For almost three decades, Texas Republicans have run a ruby-red state, building a conservative bastion where government is limited.
Now, a polarizing president, Republican infighting and mounting tensions of racially-motivated rhetoric, have rocked Texas’s political leadership to its core. And the state may soon face a tipping point brought on by shifting coalitions of voters who want change, in Austin and Washington.
There are signs that some Texas Republicans want to get out of the way, before change is forced upon them. Multiple sources say there are more retirements to come. Six other Texas Republicans won election in 2018 by margins of less than 10 percentage points.
The tumult is creating turnover that has startled even the closest observers of Texas politics. In just the last week, Reps. Kenny Marchant (R), Pete Olson (R), Will Hurd (R) and Mike Conaway (R) have said they will retire rather than seek a new term in 2020.
Trump won Texas’s electoral votes by a slimmer margin in 2016 than any Republican presidential nominee since Bob Dole in 1996, when Texan and Reform Party nominee Ross Perot was on the ballot.
“Under normal circumstances, Texas is still a red state. But normal circumstances are suspended so long as Donald Trump is a part of our national politics, because he destabilizes everything,” Jillson said. “The natural progression of demographic change [is] accelerated by Trump destabilizing all of our national politics.”
The 2018 midterm elections, in which Democrats made inroads in fast-growing suburbs around Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston shook some in the GOP. Then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) came within 3 percentage points of beating Sen. Ted Cruz (R) — and, crucially, O’Rourke won more raw votes than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.
“There’s the organization and motivation of Democrats finally getting their act together on the ground,” said Corbin Casteel, a longtime Republican strategist in Austin. “There’s the natural pendulum swing back toward the middle.”
The Republican control in Austin is at risk, too. Democrats once mired in a deep minority in the state House have gained 19 seats over the past two elections. They are now just nine seats away from gaining control of the 150-member chamber — and, critically, a seat at the redistricting table after the 2020 Census.
The suburban women who handed Democrats control of Congress are key to the party’s hopes of capitalizing on the tumultuous moment in Texas politics, Jillson said.
“White suburban women are temporarily part of the Democratic coalition in Texas, but I wouldn’t think of them as firm long-term members,” he said. “Those women are responding to Trump, but also to these mass shootings.”
But whether they are arriving in sufficient numbers to put the state in play remains to be seen.
Texas is now a purple state, but it’s trending blue right now.