2020 BATTLEGROUNDS: TEXAS 24TH

This is the second post in “2020 Battlegrounds”, where (almost) every other week I take a deep look at one closely contested 2020 House district. Each post will: 1) Give an overview of the State and District 2) Analyze recent electoral history 3) Give an update on the district’s 2020 race and 4) See what insight the district can give into larger 2020 House race.

Candidate interviews are the newest addition to ESY! For each battleground district, I will interview as many declared & potential candidates as possible. You can find the transcripts (both complete transcripts and ones condensed to just the highlights) under the “Battleground District” tab. Go read my interview with Jan McDowell, the TX-24 Democratic candidate for 2020 and was the 
Party’s nominee in 2018.

District: Texas 24th
Current Representative: Kenny Marchant
Projected District Margin: 0.0%->1The formula is explained in POST 1: Housekeeping. Donald Trump’s net approval rating at 4:09am EST on March 12 was -11.7. (Calculation (3.1 +8.6) – (11.7) + 0 = 0%)
Cook 2020 Projection: Toss Up
Sabato 2020 Projection: Leans Republican

Texas has been Republican territory for a long time. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win the state was Carter in 1976, over 40 years ago. The last Democratic governor to win was Ann Richards in 1990. And while Texas is probably still out of reach for the 2020 presidential election, Democrats hope that the state’s quick population growth and diversity will tip a few districts in their favor. 2018 featured the dramatic Beto O’Rourke versus Ted Cruz senate race. O’Rourke outperformed Texas’s partisan lean by 10 points by running up margins and turnout in urban areas. His near-success had more to do with winning over Republican leaning white voters than with harnessing the state’s growing diversity.  

O’Rourke’s urban margins contributed to Democrats successfully flipping TX-32 and TX-07. He carried them by 11% and 7%, respectively. And Democrats are hoping to squeeze even more from the state in 2020. Six of 33 seats that the DCCC2The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is the main campaign arm for House Democrats is targeting on their “Red to Blue” list are in Texas. Five of these seats — TX-10, TX-21, TX-22, TX-24 and TX-31 —are in or near the state’s major urban areas — Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio.

If Democrats are able to win these seats it will be an astounding turnaround in eight years. In 2012, Romney took these seats by 20%, 22%, 25%, 22% and 21% respectively. Trump’s poor margins in 2016 — 9%, 10, 8%, 9%, 10% — show clear leftward movement.

Texas 24 is an educated, diverse, wealthy suburban district — the archetype of the district that flocked to Romney in 2012 and ran from Trump in 2016. The swing away from Republicans in 2016 and 2018 wasn’t enough to flip the seat, but things look different for 2020.  The 2018 race was much closer than expected. FiveThirtyEight projected a 13.8% margin, but the real gap was 3.1%. Things look tenuous for Republicans, especially with coming demographic changes.

Demographics

Data: Daily Kos

Texas  is more diverse and educated than the country overall. Thirty seven percent of the district is non-white and 32% are white college graduates. The key Republican voting bloc — non-college whites — account for only 31% of the population.

Coming demographic change looks troubling for Republicans. Dallas, Tarrant and Denton counties all expect to grow by about 1.5 million by 205058%, 66% and 160%  over their current populations. A majority of this growth is going to be non-white, pushing the district, and state as a whole, towards Democrats. And unless Republicans broaden their appeal to non-white voters, TX-24 is destined to turn blue. The only question will be how quickly Democrats can flip it.

RECENT ELECTORAL HISTORY
Texas 24th has been a reliable seat for Republicans since the 2003 Texas redistricting. Democrats lost six Texas seats in the 2004 election, including the 24th District which had been re-drawn by the Republican State Legislature to include more Republican leaning suburbs around Dallas instead of more liberal Forth Worth/Arlington areas. The abrupt turn away from Republicans is clearly a Trump driven phenomenon. Mitt Romney won the district by 22%, a 4% greater margin than McCain; Kenny Marchant won re-election in 2014 by 33%, a 7-point greater margin than in 2012. And then in 2016, Trump won the district by just 6% — dragging Marchant’s margin down to half of what it was in 2014.

Presidency

House

Data: Daily Kos

What Happened in 2018
Nobody expected the race to be close in 2018. The four democrats running in the primary had never held elected office. Jan McDowell, the Democratic nominee in 2016, had lost by over 17% in 2016. McDowell was3I couldn’t decide between past and present tense here. Everyone is still alive, don’t worry. a 64-year-old CPA. Tod Allen was a 38-year-old teacher. John Biggan was a 34-year-old researcher at University of Texas. And lastly, Josh Imhoff was a 47-year-old attorney who slid in at the last minute…filing for candidacy on the last possible day. The candidates were pretty standard 2018 Democrats,  running on the ACA and a moldable version of Medicare for All, bipartisanship and opposition to the Republican tax bill and immigration policy.

