RICHARDSON – It’s not easy to explain redistricting in Texas, but Brandy Chambers, a Democrat running for Republican state Rep. Angie Chen Button’s suburban Dallas seat, is willing to give it a try.
“Now you’re gonna have to hold on to your britches and let me walk you through it because it’s not a direct A+B+C,” Chambers playfully warns a gaggle of her supporters in a dimly lit back room of the Ye Shire Tavern at a summer campaign event.
The 46-year-old lawyer animatedly points to a few “nice, very expensive” homemade poster boards propped up on a table as she regales three dozen campaign volunteers and supporters with talking points on redistricting, top of mind for many state legislators and politically minded people these days, even if the process won't start in earnest for another 15 months.
“Now the Texas House and the Texas Legislature are the ones that are responsible for drawing those lines and determining who gets to vote where in 2021,” Chambers says as she bumps into one of her posters with colorful maps and charts. “This is pivotal. And now that the Supreme Court has declared that political gerrymandering is not their business ... then that means it is on us to basically set our own rules and to keep this accountable.”
The practice of reshaping political boundaries following the decennial U.S. census has long been a familiar political tug-of-war between Democrats and Republicans. For most of the last decade, Democratic lawmakers, civil rights advocates and other groups have been fighting the state’s maps — drawn in 2011 by a Republican-majority Legislature and redrawn in 2013, after a slew of legal challenges, also by a Republican-majority Legislature — arguing that they disadvantage voters of color.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that Texas lawmakers did not intentionally discriminate against voters of color in 2013 in 10 of the 11 Texas House and congressional districts being challenged in court. The one exception was a House district in the Fort Worth area that the high court said was illegally drawn using race as the main factor.
During the 2021 legislative session, state lawmakers will again take a stab at redrawing the state’s political boundaries — this time, for the first time in decades, without federal oversight.
But first it’s up to voters to decide in 2020 whether Republicans or Democrats will control that complicated process in the House. For Chambers — who lost to Button by 2.2 percentage points, or 1,100 votes, in 2018 — Democrats have a real chance at picking up the nine seats needed to claim control of the lower chamber.
Democrats are looking to flip 22 GOP-held seats and Republicans are targeting 12 Democratic seats, creating a wide-open battleground map, ranging from Corpus Christi to North Texas, but centered in the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Austin.
“This year, this race, is going to be different. … I’ve already kind of got the stick house together. Now I’ve got to just move in the furniture,” Chambers told the American-Statesman while sipping on a drink before her campaign event.
Button declined to comment, but her spokesman, Craig Murphy, said Democrats are off base with their predictions of continued gains in the Texas House. Instead, he said, it will be Republicans who will win back seats in 2020.
Murphy, a Republican consultant at Murphy Nasica, noted that midterm elections historically are worse for the party of the president, while the momentum swings back in favor of the president’s party in a presidential election year.
“These trends could be impacted by the economy or an unpopular war,” Murphy said. “But Texas and the U.S. has a strong economy and low unemployment rate right now, and there are no new wars that have become unpopular.”
Flipping the House
Many things excite Democrats about the upcoming election — among them, shifting demographics in suburban areas and a ballooning number of new voters who could align themselves with Democrats, the potential for a polarizing president at the top of the ticket who could put off some Republican voters and huge sums of money flowing into the state from national Democratic groups — and they have been quick to toss around the F-word: flipping.
Democrats currently hold 67 of the 150 seats in the House. They snatched away 12 seats from Republicans in 2018. That’s the most House members the party has seen in a decade — at the beginning of the 2009 legislative session, Democrats held 74 seats, compared with Republicans’ 76.
But to flip the House, Democrats need to steal away nine more seats from Republicans in 2020.
A host of Democrats who lost by slim margins in 2018 — like Chambers and fellow Democrat Joanna Cattanach, 38, who was defeated by state Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, by less than a percentage point — say they have reflected on why they lost and tinkered with their strategies heading into the next go around.
Chambers, who said she is eager to expand Medicaid, “correctly reform school finance” and increase equity for women and others in the workplace if she is elected, said she will focus on “micro-targeting” those voting by mail and putting herself in front of at least 10,000 people in the months leading up to the election.
Meanwhile, Cattanach, who has pledged to focus on public education, property taxes and health care in her campaign, is hosting weekly blockwalking events to differentiate herself in a crowded primary, which already features at least two others.
Both parties are sinking large sums of money into Texas. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., headlined an Austin fundraiser last month for Democratic Texas House candidates, and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee committed $100,000 earlier this month to aid the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee in hiring staff and recruiting candidates. On the Republican side, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Lake Jackson, launched a political action committee with $3 million from his campaign account to boost Republican incumbents.
