ALLEN, Texas — In a wealthy subdivision north of Dallas, with two-story brick houses tucked close together, Texas state Rep. Jeff Leach pauses beside his black pickup truck to scroll through a voter roll app on his phone.
Leach is a Republican, and just a couple of elections ago, he wouldn’t have had to campaign here at all. In 2016, he beat his Democratic challenger by nearly 17 percentage points. When he first ran for office in 2012, he didn’t even have an opponent.
But two years ago, Leach nearly lost his seat, and this year there is a good chance a Democrat could replace him. The app telling him which house to visit, used by Republican candidates across the country, says this is exactly the type of swing suburban neighborhood Leach needs to win if he’s going to stay in office.
“2018 was a wake-up call for Republicans,” he says.
Leach and his volunteer team are aiming to knock on more than 2,000 doors on this sunny, crisp Saturday in October, 30 days before Election Day. He skips the houses with Trump yard signs and any that the app tells him regularly vote Republican. He wants to reach more moderate voters.
The doors he knocks on are rarely answered; he leaves a door hanger and a handwritten Post-it note with his cell phone number. Finally, after about 30 minutes, someone answers. Leach introduces himself, and the man at the door asks: “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” When Leach replies that he is a Republican, the Allen resident slams the door shut saying, “I’m a Democrat.”
Leach’s district in Collin County — about a 30 minute drive from Dallas and stretching less than 15 miles top to bottom — is emblematic of a broader shift underway in Texas politics. Over the past decade or so, new residents from across Texas, California and other states, drawn by jobs, good schools and low housing costs, have transformed this largely rural, reliably Republican district into a suburban, unpredictable one. “It’s a diverse community. The representation has not kept up with that,” says Lorenzo Sanchez, Leach’s Democratic opponent this year.
Texas Democrats have talked about flipping the state for so long, and failed so many times, that it’s easy to be skeptical of their ambitions. But after years of disappointing losses in statewide races, they believe they have an achievable, if narrower, target this November: For the first time in nearly two decades, Democrats think they can win a majority in the Texas state House.
This is not a story about Texas as a whole turning blue on Nov. 3. The state’s Republican governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general are not up for reelection this year. Republican Sen. John Cornyn maintains a lead, though a narrowing one, over his Democratic challenger, MJ Hegar. The Texas congressional delegation will still be majority-Republican even if Democrats pick up a few seats. The state Senate will remain majority-Republican when the legislature convenes in January. President Donald Trump is also leading Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Texas, though by slim margins.
But in Texas, a blue state House would be a shocker all by itself. The “lege” is a creature of its own in American politics, a deep-red institution that only meets for 140 days on alternate years, and reliably gets caught up in national culture-war issues — stricter and stricter abortion rules, looser and looser gun limits, an anti-transgender rights bathroom bill in 2017 — that are less and less reflective of the state overall. And beyond the symbolic value, control of the state House would give Democrats a say in next year’s redistricting process, in turn laying the groundwork for future gains in Congress. And that looks ahead to an even bigger prize: The battle for the state House might end up being the first step in the Democratic Party’s long-term goal of flipping the nation’s third most populous state.
How close are they? Democrats picked up 12 state House seats in 2018, putting them just nine seats away from controlling the chamber. The state party is targeting 22 state House seats this year, about half of which are in Dallas and its surrounding areas. In nine of those 22 seats, Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke outperformed Republican Ted Cruz in 2018 — a sign that there are likely left-leaning votes waiting to be won.
Texas Democrats have been betting for years that changing demographics would turn the tide and give them more seats. This year, they also hope to benefit from a rupture on the right. An ongoing spat between far-right Republicans and moderates has brought down Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, led to firebrand conservative Allen West being elected chair of the state Republican party and created a rift over state leaders’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump’s growing unpopularity in Texas, especially in places like Collin County, is even dragging down candidates like Cornyn who were once secure in their seats.
And Texas Democrats now have a lot of money — way more than they’ve had in years. The Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee raised more than $3.6 million from July to September — more than double the $1.5 million it raised in the first six months of the year and more than the $1.3 million raised in all of 2018, according to campaign filings. The national party, after years of being accused of ignoring statehouse races, also is pouring cash into Texas. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee is spending $1.1 million on digital ads on Texas state House races. Forward Majority, a national Democratic super PAC, said it will spend more than $12 million on Texas state House races this year, including on ads for Lorenzo Sanchez — up from $2.5 million last cycle.
“Winning the Texas state House this year is key for future power in America,” says Vicky Hausman, co-founder and co-CEO of Forward Majority. “Republicans have long understood that roots of power lie in the statehouse.”
At the same time, this year, Republicans like Jeff Leach will not be caught off guard.
Conservatism runs deep in Texas. It’s been 18 years since Democrats controlled the state House and 26 years since Texas has elected a Democrat to statewide office. Since George W. Bush became governor in 1998, the state has only moved farther to the right. Texas is one of only a dozen states that has yet to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, and it is leading a lawsuit to overturn the federal health law.
With their control of the statehouse, Republican lawmakers have targeted abortion rights, passed one of the harshest immigration enforcement regimes in the country and held a special session to debate a bill that would require people to use the bathroom for the gender listed on their birth certificates. Republican legislators backed down from that bill only in the face of strong business opposition. The state’s GOP leadership hasn’t called a special session to convene during the pandemic, even as more than 17,000 Texans have died of Covid-19.
Faced with a growing minority population, state lawmakers also enacted strict voter ID laws and drew maps in Republicans’ favor during the 2011 redistricting process. Two years later, Texas lawmakers were forced to redraw those maps after federal judges found them to be unconstitutional because they discriminated against minorities. The Supreme Court upheld the current maps two years ago, and, as a result, for many years the only really competitive races in many Texas House districts were Republican primaries.
But Texas has added more than 4 million people in the past decade, with the state’s share of Hispanics and Asian Americans growing rapidly. Much of that growth has taken place in and around the state’s big cities — Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio — making a historically rural state increasingly urban and suburban.
Texas’ new residents are not necessarily Democrats. In fact, they don’t necessarily vote at all. But they give Democrats new people to try to win over. O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign, which generated massive enthusiasm and funds, showed Democrats the potential well of support across the state. More than 2 million Texans voted in this year’s Democratic primary, up from 1.4 million in 2016. And so far this year, more than 4.6 million Texans have already voted early in-person or by mail.
After he dropped out of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, O’Rourke started a political action committee, called Powered by People, to raise money and manpower for Texas Democratic candidates. O’Rourke, who takes part in the group’s phone banks, admits that calling voters isn’t as effective as knocking on doors, which the group had put on hold because of Covid-19. But when people do answer, he says he makes sure to talk up the local statehouse candidate.
“The most gratifying ones are people who say, ‘I didn’t pay attention to this race,’” he said in a recent interview. “A lot of voters in 2018 didn’t go all the way down the ballot.”
On a Saturday in early October, the same day Leach was door-knocking, his opponent, Sanchez, spent the morning at an office parking lot in Richardson, just outside his district, with other Dallas-area Democratic candidates. It was a pandemic version of a meet-and-greet: People drove by in their cars to pick up yard signs and chat with candidates through their rolled-down windows.
Sanchez isn’t happy that his campaign largely has been limited to Zoom events and phone banks. “It’s hard for me not to be out and about right now,” he says. He recently scrapped plans to start knocking on doors again in the final few weeks before the election.
This is the first time that Sanchez, a Mexican American real estate agent, has run for office. He is soft-spoken and earnest, not the prototype of a Texas politician. Still, he placed second in the March primary and eked out a win in the runoff, which was delayed until July because of the coronavirus. Sanchez, who is gay, says his parents spoke Spanish at home and that he didn’t learn English until he started attending public schools. He was 12 when his family moved from the Midwest to Plano, in the district he now hopes to represent. After attending college in Chicago and working briefly in Denver, he settled back in the district in 2018, when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. He launched his campaign in July 2019.
“I don’t think I ever thought I would ever go and get involved in politics,” he admits. “I’m doing this for the people I care about who have been getting the short end of the stick for too long.”
Sanchez’s campaign looks bootstrapped. He posts selfie videos of himself chatting and driving. His nieces, one with epilepsy, make cameos in other videos. He jokes about his roommate, Liz, feeding him. Yet while Leach maintains an overall fundraising lead of about $200,000, Sanchez raised $693,000 between July 5 and Sept. 24, surpassing the $532,000 Leach raised in about the same period.
That’s a major change from 2018, when Democratic candidates were far outspent by their Republican rivals. Two years ago, Brandy Chambers lost to Republican incumbent Angie Chen Button by 1,110 votes in a Dallas County state House district. This time around, Chambers is running against Button with about $800,000, or more than triple the funds she had two years ago. Chambers told me that in 2018 Democratic donors were in denial that some of these races were winnable. But she saw O’Rourke’s near win as a sign that voters would come out of the woodwork if Democratic candidates actually challenged the incumbents.
“It was extremely difficult for me to get any support in 2018 because no one believed this district was winnable,” says Chambers, an employment lawyer in Dallas. “If we stop accepting defeat, maybe we will actually win. Resources have started coming into all of these races. It’s no longer a losing game.”
Hausman, of Forward Majority, says national Democrats are waking up to the idea that they need to invest in local races to build the party’s bench, gain support for candidates farther up the ballot and change state policy. But she criticizes the party for continuing to overinvest in high-profile, long-shot races, pointing to the millions of dollars that have gone into Amy McGrath’s bid to unseat Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. “That is, in many ways, a market failure on the Democratic side,” Hausman says.
Sanchez has been reaching out to local temples, mosques and other minority groups, and his campaign wants to ensure that the county’s newest residents go the polls and make the effort to vote for state representative. He is also hoping to pick up voters who are disillusioned by Trump.
Later that Saturday afternoon, Kathryn Vargas stepped into the Friend & Foe Board Game Café for a Sanchez campaign event in Plano. She wore a Black Lives Matter mask, while her 6-year-old son, Asher, wore a Mario one. They were there to get candy, part of an event organized by a North Texas Democratic women’s group and called “Taste the Blue Wave Road Rally.” At each stop, people picked up free snacks and met Democratic candidates and volunteers, many of them wearing shirts picturing a fork skewering a red elephant. Sanchez spent the afternoon at the café meeting supporters and juggling Zoom events with his phone tripod wedged between two board games.
Vargas says she voted for an independent candidate for president in 2016, a decision she now regrets. “I’m a recovering Republican,” she says. “I felt a lot of guilt.” Vargas, who is white, is married to a Mexican American man, a firefighter. She says last year’s mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart prompted her political change of heart. The shooter is from Allen, graduated from Plano public schools and admitted to officers that he was targeting Mexicans.
“We are coming from the community of the El Paso shooter, who drove 600 miles to kill 23 people who look like my husband and two boys,” Vargas said, while Asher clung to her leg with one hand and two paper cups of candy in the other. Her husband and 19-month old son were waiting in the car. “El Paso changed everything,” says Vargas, who wants state lawmakers to pass gun restrictions.
Sanchez chooses his words carefully on the issue of guns, knowing that he needs centrist voters. He is for universal background checks and other measures to limit the availability of guns, but he is also quick to point out that he supports the Second Amendment. He wants to counter the image Republicans have conjured in campaign ads that he is a radical, far-left liberal who supports abolishing police departments and guns.
“People understand me, that I am not something to be afraid of,” he says.
Polling for these races is scant, but even with the left’s momentum, there are plenty of reasons Sanchez and other well-funded, well-organized Democrats could lose. Not long ago, Democrats pinned their hopes on Wendy Davis beating Greg Abbott in the governor’s race in 2014, and she lost by more than 20 points. And despite O’Rourke’s popularity, he is now back home in El Paso, while Ted Cruz is a senator in Washington.
In a private video call with lobbyists in September, Republican strategist Dave Carney, who advises Abbott, said he believes Democrats are overplaying their hand and that the state House will remain Republican, according to two people who were on the call. Asked about the conversation, Carney told me in a text message that he had told the lobbyists “the Democrat spin was bullshit” and “we would hold the house.” Texas Republicans point to a special election in January in a fast-growing Houston suburb as evidence that their bravado is justified: Republican Gary Gates beat his Democratic challenger, Eliz Markowitz, by 16 percentage points. The two are facing off again in November.
“This is exactly the type of district that [Democrats] need to win,” says Craig Murphy, a consultant for Angie Chen Button. “It was a wipeout for them.”
Still, there’s no doubt that Democratic efforts are putting Republicans on the defensive. Gates had to lend his campaign $1.5 million to keep up with Markowitz’s fundraising efforts. Overall, Democrats in competitive state House races have raised $9.5 million from July 1 to Sept. 24, compared with $3.1 million in the same period in 2018, according to Christopher Tackett, who tracks campaign financing in Texas. Republicans in competitive races raised $10.3 million over that period in 2020, compared with $5.6 million two years ago.
The pressure has already forced policy changes, too. During the 2019 legislative session, chastened by the previous year’s election losses, Republicans focused on property taxes and education reform, largely eschewing controversial social legislation.
As he tries to hold onto his seat, Leach has sought to temper his own image as a conservative hardliner and distance himself from both Trump and state party scandals. Last year, as a committee chair, he blocked a bill that would have allowed women who sought abortions to be charged with homicide — a bill he had co-authored in 2017. He left the far-right Freedom Caucus in 2018, and he says he has changed his mind about the bathroom bill, which he also supported in 2017. One of his campaign ads calls attention to his efforts on criminal justice reform, and features a Democrat exonerated after spending 13 years in prison saying he plans to vote for Leach.
“I don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in Austin or Washington,” says Leach, a lawyer who specializes in commercial and civil litigation, construction law and real estate. “We are confident we have served this district well. This is a local race.”
Other Texas Republicans in tight races are also moderating their positions. Button told The Dallas Morning News that because of the pandemic she would support a version of Medicaid expansion, despite voting against the policy in previous sessions. Button declined to comment for this story, but Murphy, her consultant, maintains that she has always maintained a “complicated position on the issue.”
One challenge for Texas Democrats this year will be getting voters to turn, or scroll, several pages in their ballots to vote for their state representative. This is the first year Texas will not have straight-ticket voting, which previously allowed a voter to cast a ballot for all candidates from one party with a single check mark or button. The change might encourage voters to be more independent in their selections, but it also could help Texas Republicans hoping to distinguish themselves from a president who is more unpopular in the state than previous Republican presidents.
“The straight ticket gets you all the upside and none of the downside with President Trump,” says state Rep. Jim Murphy, vice chair of the Texas House Republican Caucus.
Democrats hope any gains they make in Texas this year aren’t just a short-lived Trump bump. If they can pick up nine seats or even come close, they will be able to influence the race for next Texas House speaker and pick up important committee chair positions, which could have downstream effects. If nothing else, some observers believe the momentum Democrats have generated shows the state is worth the fight.
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, argues that this election won’t sweep in a Democratic revolution in Texas, but that changes are taking place in the state and in the national mood. (Wendy Davis is running again, this time for Congress against freshman Chip Roy, and polling has put them in a dead heat.)
“The idea of Texas turning blue is stupid,” Henson says. “The more realistic version that emerges is that Texas becomes a more competitive state like Florida. … The new steady state becomes an unsteady balance of power.”