On The Trail: Texas underscores Democrats’ struggle with voter turnout
A special election to replace the late Rep. Ron Wright (R-Texas) will conclude with a runoff between two leading Republicans after a low-turnout all-party primary between 23 candidates ended with the leading Democratic contender falling just short of second place.
For Democrats, the results serve to underscore a lesson they say they learned the hard way in 2020, one that could decide which party wins control of the House of Representatives in next year’s midterm elections: They have to start showing up.
The final results show that Susan Wright, a Republican activist and the late congressman’s widow, will face state Rep. Jake Ellzey (R) in a runoff election to be scheduled by Gov. Greg Abbott (R).
Jana Lynne Sanchez, the best-funded Democrat who lost to Ron Wright in 2018, finished 354 votes behind Ellzey.
It is the latest disappointment for Democrats who are perpetually hopeful of a breakthrough in the nation’s second-largest state, especially in a suburban and exurban area that former President Trump carried by just 3 percentage points in 2020.
Democrats did not pin their hopes on the district, a seat with a footprint in the Dallas metroplex that their party has not controlled since Phil Gramm became a Republican in 1983. No national Democratic groups or allies spent money on behalf of any of the 10 Democrats in the contest.
“Republican groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a Republican seat to ensure Trump’s candidate won,” said Chris Hayden, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). “We’re focused on protecting the House majority and defeating vulnerable Republicans who voted against COVID relief.”
But the final tally represented a step back for a party that has made Texas a priority in recent years. The 10 Democrats combined to capture 37 percent of the vote, the party’s lowest total in the district since the Republican wave of 2014 and 8 points below the mark Sanchez managed when she ran in 2018.
Democrats contend they had little to gain from spending in a district that is all but certain to look substantially different next year, after the state legislature redraws congressional district boundaries certain to reshape the Dallas-Fort Worth delegation.
“The value of spending in these special elections is always debatable, but that’s especially true in a redistricting cycle when you’re investing in a district that could change dramatically,” said Meredith Kelly, a former top strategist at the DCCC.
Special elections are imperfect harbingers of future political environments. Some send a clear sign that one party has momentum: Special elections won by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and former Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.) in May 1994 presaged that year’s Republican wave. Specials won by former Reps. Don Cazayoux (D-La.) and Travis Childers (D-Miss.) in May 2008 hinted at the coming Democratic wave.
The Texas results do not offer such a tantalizing clue about the current political moment. But they reinforce the key challenge for Democrats hoping to save their narrow majority in the House: Turning out their voters in a midterm election, without the motivating presence of Trump or President Biden on the ticket.
Privately, Democrats say they intend to mount a far more aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign than they did in 2020, especially at the door. Democratic groups suspended door knocking in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic for longer periods than did Republican groups and campaigns.
The imbalance between the two strategies, Democrats believe, helped Republicans maintain their majority in the Texas legislature and earn new votes in the Rio Grande Valley, a heavily Hispanic area where Trump over-performed against his 2016 results.
“We have to both put money and effort into turnout programs and give our voters a reason to vote,” said Ian Russell, another former top DCCC strategist. “Biden has done well with that second part so far, and the prospect of a GOP congressional majority stopping all of his progress could be salient next year.”
Both Democrats and Republicans have evolved the technology of political campaigns to new zeniths in recent years. The two sides can pinpoint the very voters whose opinions will turn an election, and mobilization and persuasion have both become as much science as art.
But all that technology, and the billions of dollars that each party and their outside allies will raise and spend over the next year, remains in the service of the single most basic element of a political campaign: Showing up, knocking on a door, and asking for a vote.
On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on elections.
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