Additionally, a new super PAC called Engage Texas took in nearly $10 million between mid-April, when it formed, and the end of June, hoping to register hundreds of thousands of new Republican voters and maintain the Republican majority in the House.
James Dickey, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, said that, while the party is “doing significantly more of everything this election cycle,” it is not charting a reactionary course.
“We’re not reacting to what Democrats’ campaigns are doing right now,” Dickey said. “We’re continuing to build on the 16 years of success since Republicans first took control of the House.”
Another bright spot for Democrats — and a hint that the state could be turning purple — is Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s narrow loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2018. But Republicans are quick to point out that there is no Democrat with O'Rourke's appeal running for a statewide seat in 2020.
“I don’t think that the up-ballot margin in 2020 is going to be 2.6 percentage points like it was in 2018,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak told the Statesman. He predicted that U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is seeking a fourth term next year, "is going to win by a healthy margin — 5-6 percentage points, maybe 6-8.”
But Cattanach said she wants Republicans to keep banking on a fleeting Beto effect.
“The Republicans in this state constantly preach the same mantra — Beto Effect, Beto Effect, Beto Effect, Beto Effect — and I want them to keep telling themselves that day after day because as long as they keep believing it, they’re not working,” Cattanach said.
Beto effect or not, Mackowiak, who is also the Travis County GOP chairman, said the path to flipping the House is not as clear cut as Democrats make it out to be. In addition to gaining ground, Democrats also need to hold the seats they took in 2018, and he said that “there’s a very clear path to (Republicans) taking back three or four seats.”
“If you make their magic number 12 or 13, rather than nine, that’s a different proposition,” Mackowiak said.
In an analysis of roll-call votes taken during the past legislative session, Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, ranked House members from most liberal to most conservative. He found that the 12 Democrats who took Republican seats in 2018 — those he called the “Democratic Dozen” — voted on the liberal end of the spectrum during the session, which could complicate their reelection bids.
“One response by these 12 legislators to this threat in their first (tabula rasa) session in the Texas Legislature could have been to adopt centrist voting records on the House floor, following the successful model of Republican Sarah Davis (R-Houston), who has continuously won in a purple district by having a purple record,” Jones wrote in his analysis.
“These dozen Democratic legislators, however, have categorically rejected that option,” Jones said.
GOP playing offense
State Rep. Vikki Goodwin of Austin — one of the Democratic Dozen — sipped coffee on a recent morning at the Civil Goat Coffee Co. in Austin’s Cuernavaca neighborhood during one of her regular Constituent Coffee Chats.
Her conversation with the dozen or so people gathered to hear from the freshman legislator shifted from school finance, to high school students’ financial literacy, to issues with a local RV park, to groundwater districts, to the southern border.
Neither Goodwin nor the gathered group expressed too much concern for the five Republicans looking to flip Goodwin’s western Travis County district, which includes Bee Cave and Lakeway.
But toward the end of the coffee chat, Goodwin who defeated Republican Paul Workman by less than 5 percentage points in the last election, acknowledged the need “to keep my name out there” amid what could be a shaky path to reelection.
“We’re going to do a lot … all 12 of us,” Goodwin says, while emphasizing her commitment to “get more people to vote.”
Democrats John Bucy III, D-Austin, James Talarico, D-Round Rock and Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, also took Republican seats last year and are being targeted by the GOP in 2020.
Don Zimmerman, a former Austin City Council member is among the candidates seeking to challenge Goodwin. He said his focus on local issues can make him stand out on the ticket. Zimmerman recently sued the city of Austin after the council decided to spend taxpayer money on abortion-access services.
“At this point, I’m ready to go to the Texas Legislature because it has authority over Austin,” he said.
Zimmerman predicts it’s unlikely that Democrats will seize control of the House because of, among other things, their opposition to President Donald Trump and the U.S. House Democrats’ ongoing impeachment inquiry.
“They have decided to consume themselves with an irrational campaign against Trump,” Zimmerman said. “I think they’re going to lose seats in the Texas House because they’re going to be so abominable.”
Other Republican House challengers are seeking common ground with Republican and Democratic voters.
Roan Forgey, another Republican hoping to challenge Goodwin, said the end of straight ticket voting will mean that voters will have to pay more attention to who's on their ballots, which could impact Republicans. She’s looking to set herself apart in the district as a “fiscally conservative and socially moderate” candidate.
“It was a solidly Republican seat. Now, it’s a purple seat,” Roan Forgey said. “To not respect that fact is shortsighted and unfortunate.”