Analysis: After an encouraging 2018, Texas Democrats taking some risks

Texas Tribune News

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, announced Monday that he's running for the U.S. Senate against John Cornyn.
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, announced Monday that he’s running for the U.S. Senate against John Cornyn.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

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Not so long ago, the Democrats challenging incumbent Republicans in Texas were a peculiar mix of ambitious, dutiful, brave, optimistic and bananas.

Many of them were at the end of whatever political term they were serving, deciding to go out with a one-in-a-million challenge that might put their party back on the boards. That’s arguably how Beto O’Rourke started his race against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, as an unknown backbench congressman from El Paso who was punctuating a self-imposed term limit by running against a controversial but well-known conservative in a red state.

That race was news because O’Rourke caught on. If he hadn’t, he’d be on the same page of the political history book as Paul Sadler, David Alameel, Rick Noriega and Barbara Ann Radnofsky — the last four Democratic nominees in general elections for U.S. Senate in Texas.

Some of the party’s rising stars — Annise Parker, then the mayor of Houston, and Julián and Joaquin Castro, then the mayor of and a state legislator from San Antonio — told reporters at a state Democratic convention in 2012 that it was the wrong time for them to run for statewide office. They talked up other candidates and said they’d be interested in the future. But that was not the day they were interested.

The reluctance was evident in the 2018 cycle, too, when none of the big names on the Democratic side of Texas politics were willing to challenge incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. Instead, Democrats were given the choice of Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez; Andrew White, the son of the late Gov. Mark White; and seven others. Valdez won the primary and finished 13 percentage points behind Abbott in the general election.

Taken by itself, that would be fresh evidence for an old question: How crazy is it for a Democrat to jump into a top-of-the-ballot race in Texas, especially against an established Republican?

But that governor’s race was the outlier in a year when Democrats finished close enough behind Republicans in statewide races to change the risk assessments of incumbent Republicans and ambitious Democrats.

Democrats are jumping into races they used to duck. O’Rourke and Julián Castro are running for president, and some national pundits are openly (and a little breathlessly) saying Texas might be a swing state soon. Wendy Davis is running for Congress against freshman U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin — her first race after a 19.4-point loss to Abbott in the 2014 race for governor.

Before you turn up your nose at that contest, look at what’s been happening in CD-21: The average statewide Republican won by 23 percentage points in 2014, by 18 percentage points in 2016 and by 6.7 percentage points in 2018. Cruz barely won in the district last year. Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican incumbent, finished behind Democrat Justin Nelson in that district last year.

The numbers have changed in that Hill Country district, and so have the risk assessments for challengers. That hasn’t happened in every district in the state, but it’s happened in enough of them to have people talking about competition for the first time in a long time.

And after poring over the down-ballot results from 2018 — net Democratic pickups of three congressional seats, one state Senate seat and a dozen state House seats — the minority party has become more attractive to prospective candidates — and candidates who have big names — in races for the statehouse and Congress.

The Democrats still have work to do in statewide races, where unproven candidates are still the norm. State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, joined the growing pack of challengers to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. West starts from more or less the same launch pad used by O’Rourke — that of a candidate with a local following in one part of a state where most voters have never heard of him. It’s the same for many of West’s announced opponents: MJ Hegar of Round Rock, one of the party’s 2018 stars for almost pulling off an upset of U.S. Rep. John Carter; Amanda Edwards, an at-large City Council member from Houston; and Chris Bell of Houston, a former member of the City Council and Congress, and an unsuccessful candidate for governor (in 2006) and mayor (in 2014). Other than Bell, none has appeared on a statewide ballot, and Bell hasn’t been in front of statewide voters for more than a decade.

By the numbers, Texas is still a Republican-leaning state. The latest numbers are less red, though, and that’s encouraged a new bunch of prospects who rely less on one of those familiar ingredients up in the first sentence. Bananas.