Calibrating Expectations for 2018: three cases

If you’ve read my previous posts, then you know that I am taking the position of an exceptional optimist when it comes to Democrats’ chances in November of 2018. But even so, I am willing to admit that since these elections are 18 months or so away, many events are yet to unfold which will affect the outcome. Thankfully, national prognosticators will be working around the clock from now until then, mass-producing predictions on the fate of Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and most especially Paul Ryan.

Texans may have some trouble translating the national conventional wisdom–whatever it may be at any moment in the upcoming cycle–into realistic expectations for local results back home. Therefore, I am going to lay out  the three most probable broad outcomes for the 2018 general election and what they would mean for Texas. (It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to realize there’s at least 2 more possible cases, even before one starts talking about coups d’etat or Russian invasions.) Here’s where the polls (and other data) are tentatively pointing:

Case #1 – A Neutral Political Environment

Broad Outline: The political coalitions of the Left and Right fight to a draw, as in 2016. Strong turnout on the Left–at least compared to other recent mid-terms–is countered by Trump loyalists who remain energized to support the President. There are no major systematic defections from the traditional Republican coalition.

National Results: Democrats gain a handful of seats in the House from low-hanging fruit like FL-27. Dems may win or lose the Nevada Senate race by a slim margin, but the party suffers a net loss of Senate seats because of losses in places like Indiana, Montana, and West Virginia.

Texas results: Democrats gain zero to four seats in the Texas House (maybe even losing HD 107). The party makes no gains in the state Senate and wins at most one Congressional seat. Democratic statewide candidates are defeated by the traditional wide margins.

Case #2 – “The Wave”

Broad outline: Greater energy on the Left translates to higher Democratic turnout. Trump’s ineffectiveness and the constant distraction of scandal depress turnout on the Right. Small-scale defections from the Republican coalition occur among educated moderates, but for the most part these voters behave like other Republicans, staying home rather than voting for Democrats. If polling data from today (RCP:D+6.8%) held steady until Election Day 2018, this is the most likely scenario.

National results: Democrats take–or come very close to taking–the U.S. House. A possible loss in the Indiana Senate race is offset by victory in Nevada and a competitive race in Arizona.

Texas results: Democrats gain 5 to 12 seats in the Texas House, and possibly a Senate seat. Congressional races in previously “safe” Republican seats like CD-7 become highly competitive, while statewide challengers lose by margins in the respectable low single digits.

Case #3 – “The Tsunami”

Broad Outline: The Left’s extra enthusiasm translates into historic turnout levels among their target constituencies. Trump’s incompetence and scandal depress turnout among his base, and finally drive educated moderate Republicans en masse into the arms of the Democratic Party.

National Results: Democrats easily take control of the U.S. House and hold all of their U.S. Senate seats. Democrats also win in Nevada and Arizona, and control of the U.S. Senate will come down to the results of Cruz vs. O’Rourke in Texas.

Texas Results: Democrats win 13-21 seats in the Texas House, along with 2-3 seats in the Texas Senate. Statewide challengers close the previous 14-point gap and have a real shot at winning.

House Districts by 2016 CCA vote.

What Democrats do now–recruiting, fundraising, message crafting, outreach–will determine which of these cases comes to pass next year. How well we support our candidates and how hard we work to communicate our message will have an effect on our results no matter what the national political environment.

The State of the (State) Senate

Even though I don’t think that a Democratic majority in the Texas Senate is reasonable to expect in the near future, there are certainly some individual seats worth looking at. On issues like private school vouchers, where genuine divisions persist in the Republican caucus, switching just a couple of votes can make a big difference for the future of the state.

