How Republicans Kept Texas Red

November 19, 2020

Democrats seemed to do everything right to turn Texas blue this year. Joe Biden won 5,211,406 votes, 1.3 million more than Hillary Clinton in 2016 and 1.9 million more than President Obama in 2012. The Democrats’ Senate candidate this year, M.J. Hegar, received the second-highest vote total ever for a Democrat in Texas: 4,844,433.

Democrats also mounted well-funded campaigns to flip six Texas congressional seats, outraising Republicans $28 million to $17 million. Anticipating a 2022 gubernatorial bid, Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke ran the Democrats’ registration and turnout efforts.

Even more astonishing, Mr. Obama and his former attorney general, Eric Holder, led an effort to mobilize a galaxy of outside groups against a dozen Republican state representatives, aiming to take control of the Texas House by defeating at least nine. These groups spent $61 million.

It all came to nothing. President Trump received 5,860,096 votes, 1.2 million more than four years ago, and beat Mr. Biden by 648,690. Though Sen. John Cornyn was outspent late in the race, he defeated Ms. Hegar by more than one million votes. Republicans kept those six congressional seats, most by big margins, and Messrs. Obama and Holder didn’t win the Democrats any new state House seats, leaving the GOP majority intact for next year’s redistricting.

Democrats did what they needed to do: increase their turnout dramatically. Give them credit. But it wasn’t nearly enough, as Republicans did even better. How did Republicans do it?

First, with no public fanfare, Republicans undertook two big voter-registration drives. One, which I helped run, used big data, technology and volunteers from the Texas Federation of Republican Women, College Republicans and county GOP organizations. Mr. Cornyn lent a wily former state GOP chairman, Steve Munisteri, to travel Texas stirring up volunteers and enthusiasm while the program’s director, Mitch Carney, led an effort that added 212,972 new Republicans to the voter rolls—at a cost of $7.90 each. The other effort, by the super PAC Engage Texas, used traditional methods, hiring nearly 200 workers to stand outside Department of Motor Vehicles offices and knock on doors. Before it was shut down by Covid-19, it registered another 105,697 Republicans at a cost of $70.10 each.

The combined total of 318,669 new Republicans would constitute almost half of Mr. Trump’s statewide margin of victory and one-third of Mr. Cornyn’s. But both efforts focused on key congressional and state House districts. In one congressional seat and at least four state House races, the numbers of new in-district Republican registrations were more than the winning GOP candidate’s margin.

Second, Texas Republicans mounted a big get-out-the-vote operation. Mr. Cornyn benefited from such efforts when he was elected a state Supreme Court justice in 1990 and state attorney general in 1998. Last year he directed his campaign manager, John Jackson, and Mr. Munisteri to re-create such an effort for this fall. They picked a young operative, Spencer Davis, to run it.

The Texas Victory Committee used microtargeting to identify low-propensity voters who needed extra encouragement to turn out, as well as swing suburban voters (especially women) and persuadable Hispanics. Mr. Davis’s staff of 40 worked with an army of volunteers to canvass 1.3 million doors, complete 3.1 million calls, and send 24.1 million text messages, supported by seven million pieces of mail, including slate mailers to encourage Republicans to vote for down-ballot offices, since Texas recently abolished straight-ticket voting. This totals 35.5 million voter contacts.

Third, Republican messaging was strong. Texas Republicans pummeled Democrats over their radical agenda: higher taxes, attacks on fracking and oil and gas, a federal takeover of health care, repeal of the state’s right-to-work law, and flirtation with socialism and defunding the police. The Cornyn campaign used Ms. Hegar’s declaration that “what Democrats need to do differently is not compromise and not become moderate” to show she was a left-winger. GOP candidates for the House and the state Legislature also made use of their opponents’ ultraliberal views.

State House Republicans found they could run on their records, pointing to increases in teacher pay and school funding, protections for pre-existing conditions and an end to surprise medical billing, property-tax reform, mandatory jail time for human and sex trafficking and a state constitutional amendment, approved last session, to ban a state income tax. The state’s popular GOP governor, Greg Abbott, reinforced this message, campaigning for state House candidates and putting an unprecedented $6 million into their races.

In short, Texas Republicans took the election seriously, returned to basic blocking and tackling, emphasized a winning conservative message, and contrasted it with the increasingly left-wing views of Texas Democrats. The result was a huge increase in turnout among targeted groups and a GOP win. Texas became even redder.

Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?


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