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“Is Texas turning blue?”
It’s a perennial question in national politics, one that usually comes up and then disappears as the election approaches and Texas, where Democrats haven’t won a statewide race since 1994, proves yet again to be a Republican stronghold.
But with a massive surge in early voting — Texas’s vote totals from early voting outstripped the total number of ballots cast in 2016 — the thought of a purpling or even blue Lone Star State has only grown stronger in 2020.
Abhi Rahman, the communications director for Texas Democratic Party, feels optimistic about Democratic wins “up and down the ballot.” And the momentum, he said, is coming from women.
“It’s women who are getting out to vote, it’s women who are leading our party and it’s women who are really the driving factor behind the change that we’re seeing in the state.”
So if the fabled blue Texas finally happens, women will be behind the shift. Here are five key races to watch.
U.S. House seats
Of the four Texas congressional districts where Democrats have devoted substantial time and attention, two feature women, and the third is an all-woman race.
Former state senator Wendy Davis and her pink Mizuno running shoes captured national attention in 2013, when she waged an 11-hour filibuster of an omnibus anti-abortion bill. Davis attempted to use that national spotlight as a springboard for a 2014 gubernatorial campaign, but was defeated by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott by more than 20 points.
Now, Davis is back, and it appears a Republican trouncing won’t be part of the narrative in this race.
She’s running against incumbent Republican Rep. Chip Roy for Texas’ 21st Congressional District. Roy first ran for his seat in 2018, when longtime Rep. Lamar Smith didn’t run for reelection. But Roy had a much less decisive path to victory than Smith typically had in the long-standing consevative district: Roy edged out his Democratic challenger by less than 3 percentage points.
Davis’ reputation (experts note that she entered the race with stronger recognition than her challenger) and the changing district — which includes two rapidly growing metropolitan areas — could mean a Democratic victory for the first time since 1979. The Cook Political Report lists the race as a toss-up.
There are plenty of Texas races that are newly competitive for Democrats in 2020. The Texas 23rd Congressional District is not one of them. The hulking border district has handed power back and forth between Democrats and Republicans for decades, but it has never been represented by a woman. Gina Ortiz Jones wants to change that.
Jones is running against Republican Tony Gonzalez for the seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Will Hurd. Jones ran for the seat in 2018 and was narrowly beat by Hurd, the incumbent, losing by 926 votes out of nearly 206,000 cast.
The contest between Jones and Gonzalez, both military veterans, will be tight, but the Cook Political Report says it leans Democratic. If she is elected, Jones will be the first Filipina-American in Congress.
Republican incumbent Kenny Marchant announced in August 2019 that he would not run for reelection for Texas’ 24th Congressional District, situated between Dallas and Fort Worth. Since then, Democrats have set their sights on flipping the district, which has been held by Republicans since Marchant was elected in 2005.
Two women have emerged as candidates. Democrat Candace Valenzuela, an educator and member of her local school board, would be the first Black and Latinx member of Congress if she wins the election. She is running against Republican Beth Van Duyne, who served in the Trump administration and is the former mayor of Irving, which is partially encompassed by the 24th district. The Cook Political Report has the race as leaning Democratic.
In 2018, MJ Hegar, then a candidate for the U.S. House, released a campaign ad detailing the many closed doors she’d faced — as a woman, as a member of the military, as a constituent. The viral video put Hegar on the map, drawing 2 million views in a week. Hegar, a combat veteran, lost her race to Republican incumbent Rep. John Carter by less than 3 percentage points, the closest Carter has come to losing in nine congressional elections.
Now, the Democrat is running against Sen. John Cornyn, who has served as a Texas senator for 18 years. From the beginning of the campaign, Cornyn has consistently bested Hegar in the polls, but in the final months the polling gap has narrowed to single digits. The latest Cook Political Report shows the race as a leaning Republican, a far cry from the red wave that crushed Cornyn’s last Democratic opponent, David Alameel, by 27 percentage points in 2014.
If Hegar wins, she would be only the second woman — and first Democratic woman — to represent Texas in the Senate. Texas has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since 2013, but Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat was the closest statewide race for Texas Democrats in decades. That momentum, plus a Democratic push to flip the Senate, has catapulted Hegar’s run into the national spotlight.
Texas House of Representatives
Rahman, with the Texas Democrats, identified the Texas House as their “top priority.”
In 2018, Texas Democrats picked up 12 seats in the Texas House of Representatives. In addition to defending those pickups, they are looking to gain 9 more seats this year and flip the state’s lower chamber.
Policy-wise, that likely won’t make much of a difference, says Mike Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. The gain for Democrats would lie in their ability to influence federal redistricting. This is the last race in Texas before the legislature will redraw districts to reflect the 2020 census.
“It would take it from Republicans having complete control to Democrats being able to block a Republican gerrymander of the U.S. House seats,” Jones said.
And the 81 women running for the Texas state House could have an impact on the outcome.
“They’ve made some of these races more competitive, particularly by taking advantage of the dissonance that Donald Trump has created between Anglo-women and the Republican Party. They’ve been better able to peel off that vote than male candidates have been,” Jones said.
Although the overwhelming majority of women candidates for the Texas House are Democrats — 64 of the 81 — Jones notes that Republicans have done a good job of recruiting women to run for open seats or against vulnerable Democrats.
Currently, only 35 women serve in the Texas House.
Alexis Lanza contributed to this report.