McDowell won 52% of the primary vote, just barely avoiding a run-off. Turnout in the Democratic primary was astoundingly low — 3.5% of the district’s population. And this may not be a flawless metric, but the runner-up, John Biggan, has 244 Twitter followers. All this to say, it wasn’t a star-studded Democratic primary.

The Republican field wasn’t too impressive. Kenny Marchant had one competitor, Jonathan Davidson, who said his primary focus in office would be “to obtain access to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court”. Which…a bit of campaign advice here…may be a bit too niche for a political platform. Marchant won with a 75-25 percent victory.

Jan McDowell ran an inoffensive general campaign, emphasizing standard Democratic policies — gun control, protecting social security, women’s rights, etc. While McDowell says she mostly agrees with the left wing of the party on policy, the more radical proposals were not the forefront of her 2018 campaign.  Her primary attack on Marchant for being an absent representative. As she said, he was a “professional ghost”. And her closing argument on Twitter was her support for pre-existing conditionsopposition to the Republican tax bill and support for birthright citizenship.  

On more controversial policies — Abolish Ice and Medicare for All — she found middle ground.  She believes in Medicare for All, but would support a different policy that had similar outcomes. She did not explicitly endorse Abolish Ice, instead writing “I believe that it is the policies that should be changed, whether or not a given agency is eliminated.”

In my interview with her, though, she clarified that she is a progressive.  “I’m pretty far left”, “if people are for Medicare For All, and I’m sitting in Congress and there’s a vote on that, I’m a yes.” “When I listen to AOC’s (Alexandia Ocasio Cortez’s) positions on things I find very little that I disagree with”. She clarified that while she may agree on the policy substance, doesn’t “always agree with her [AOC’s] method or her approach.”

Her campaign was bare bones, as the DCCC refused to give any assistance. She raised only $108,000 and $103,000 of it was individual contributions. She did not have much institutional support. McDowell operated mostly on Facebook and Twitter, running very few television ads, showing her shoestring budget. Her modest videos show that some more money could give her a boost.

Kenny Marchant, the Republican incumbent since 2005, was well funded. He went into the campaign with a $1.6 million war chest. He raised another 1.1 million — about 850k from PACs and 250k from individual donors — giving him about a $2.5 million lead over McDowell. He ran as a conservative Republican — touting on his campaign’s homepage his ranking as the 3rd most conservative House member. He’s a Tea-Party Republican. He vote’s with Trump 94.1% of the time. He supports tax cuts, the Second Amendment and is pro-life. All together, he’s a pretty standard4read: dull Republican. His website has three pages — “Home” ‘About Kenny” and “Contribute”. His social media is painfully boring.

So…the underfunded Democrat and milquetoast Republican face off! And McDowell came within ~3% of Marchant, shocking everyone and bringing the district into the 2020 spotlight.

The 3% margin, however, is perhaps less impressive when Beto O’Rourke carried the district by 3.5%. This could be trouble for Democrats in 2020 if they are unable to find an up-ballot candidate inspiring enough to drive turnout like Beto did last year.

2018 Data

Data: Census, Texas Gov’t

The marginal improvement across the district’s three counties were almost identical. In each county5I’m only referring to the portions of the counties that lie in the twenty-fourth district, McDowell closed the margin by about 15%. This may be suprizing considering that minorities constitute just 31% of Tarrant County’s population but make up a majority, 57%, of Dallas. Usually more minority voters translate to better Democratic margins. But, remember that O’Rourke’s improvement over Clinton’s came largely from white voters, meaning that they were not necessarily a drag on his performance relative to 2016. And while McDowell’s supporters differed from O’Rourke’s in some ways, she likely benefited from a similar combination of high democratic enthusiasm and large numbers of white flippers.

But Beto, and by extension McDowell, did not fully harness the state’s growing diversity and Hispanic population. If they had, maybe they could have pushed past their republican opponents. So, while this likely hurt them in 2018, it is a hopeful sign for Democrats that they have room to improve and new voters to target in the upcoming election.  

2020 UPDATE
Cook political rated TX-24 as a “Toss Up”, drawing national attention to the district and probably a few new democratic contenders. Jan McDowell already announced her 2020 campaign. It will be interesting to see if being a third time candidate helps or hurts her. While her name recognition and tenacity may give her a boost, it could drive away voters who think she has missed or shot or that just isn’t a winning candidate. The National Republican Congressional Committee has already attacked her as a “perennial losing candidate”.
But this time, McDowell will have to worry as much about the primary as the general. Ideologically, there is still room to her left, and in terms of campaign strategy, there is room for a more polished and prolific fundraiser. Enter: Kim Olson, the Democratic candidate for Apgricicultre Commissioner in 2018. Her announcement (but maybe not officially announcement?) has stirred up some internal fighting on the Democratic side after McDowell posted an aggressive attack on Facebook.
Janemarie Clark, McDowell’s Communications Director, then went on to tell a story about a supposed backroom meeting where Olson claimed to have support from “national powers that be” and that “everyone else just needed to stand aside”. Weird stuff. Who knows if this really happened, but the #drama is interesting nonetheless.