Using my little composite score (averaging the 2016 Presidential & Statewide margins), only 3 Republican-held districts stand out as possible targets:

Perhaps fortuitously, SD 16 (Huffines), SD 10 (Burton), and SD 17 (Huffman) are all up for election in 2018, as the Democratic Party is enjoying a glut of candidates for office. All three of these jurisdictions have some familiar characteristics for a swing-district fetishist: affluent(-ish) suburbs of Dallas and Houston where Donald Trump drastically under-performed the statewide Republican ticket. Senator Huffines especially seemed unfazed by Trump’s meager 2.8% margin of victory in his district, spending the recently-concluded legislative session stamping out local firearm regulations and trying to designate the cannon (BOOM!) as the official gun of Texas.

These will be tough races. Good luck will have to be accompanied by hard work and persuasion. Huffines ran unopposed in the 2014 general election, but Burton’s margin of victory was a healthy 14,600 votes. Nonetheless, with a big wave election being a distinct possibility in 2018, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to leave any of these races without decent challengers.

 

The Texas House: 20 for 2020, vol. II

It’s time to get real.

Donald Trump’s margin of victory in Texas was 5 percentage points lower than the margins for most other statewide Republican candidates. One could view these non-Trump Republicans as attractive targets for voter persuasion, but it’s too early to say what these folks will do in 2018. It’s up to local Democratic candidates to make the case to these voters–and others–that voting D in local races is the only way to hold the Trump administration accountable.

When we look at races in the Texas House according to non-presidential statewide results, we can see that the climb toward a Democratic majority is quite steep. The tipping point district (in this case, Wayne Faircloth’s HD 23 in Galveston and Chambers counties) had a Republican advantage of 15.4 percentage points in 2016.

15.4 percentage points is a pretty huge margin. In HD 23, that meant that Wayne Faircloth beat Lloyd Criss by precisely 11,000 votes out of 62,002 votes cast. (The district was much closer in 2014: Faircloth beat Judge Susan Criss by only 3,000 votes out of over 32,000 cast.)

Maybe this will make you feel better: the average margin in the 20 weakest Republican-held seats is only 8.67 points. Some back-of-the-envelope math says that makes a total deficit of only 52,000 votes (distributed very efficiently!) for Democrats to control the Texas House. I know, I know, that’s not exactly how campaign field operations work, but 52,000 sounds a lot more manageable than the 1.2 million votes by which Democrats are accustomed to losing our statewide efforts.

The current generic Congressional ballot on RealClearPolitics has Democrats on +7, which is eight points ahead of the party’s actual 2016 result. Once again, I have outlined HD 112 with a broken line on the chart to indicate the strongest incumbent Democrats could expect to defeat if those numbers exactly predicted the result in November of 2018.

Seven or eight new Democratic seats would be great; that’s more Democratic votes on key policies, more Democratic committee chairs, more young Democrats hired on as Capitol staffers. But my instincts tell me that between 2018 and 2020, 2018 will be the best cycle for picking up seats (reasons include historical precedents for midterms, the threat of divisive Democratic primaries in 2020, and the element of surprise.) Therefore, I’m not going to rest easy until I feel like Democrats are on track to win more than 10 legislative seats next year.

 

November 2017: the revenue cap debate will loom large for HISD candidates

It seemed as though this November’s elections might unfold quietly, predictably.

A quick peek at the Texas Legislature’s “joint resolutions” (the legal vehicle for amending the state’s constitution) shows that most of the potentially-controversial issues that could come before voters will not do so this year, having already missed key deadlines.  I haven’t been following Houston’s municipal term limits lawsuit especially closely, but no one seems to be behaving as though city council elections are imminent. Incumbents on the HISD Board of Trustees (both elected and appointed) looked set to claim pole position in most of the seats up for election to that body.

Then Mayor Turner announced that he would seek a referendum on the city’s revenue cap in November, instantly raising the stakes for Bayou City voters. Predictably, my friend and former client Bill King wasted little time in raising the banner against Turner’s proposal. Outside of Turner’s core allies (the public unions) and core opponents (the anti-tax true believers)–both of whom will surely be headed to the barricades–it’s tough to say right now how successful each side might be in bringing lower-propensity voting constituencies on board. One thing is for certain, though: adding these new constituencies to the November electorate will diminish the focus on public education.

