What Trump at the top means for Texas Republicans in November

Up until Tuesday evening in Indiana, Texas Republicans held out hope that Ted Cruz would be able to capture the GOP nomination in a contested convention on the second or third ballot. That hope has been extinguished with Cruz’ decision to suspend his campaign, and the Texas GOP must now come to grips with the reality that Donald Trump will be its standard bearer in November.

It is still far too early to know the extent of the drag Trump will represent for the Republican slate this fall. That said, it is much more likely than not that Trump’s candidacy will adversely affect down-ballot Republicans in Texas compared to the possible outcomes had Cruz been the nominee, let alone compared to when Governor Greg Abbott, Mitt Romney or Rick Perry were the party’s most visible statewide candidates in 2014, 2012 and 2010, respectively.

All, though, is not dark for Republicans. First, Texas remains a very red state, and Republicans have no real worries about seeing their statewide winning streak of 121 consecutive victories (dating back to 1996) ended this year. Second, a large majority of Texas’ U.S. House, state senate and state house districts have been designed to provide Republicans with a substantial electoral cushion, meaning that relatively few of the nearly two-thirds of legislative districts currently in Republican hands are vulnerable in November. Third, the filing deadline for Texas candidates was in December, before most people believed Trump would be the GOP nominee. As a result, unlike in a majority of states in which the Democratic Party has been able to recruit numerous high-quality legislative candidates with the argument that Trump’s candidacy could help a Democrat win in a Republican-leaning district that would normally be out of reach, Texas Democrats find themselves with second- or third-tier candidates (or in some instances, no candidate at all) in several districts where they might have had a chance of winning with a first-tier candidate and a significant Trump-induced drag.

However, there are some dark clouds on the horizon for Republicans, with Republican candidates now most vulnerable in districts/counties where the Republican electoral cushion is relatively small and which have a large Latino population (and/or a very highly educated upper income Anglo population). While approximately a third to two-fifths of the state’s Latino voters have cast ballots for Republican candidates in recent elections, those numbers are expected to drop as Trump’s candidacy damages the Republican Party’s image among Latino voters this fall.  Also, in past elections, Latinos have turned out to vote at much lower rates than Anglos and African Americans. Trump’s candidacy could provide Texas Democrats with the type of mobilization tool that to date, Texas Republicans have denied them (e.g., by not passing Arizona-style “show me your papers” legislation or repealing the Texas Dream Act).  In recent elections, Latinos have accounted for about one-fifth of Texas voters. Even a small increase in the share of the voting public represented by Latinos combined with a higher percentage of those Latinos voting for Democrats than usual could tip several counties and legislative districts from red to blue in November.

Even before Trump’s ascension, a handful of Republican legislators already faced difficult elections this year.  Now that Trump is their party’s presidential candidate, the hill they need to climb to achieve re-election has become quite a bit steeper. A common denominator among these contests is that they are in purple districts (i.e., where neither party enjoys a clear-cut partisan advantage) with large Latino populations.

The highest profile race is in Congressional District 23 (CD-23).  CD-23 encompasses a large portion of northern, southern and western Bexar County (San Antonio) and extends down to the border (Eagle Pass) and through the southern portion of West Texas to the lower El Paso valley. In 2014, Republican Congressman Will Hurd narrowly defeated then-Congressman Pete Gallego, and this year Gallego is back for a rematch.

Other “purple district” contests include two Texas House districts in the San Antonio area held by Reps. Rick Galindo (HD-117) and John Lujan (HD-118), one district in the Houston area held by Rep. Gilbert Peña of Pasadena (HD-144), and one district outside of Corpus Christi held by Rep. J.M. Lozano (HD-43). To make matters worse for these Republican incumbents, all but Lozano face top-shelf Democratic challengers.

There are a half-dozen other state house races (though no U.S. House or state senate contests) that as a result of Trump’s conversion into the GOP nominee have moved from near, albeit not complete, locks for Republicans to potentially competitive. This is due to their (for Texas) relative partisan balance combined with either a substantial Latino population or an unusually large number of highly educated upper income Anglo Republicans (two groups among which Trump has comparatively low favorability ratings). There could have been more races in this category had a top-tier Democratic candidate filed to run.

One Harris County race that falls into this category is HD-134.  However, the Republican incumbent, Rep. Sarah Davis of West University Place, has tremendous cross-over appeal to Democrats and independents and possesses just the type of centrist conservative legislative track record and tempered rhetoric that the GOP needs to retain HD-134, where three-quarters of residents 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher (almost three times the state average). Barring a massive Trump-inspired blue tsunami, Davis is very well positioned to keep HD-134 in the Republican column.

Perhaps the most serious concern for Houston-area Republicans this November centers on the county-wide races in Harris County.  Republicans are attempting to retain their control of key offices such as district attorney (Devon Anderson), sheriff (Ron Hickman) and two dozen judgeships. This cycle, Harris County Democrats have fielded very high-quality candidates for district attorney (Kim Ogg) and sheriff (Ed Gonzalez, who technically still needs to win his runoff), which, combined with a presidential election year, already had insured that these races would be at least somewhat competitive. But with Trump as the Republican nominee, they are now clearly in the “toss up” category. As for the judges, their fate will depend almost exclusively on the partisan tide in November, since 95 out of 100 Harris County voters will know nothing about the county-level judicial candidates other than what they see on the ballot — partisan affiliation and name.

Mark P. Jones is the fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University.