In deep-red Texas, Republicans will have to fight for every seat in Congress during next year's midterm elections. For the first time in 25 years, Democrats are running in all of Texas' 36 congressional districts, according to documents filed with the Texas Secretary of State's office.
Those filings set a record for the number of Democratic challengers in an era of Republican dominance, says Mark Jones, political science fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute. It is a departure from 2016, he says, when eight Republican-held congressional seats went uncontested by Democrats.
"We are seeing a groundswell of unusually high support and mobilization among progressive Democrats who are really angered by the Trump administration," Jones said.
Even though Democrats are more motivated than they've been in years, Texas remains a mostly Republican state. The GOP swept every statewide race in 2016, and Donald Trump won the state by nine percentage points.
While the margin was closer than in many years before, it's still a big gap for Texas Democrats to close.
Democrats aren't just gunning for congressional seats. According to preliminary numbers from the Texas Democratic Party, Democrats are running in 89 percent of the seats in the Texas House and 88 percent of the seats in the Texas Senate. Both are the highest percentages the party has mustered since at least 1992.
"We are seeing Democrats come out to run not only for the goal of challenging and doing something to voice their opposition to President Trump," Jones said. "But we are seeing Democrats come out in several districts where, in the past, Democrats had no chance whatsoever and had a difficult time recruiting top-quality candidates."
Historically, the opposition party can make big gains in Congress during the first midterm election after a presidential election. For example, Republicans won back the U.S. House in 2010 after the election of President Obama in 2008.
Jones says resistance to President Trump's policies has led to "enthusiasm and mobilization," particularly among more left-leaning Democrats. But he says that doesn't mean that Democrats can expect huge gains in dependably Republican Texas.
"Outside of [congressional district] 23, held by Will Hurd, all of the Republican-held districts today, more likely than not, will stay Republican-held districts," Jones said. "But they are not locks, and certainly we can't consider them to be sure things."
Jones says it will take a perfect storm for Texas Democrats to make significant gains in Congress. He says Trump's approval ratings will have to continue to decline, Democrats will have to continue to out-fundraise their Republican opponents, and Republican candidates will have to make a lot of mistakes.
Tariq Thowfeek, a spokesperson with the Texas Democratic Party, says he is optimistic Texas Democrats could help the party take control of the U.S. House.
"Democrats need 24 seats to take back the House," he says. "I think four of those seats can come from Texas."
But Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist in Austin, says flipping four Republican-held seats in Texas won't be easy.
"This has the potential to be more competitive statewide," says Steinhauser. "Although, I would think most Republicans would say that we are still probably not going to lose any incumbents this cycle."
Texas' congressional map doesn't favor Democrats. Federal courts have ruled that the congressional map drawn by the GOP-led Texas Legislature intentionally discriminates against minority voters, which tends to hurt Democratic candidates. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has put a hold on the effects of those rulings as it weighs a gerrymandering case from Wisconsin.
Democrats could have a shot at unseating Republicans in congressional districts that Hillary Clinton won last year. Democrats are eyeing three of those districts:
- 7th District, which is currently held by Rep. John Culberson
- 23rd District, which is currently held by Rep. Will Hurd
- 32nd District, which is currently held by Rep. Pete Sessions
All three of those incumbents have filed for re-election, and Steinhauser says he doesn't think they're as vulnerable as Democrats hope.
"Those three members of Congress overperformed Donald Trump on the ballot and they did win re-election," Steinhauser says. "So, if you are looking ahead to 2018, it does seem like they are going to win in 2018 given that Republicans do tend to do better in midterms than they do in the presidential years."
A lot of that depends on turnout, though. Steinhauser says the key to Republicans' keeping voters engaged is to deliver on some of their promises, including the GOP tax plan.
"I don't see that changing too much in this next election cycle, but I do look to see the Democratic turnout to be higher than it probably ever has been in a midterm election in Texas," Steinhauser says.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
After Doug Jones' victory in Alabama, Democrats are targeting other deep red states in next year's midterms. Texas is one of them, and for the first time in decades, each of Texas' 36 congressional districts will have a Democrat in the race. Here's more from Ashley Lopez from member station KUT.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: In front of a small crowd of supporters in Austin, Lupe Valdez filed paperwork with the Texas secretary of state's office last week. She's the Dallas County sheriff, and she filed to run for Texas governor as a Democrat.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Congratulations. You're filed for the office of the governor.
LOPEZ: This is a big change from last year when Democrats didn't run any candidate in some races, including eight for Congress. Now, many Democrats are running for the first time and in seats they don't typically have a shot at.
MANNY GARCIA: We've recruited more candidates for Congress, House and Senate, than in any time in modern history.
LOPEZ: That's Manny Garcia with the Texas Democratic Party. Like a lot of Democrats across the country, Garcia says Texas Democrats are responding to growing frustration with the Trump administration.
GARCIA: So I think what we're seeing is that in every single corner of the state, there is a tremendous amount of energy. Folks are marching. Folks are organizing. And now folks are running for office. And that's really the start of what we can do to build a wave here in Texas as well.
LOPEZ: To flip Congress, Democrats would need to win at least 24 seats in the U.S. House currently held by Republicans. Here in Texas, Garcia thinks Democrats can win four of them. The party has its eye on three seats in particular that were won by Hillary Clinton last year. But flipping those seats won't be easy, says Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser.
BRENDAN STEINHAUSER: I think most Republicans would say that we're still probably not going to lose any incumbents this cycle.
LOPEZ: Steinhauser says those three districts are still pretty safe for Republicans, and he says Texas is still a staunchly conservative state.
STEINHAUSER: I don't see that changing too much in this next election cycle, but I do look to see the Democratic turnout to be higher than it probably ever has been in a midterm election in Texas.
LOPEZ: Steinhauser says history is on the Democrats' side, too. The opposition party typically has an edge in midterm elections. Texas Democrats say if their voters do turn out in droves next year, for the first time in a long time they will at least all have a Democrat to vote for on their ballot.
For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.
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