breeze indeed.