The battle for the Texas House and future control of the US House
The most important state legislative election in 2020 is for the Texas House of Representatives. If Democrats flip the Texas House, they will be able to prevent a Republican partisan U.S. House gerrymander in 2021. But if Republicans retain control, they will be able to draw themselves tailor-made U.S. House districts. The difference could be as large as a net shift of a half-dozen seats between the two parties in 2022 and beyond. A Democratic flip in Texas would dampen national Republican hopes of taking back the U.S. House in the future, while a Republican save would boost GOP hopes.
The Texas congressional redistricting plan requires approval by the Texas House, Senate and governor. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s term lasts until 2023, and the Republican-controlled Texas Senate majority is rock solid. The GOP’s weak flank is the Texas House.
If Republicans retain control of the Texas House, the 2021 map will be drawn exclusively by Republicans to maximize Republican U.S. House victories among the 38 or 39 seats to be apportioned to the Lone Star State in 2021.
If Texas Democrats flip the Texas House, the Senate Republican majority and House Democratic majority will each draw dueling congressional maps, neither of which is likely to be approved by the rival chamber. The two maps would have to be reconciled by the courts, resulting in a relatively neutral redistricting plan. Unlike the case for U.S. House seats, if the Texas House and Senate cannot agree on the maps for their own districts, the GOP-dominated Texas Legislative Redistricting Board draws them.
Texas is the cornerstone of the U.S. House Republican Conference, accounting for 23 of its 201 members in 2020, with only three other state GOP delegations even reaching the double digits (Florida-14, Ohio-12, North Carolina-10). Texas is also the only state that is a lock in 2021 to increase its number of U.S. House seats by two (to 38), and the only state with the potential for a three seat gain (to 39).
But Texas is also an increasingly competitive state, where the baseline Republican vote is now only between 5 and 10 percent greater than that of the baseline Democratic vote statewide. Under a neutral redistricting plan, Texas Democrats could expect to have the advantage (by degrees ranging from overwhelming to very slightly) in approximately 18 or 19 of the 39 districts, while Texas Republicans could expect to have the advantage in approximately 20 or 21. Under a partisan redistricting plan, it would be possible for Republicans to draw districts in which the GOP U.S. House candidate would (at least initially) be advantaged (to varying degrees) in 24 to 26 of the 39 districts. In sum, the potential net-gain to the U.S. House Republican caucus could be up to six seats if Republicans retain control of the Texas House, with a potential net-loss of up to six seats if Democrats flip the House.
Today, 123 of the 150 Texas House districts are virtual locks for either the Republican (65) or Democratic (58) candidate. In eight other districts a party’s candidate (two Democrats and six Republicans) is likely to win.
Nineteen Texas House districts are seriously in play as we approach November 3. Seven are held by Democratic incumbents who flipped the seat in 2018, with five leaning toward the Democratic candidate and two toss up races where both the Democratic and Republican candidate have a relatively equal chance of victory.
Six are held by a set of very vulnerable Republicans, with one leaning toward the Democratic candidate and five toss ups. Six are leaning toward the GOP candidate.
The most direct Democratic path to flipping the Texas House, via a net-gain of at least nine seats, involves retaining all seven of the party’s most vulnerable seats, sweeping the six most vulnerable GOP-held seats and then besting the Republican candidate in three of the six districts presently leaning Republican to create a 76 to 74 majority. But, if Democrats lose any of their seven most vulnerable seats or fail to capture one or more of the six most vulnerable GOP seats, they will need to make up for it by winning additional seats in the lean Republican category or, among the six districts where the Republican is now considered likely to win.
National and Texas Democrats and Republicans realize the importance of these 27 competitive (from likely to toss up) Texas House races. This cycle the Democratic and Republican candidates in these 27 districts have so far received $35.3 million in contributions ($18.8 million for Republicans and $16.5 million for Democrats), with the total amount of contributions in these 27 districts eventually expected to top $55 million (i.e., an average of more than $2 million per district).
The most likely scenarios have the Republicans retaining control of the Texas House with a narrow one- to five-seat majority. That said, Democratic prospects for taking control of the Texas House are much better in 2020 than at any time in the past decade, with at least a one-in-three chance of flipping the Texas House, which Democrats lost control of in 2002.
Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University as well as a co-author of “Texas Politics Today.” Follow him on Twitter @MarkPJonesTX.