How Republicans could help Democrats break their 23-year losing streak

Photo by Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

Texas Democrats have not won a statewide election since 1994. That’s 129 straight statewide losses! Next year could, however, potentially spell the end to this more than two decade long curse, with Texas Republicans providing Democrats with a critical assist via the passage of legislation eliminating straight-ticket voting in Texas.

Given the myriad gaffes, missteps, mistruths and overall lackluster performance of the young Trump administration, Democrats are optimistic about making electoral advances in targeted races across Texas in 2018. These races include the always competitive CD-23 (held by Will Hurd, R-Helotes), along with two congressional districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016: CD-7 (John Culberson, R-Houston) and CD-32 (Pete Sessions, R-Dallas); in addition to as many as a dozen GOP seats in the Texas Legislature that could be won by credible Democratic candidates in the event of an anti-Trump-inspired blue wave sweeping across the state in November 2018.

However, even the most optimistic Democrats generally believe that a statewide victory under the current rules of the game is beyond their reach in 2018. This belief stems from the Texas electorate’s natural Republican lean, the continued lack of a well-oiled Democratic Party apparatus statewide, the reality that Gov. Greg Abbott is an electoral juggernaut whose well-financed campaign will mobilize like-minded Texans to turn out to re-elect him, and from the popularity of straight-ticket voting in the state, with approximately three out of every five Texas voters taking the straight ticket option.

Straight-ticket voting allows down-ballot Republican candidates to ride the coattails of popular and well-funded candidates like Gov. Abbott. It also discourages high-quality Democratic candidates from running in down-ballot statewide contests, and major donors from bankrolling those who do run. They have the accurate perception that the straight-ticket option tends to transform the voting process for a majority of voters into a pure partisan choice of the Republican slate vs. the Democrat slate rather than a series of individual contests of Candidate A vs. Candidate B.

Straight-ticket voting’s days in Texas, however, may be numbered. House Bill 25 by state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, passed out of the Texas House on a 86 to 59 vote on May 6 — with seven Republican nays and no Democratic yeas. On May 11, it emerged from the Senate Business & Commerce committee — an odd but propitious choice for an election reform bill. Its next stop was the Senate floor, where on May 17 it was approved 20-10 on party lines, with an amendment that postponed the effective date of the repeal of straight-ticket voting from 2017 to 2020. The bill will now return to the House, which can accept it as amended and send it to Gov. Abbott, reject the amended bill and send it to a conference committee, or let the bill die.

Texas is one of only nine states that still offer voters the straight-ticket option (Michigan passed legislation in 2016 ending straight-ticket voting, but that law was blocked by courts concerned that it would adversely affect African American voters in a disproportionate manner).

If HB 25 passes out of the legislature, is not vetoed by the governor and is not blocked in the courts like the Michigan law, downballot statewide Republican candidates could no longer rely as much on the campaign efforts of the party’s marquee candidates and party-line voting to carry them into office. Likewise, top-tier Democrats may be more willing to challenge these Republicans and major Democratic donors may be more willing to fund a campaign if they know it will be more of a head-to-head battle between the Democratic candidate and their Republican rival than a Blue team vs. Red team contest.

For example, if straight-ticket voting is no longer in effect in 2018 (as would be the case under the original House version of the bill), we should expect Democrats to scout out the statewide GOP herd to identify its weakest members, and then work to recruit high quality candidates to target those weakest links. At present, the two Republicans who would perhaps represent the ripest targets are Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, each of whom is hobbled compared to their colleagues, albeit for different reasons.

Paxton is under indictment on three felony charges of violating state securities laws, with his district court trial pending. It is quite possible that during the 2018 election season Paxton could still be tangled in his legal fight. That could provide an opening for a top-tier and well-funded Democratic challenger — e.g., former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, state Rep. Rafael Anchia — to wrest control of the third most powerful position within the state’s plural executive. A significant number of regular GOP voters could conceivably be convinced to cross over and vote for a Democratic candidate based on the argument that it’s preferable to have an attorney general unblemished by personal legal difficulties while serving as the state’s chief legal and law enforcement officer.

Miller’s current tenure in office alone provides ample fodder for a challenger. This would include, among other things, the “Jesus Shot” controversy, his tendency to disseminate “fake news” and Miller’s unilateral attempt to allow for the widespread poisoning of feral hogs without having engaged in sufficient due diligence in the opinion of a majority of Republicans.

Since HB 25 holds the promise of ending its remarkable two-decade-plus run, why is the Texas GOP working to create its own Stay Puft Marshmallow Man to ruin the streak? Especially since Democrats would likely use the enactment of HB 25 as further evidence in their long-shot effort to get Texas placed back under Voting Rights Act pre-clearance requirements based on claims of an on-going pattern of intentional discrimination (e.g., redistricting legislation, the 2011 voter ID law, and now HB 25).

Four possible, and not mutually exclusive, answers come to mind.

One, Republicans believe that more Republican than Democratic voters who presently vote straight ticket will largely continue to do by going race-by-race down the ballot.

Two, Republicans believe this reform will increase wait times at polling places, and that prospective Democratic voters will be more discouraged than prospective Republican voters.

Three, Republicans are willing to risk rare potential statewide defeats in order to help prevent more common countywide sweeps and near-sweeps such as took place in purple and light blue counties like Bexar, Dallas and Harris in 2016.

Four, Republicans believe that straight-ticket voting harms the state’s democratic process by encouraging voters to ignore the quality and characteristics of the individual candidates competing for public office.

And why do Democrats oppose something that could allow them to snap the GOP’s statewide streak? In a nutshell, what may be good for the Democratic Party statewide is not necessarily good for many incumbent legislators who were elected under the current straight-ticket voting rules or for Democrats in purple (e.g., Bexar, Harris) and blue (e.g., Cameron, Dallas, El Paso, Hidalgo, Travis) counties where Democratic sweeps or near-sweeps are common and/or hold the potential to become more common in the future.

Even after being separated from the herd by the elimination of straight-ticket voting, both Paxton and Miller would still be favored to win in 2018. However, absent the straight-ticket option, they would no longer be considered virtual sure-things, given the weaker GOP coattails, the greater probability of Democrats recruiting top-tier challengers with ample campaign resources and the potential for President Trump’s unpopularity and poor performance ratings to depress support for Republican candidates across the country.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Mark P. Jones

Fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute