AUSTIN — The biggest surprise in the Texas midterm elections was that there were no big surprises. Results shook out much as they had in elections prior.
Texas Republicans took all 12 of the statewide races, continuing a three-decade long rule, but fell short of making significant gains in both the state House and Senate, leaving leadership of the Lone Star State much the same as it was on Nov. 7.
“For the average Texan, life is going to look more or less the same for the next two years,” said O'Dell Tannehill, from the political science department at the University of North Texas. “Overall, it appears that Texans like the way Texas is governed and is going and so the next couple of years will look a lot like the last couple in terms of what our state government tries to pass or tries to do.”
But if there was a big takeaway following Tuesday’s results, it's that the moves made by Texas Republicans have further solidified their party’s hold on the state.
On Tuesday, and throughout early voting, millions of Texans cast ballots for the state’s leaders and lawmakers for the next two to four years. While Texas Democrats put up notable contenders — particularly with Beto O’Rourke in the race for governor, Mike Collier for Lt. Gov. and Rochelle Garza for attorney general — national trends favoring Republicans proved too difficult for the state Democratic Party to overcome.
Texas Republicans won with 10-plus percentage point advantages. Even in the race for attorney general - widely considered the most competitive statewide race - Garza fell about 10 points behind embattled incumbent Ken Paxton.
Southern Methodist University Professor of Political Science Cal Jillson said the results are proof that the Republican strategy to shore up safe strongholds during census redistricting worked.
“Because this election really produced very little movement, it solidified Republican control of Texas statewide politics,” Jillson said.
DEMOCRATS DIDN’T LOSE, REPUBLICANS WON
Texas Democrats had an uphill battle.
President Joe Biden has a 41% approval rating as rising inflation is forcing Texans to spread dollars thinner. While unemployment is down, supply chain issues plague industries, further exacerbating prices.
In several polls, Texans said inflation, border security and jobs and the economy were the top issues that were influencing their votes. These issues also played well with Texas Republicans who pushed all the current complaints of rising costs and a surge at the border on Biden and the Democratic Party.
Then, there was all this talk that a “red wave” was coming to South Texas, a traditionally Democratic stronghold that favored Trump in 2020.
Still, Democrats held strong, only losing one of potentially three congressional seats in South Texas. The party also managed to largely hold on to its state legislative seats, maintaining last session’s balance of Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said because the election was so closely tied to national politics, there was not much Texas Democrats could do to try and separate themselves from the larger conversation. This, he said, became an advantage to Republicans.
“Republicans saw this competitive cycle coming for a long time and planned well ahead for it. They raised record-setting amounts of money, they had the most expensive ground game that the state's ever seen, and they were able to defend incumbents,” Rottinghaus said. “Those things altogether made it just an easier route for Republicans. So I guess the way I think of this election is that the Democrats didn't lose the election; the Republicans won the election.”
While Republicans did not perform as well as they had hoped, Jillson said the investments made in South Texas this election are just that — an investment, and it will take several election cycles to see the fruit of that labor.
“(This election cycle) was an introduction of South Texas Hispanics to the Republican Party,” Jillson said. “Some were receptive to that, others not yet convinced. And so I think Republicans have to pay attention, and invest in a series of election cycles before you can be part of the neighborhood.”
As for a Democratic strategy to keep a presence in South Texas, Jillson said Texas Democrats have to pay more attention and work just as hard to maintain relationships, rather than assume they have the voter support because they did previously.
Texas demographics are also changing – the state becoming more Hispanic and Asian, two groups that tend to vote Democratic if they vote at all. Jillson said it will take time, likely multiple election cycles, for the change to be noticed as minority groups first need to gain confidence in their ability to obtain a seat at the table. But in time, the diverse majority will gain the experience needed to win elections.
“Democrats have to pay attention, they have to be more active, and they have to continue to prove themselves,” Jillson said. “I think they'd be wise if they did that.”
It is common for the winning party to push more aggressive legislation, and Tannehill said he believes Texas Republicans will interpret Tuesday’s results as an opportunity for such. Texas lawmakers are set to begin the 88th legislative session on Jan. 10. While legislators are only obligated to pass a budget for the next biennium, they often use the 140 days to also push priority legislation.
Tannehill said he would not be surprised if Republicans were even more aggressive with conservative legislative priorities such as implementing school vouchers — a program that would allow public school dollars to follow a student to a private or homeschooling option.
Rottinghaus said he believes legislation related to minimizing transgender and abortion rights, as well as a greater push for school vouchers will likely take the lead.
“I think that the floodgates of conservative legislation will open,” Rottinghaus predicted.