Successful school board candidates, unfortunately, are likely to spend more energy talking to groups for whom quality public education is not a top priority.  District I Trustee Anna Eastman’s decision not to seek re-election further increases the chances that political forces outside of the public education community will determine control of at least one seat on the HISD board. HISD is not the only school board elected within the Houston city limits, of course, so candidates in Spring Branch and Aldine might do well to start thinking through their outreach plans as well.

Mayor Turner will want to frame the revenue cap debate much like he framed the Mayor’s race in 2015: that a win for him is a win for Team Blue.  The strategy has merit: I certainly wouldn’t want to be associated with any candidate or cause that gets on the wrong side of the Resistance in a blue county this year. But voting on a tax referendum is different than voting for an Obama-endorsed mayoral candidate.  Plenty of educated, liberal homeowners will see no harm to The Cause in voting themselves a lower tax rate.

The Texas House: 20 for 2020, vol. I

Democrats need to pick up 20 seats in order to evenly split control of the 150-member Texas House of Representatives. It’s an ambitious but reasonable goal. After two consecutive cycles of favorable results, the Texas House elected in 2008 consisted of 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats. Had the party not gone down to disastrous defeat in 2010, the Texas redistricting process would have played out very differently.

So which districts should we be targeting? And what exactly does “targeting” mean? Local factors such as candidate quality will certainly have an effect on the results of a particular race, but for the most part, national political trends are equivalent to destiny for these down-ballot contests. It’s very unusual for a state rep candidate to outperform (or under-perform) the top of the ticket by more than a couple thousand votes–a variance of a couple hundred votes is much more common.

Therefore, a decent starting point is to rate the districts according to top-line partisan voting data. As the metric for the following chart, I chose to average the presidential vote margin with the vote margin for the 6th seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals (Keasler v. Burns.) I have some reservations about his choice of metric**, but it will make an OK starting point.

 

Democratic-held districts are in blue; Republican-held districts are in red. It gives me some personal joy to see that HD 67 (impeccably-coiffed homophobe Jeff Leach) is the tipping point district, that is, the toughest district that Democrats will have to win if they want to even the score in the Texas House.

Outlined in the broken black line is HD 65. This represents one estimate of where the Democrats might currently stand for 2018. It’s where a 6.5% swing over the 2016 results would produce a Democratic victory. The generic congressional ballot polling average on RealClearPolitics is currently at D+5.5, which is about 6.5 points over the actual generic congressional vote in 2016, which favored Republicans by about 1%. It’s hardly an exercise in precision to use the national polling data in this way (among other problems, one can’t actually match a generic congressional poll to the national congressional vote due to the large number of seats that go uncontested by one of the major parties.)

As others have previously observed, there are some local boys on this target list. Dwayne Bohac (HD 138) represents my old neighborhood on the west side, and his very conservative record is increasingly out of touch with a diverse and educated electorate. Gary Elkins (HD 135) is a professional oppressor of the poor (aka payday lender) who is begging to have a wedge driven between him and his Bible-believing constituents. I really hope we do a good job recruiting candidates for these districts. Historically, Democrats have missed many opportunities in such races because we don’t even bother to field a decent candidate.

As the election cycle moves along, I will update this post with new data as it comes in (particularly, new data from special elections and polls regarding Democratic prospects for 2018.) Also, I have noticed that many of the target districts are clustered together geographically (north of Dallas, west of Houston), so I hope to explore the physical battle lines as well.

 

* * Building the Hillary-Trump margin into the numbers helps us to see which districts contain larger numbers of persuadable anti-Trump Republicans. But Ranking the districts based on this number means that the rankings are doing some of the candidate’s work for him/her. Convincing these voters to abandon the Republican party is going to be a large part of any successful challenger’s job.

Let’s please focus on the redistricting menace.

If you fight for Team Blue, you have a lot to be optimistic about over the next four years. Candidate recruitment for the 2018 cycle is going very well, and activist energy on the left is still white-hot. Trump’s low approval ratings–if they persist–give the Democratic Party a great chance to win big in 2020 as well (though I am wary of the Party’s internal fault lines becoming very destructive once it actually comes time to pick a presidential candidate.)

It’s far from guaranteed, but Texas Democrats just might be about to enjoy two consecutive election cycles with a strong national political wind at our backs. It’s a helluva blessing, so now is the time to start thinking through how best to utilize it. I have a humble suggestion. Democrats need to focus on gaining control of at least one of the three power centers in the redistricting process: the Texas House, the Texas Senate, or the governor’s office.

Strong gerrymandering for congressional seats and the state legislature has made electoral progress a tedious uphill climb throughout the early- and mid-2010s. Avoiding the same fate in the next decade will mean better governance for our state and a better contribution to the conversation in Washington.

My vote is for focusing on the Texas House. Here’s why.

(1) The whole body is up for re-election every two years, so we theoretically get two shots at every seat before the 2020 deadline.

(2) Based on data from the 2016 election (averaging each district’s presidential vote with its partisan vote for statewide offices), the “tipping point district” (the least Democratic district needed to gain a majority in the chamber) has a Republican advantage of 11.7 percentage points. Compare that to a 14.5% Republican advantage in the tipping point Senate district. The statewide (gubernatorial) number is also 11 and some-odd percent, but the governorship is not equivalent to the House, because we only get one shot at it, and…

(3) Love it or lump it, Governor Abbott is likely to over-perform the average Republican candidate in 2018. His hard-right tendencies are outshone by other statewide bozos like Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, and Sid Miller. He has played the bathroom bill issue with just enough obfuscation/finesse to hold his base without coming across as crass and hateful. And he earned a very respectable portion of the Latino vote in 2014; Latinos will be a huge part of any successful Democratic turnout strategy for 2018. Also, we don’t have a strong candidate yet, and the clock is ticking for organizing a competitive statewide race.

(4) House districts are smaller, cheaper jurisdictions, and their smallness presents an opportunity to tailor candidate recruitment to fit with local idiosyncrasies.

(5) Failing to take the majority but still coming close is a rewarding result in its own right. State policies will be generally more in line with progressive priorities, and we can always be proud of strengthening the farm team of future candidates for higher office. But even a 76-74 Republican House will have trouble passing a redistricting bill that gerrymanders too abusively. Maps that maximize partisan advantage tend to produce pairings of two majority-party incumbents in the same district, and incumbents hate that.

By all means, let’s expend reasonable efforts on any race where we have a chance. But where we have to choose, I say we choose the Texas House. Coming soon, I will tell you which districts will be (or ought to be) in the spotlight…

What’s the point?

I admire political professionals whose decisions are driven by facts and data. I aspire to be one.

There’s so much that I love about the Texas Gulf Coast–the cosmopolitan inner city, the unique suburbs flush with culture and character, the vibrant industry, the underappreciated natural beauty–I think I might just stay here for the rest of my life.

Therefore, my mission is clear: to use facts and data to contribute to the conversation about local politics. For my friends who have decisions to make about where to direct electoral resources and energy, which primary candidate to support, or simply what to expect from a seemingly-inscrutable political process, I want to be of service.

I have just as many unfounded opinions as the next guy, but I will do my best to keep them to myself.

One thing I shouldn’t keep to myself is the perspective and bias I bring to this blog. I want the Democratic Party to win, especially in legislative elections. I don’t always agree with the party line, but our electoral system kind of forces a choice between one of exactly two viable alternatives (it’s called Duverger’s Law, and I consider it to be a commandment for tactical voting.) That being said, I have worked fruitfully with many people from the other side of the aisle. Bipartisanship, comity, and genuine effort to understand other people’s ideas are not merely wise political principles, they are a precious and increasingly-rarefied virtue.

So here we go. I am enabling open comments for now. Please let me know what you think.

-NR

PS: You can learn more about me and my professional practice at bluefishtexas.squarespace.com.