Symposium | Halfway Home?

As Texas Goes…

By Elaine Kamarck

Tagged DemocratsElections

The question that has hung over us since Donald Trump was elected President has been: Is he an aberration, or does his election and subsequent presidency indicate some sort of permanent change in American politics? During the past two years I have argued that Trump’s election and presidency are an aberration; the misogyny and racism, the last gasps of a generation that is getting old and losing power. However, as with all questions that are only knowable in hindsight, my conviction that Trump is an aberration consists of wishful thinking and data—in about equal proportions.

The data draw me to Texas. Sometimes the most interesting feature of an election is not who wins but who loses. And for me at this midpoint in the Trump presidency, it’s Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s loss in the Senate race in Texas that interests me the most.

We all know that Texas is one of the most bellicose of all the red states. No Democrat has won a statewide office there since 1994. Since 2002, Republicans have controlled the governorship and both houses of the state legislature. And it hasn’t voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1976, when a fellow Southerner, Jimmy Carter, was on the ticket and after the Republican President, Richard Nixon, had resigned in disgrace just ahead of impeachment.

But midway through Donald Trump’s first term, the fact that a Democrat turned the Senate race there into a squeaker, and that Democrats won two House seats and 12 state legislative seats, makes me wonder if we aren’t finally seeing the maturation of one of the nation’s largest minority groups. According to CNN exit polls, Latinos were 17 percent of the Texas vote in 2014, 24 percent of the state’s vote in 2016, and 26 percent in 2016. In addition, in Texas, as elsewhere in the nation, younger voters were heavily Democratic. Fully 39 percent of the voters in the Texas exit poll were under the age of 44, and 61 percent of Texas voters 45 and older. O’Rourke won the younger voters, and Cruz won the older voters.

Of course we’ve heard this minority and youth argument before, and it hasn’t always worked out. As we just saw, young voters don’t turn out as much as older voters. But young voters turn into older voters and we know from the research on political socialization that they tend to carry their early partisan identification with them. It’s not that demographic change isn’t real. It’s that for those counting on it, it’s excruciatingly slow.

Nonetheless, states and districts do change. All we have to do is look back to the history books at Vermont, which was so Republican that it was one of only two states to vote against Franklin Delano Roosevelt all four times! But today Vermont is probably the most liberal state in the union, home to Senator Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist. What happened? A steady wave of migration from liberal New Yorkers seeking a bucolic setting transformed the politics of the state.

One of these days Texas could be a great prize for Democrats. Of course, they have to control their more extreme left-wing impulses so that they solidify the Latino vote (which is not as reliably Democratic as the African-American vote) and so they don’t scare voters who might be wavering in their partisan instincts back into the arms of the Republican Party. Democrats also have to remember that in the near future they have to figure out how to win white voters back. Not all of them, but enough to maybe make that red state purple.

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Elaine Kamarck is a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program as well as the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution.

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