One more important tidbit on Olson. She beat McDowell’s margins by about 2% in a bid for Agriculture Commissioner last year, boosting her claim that she might be a more electable candidate than McDowell. And while Olson hasn’t officially declared her candidacy or filed with the FEC, her cryptic hinting at a run makes it seem inevitable.

Two other candidates (along with McDowell) have filed as candidates with the FEC. One is Will Fisher, a lawyer who ran for the TX-26 Democratic nomination last cycle and lost6Candidate interview coming next week!. The other is Crystal Lee Fletcher, who filed on March 26.  She is a seemingly unknown lawyer with no campaign website (that I could find) and the most information available on her is from the State Bar of Texas. The field is sure to continue to grow on the Democratic side due to its newly won status as a swing seat. According to McDowell, there are around eight candidates planning to run, whether or not they have officially declared or filed with the FEC.

Regardless of who wins the primary, they will have more institutional support than McDowell did in 2018. Of the districts that Sabato or Cook rate as a “Toss Up” for 2020, only four — NY-11, OK-05, SC-01 and TX-24 — received no financial support from the DCCC in 2018.  This new cash source and attack dog might be enough to tip a district over the edge. Even $90,000, the smallest amount that the DCCC contributed to any of these races in 2018, would nearly doubly McDowell’s fundraising numbers from last year.
Data: Open Secrets

On the Republican side, Marchant has the seat locked down. He was uncontested in 2014 and 2016 and won his 2018 primary by about 50 points. He is the only Republican officially running so far and will likely smash any competition with his incumbency and $1.5 million war chest.

Marchant told the Texas Tribune, regarding his campaign, “It is more cautious. It is more contemplative”. “I think, in my case, we’re going back and examining every precinct and discovering who turned out, who didn’t turn out, who turned out we didn’t expect to turn out, and we’re finding that the Beto effect was very, very prominent.” “Our campaign will start maybe six months earlier.”

Marchant is right to re-think his strategy. He is going to have to broaden his appeal and slow the Republican hemorrhaging of educated, suburban white voters. As with everything in politics these days, it will likely come down to Trump. The president is relatively unpopular in Texas (he had a -11% net approval in 2018 according to Pew) and even more unpopular among educated, urban voters like those in TX-24.  If Marchant can safely distance himself from the president’s most erratic behavior and policies without losing the Republican base, he will have a better shot at keeping his seat. But if Democrats can pin Marchant to Trump, he may be in for a rough election. Democrats have already begun this strategy, blaming Marchant for the unpopular government shutdown.

LESSONS FOR THE 2020 HOUSE

There Are Always Surprises
Every election has a few big surprises. In 2018 TX-24, along with SC-01, OK-05 and NY-11 were some of the biggest. Democrats were able to pick up the latter three and learn that Texas 24 was competitive because they competed in races that seemed like longshots. The parties should compete across the map.  They will win some surprise districts and see which districts may be competitive or winnable down the road. 

Up-Ballot Candidate Matter
Beto O’Rourke was a big reason this district came within striking distance for Democrats. His popularity in urban areas and ability to flip white, college educated voters trickled down to voters in House races across Texas. If Democrats choose a similarly popular candidate as their presidential nominee (maybe even O’Rourke himself) in 2020 it would help down-ballot House candidates across the map. The nominee, though, would have to reach into the mid-fifties in the popular vote percentage for his or her coattails to be significant. While it is more difficult to find a presidential nominee with the support that O’Rourke had in 2018, the parties may have more luck with Senate candidates. If either party can recruit inspiring, popular candidates for any up-ballot race, it will pull some House candidates over the line and bring others onto their radar for future elections.

Texas Is A Big Deal
Texas will probably be the biggest battleground of 2020. National Democrats have their eye on five flappable Texas seats, TX-10, TX-21, TX-22, TX-23, TX-24 and TX-31, and Republicans are looking to win back two they lost in TX-32 and TX-07. All of these, except TX-23 which spans across Southwest Texas, are the classic suburban, well-educated white, districts that Democrat’s had success with in 2018. All these elections, along with a Senate race and O’Rourke as a potential presidential nominee, have brought Texas into the national spotlight up and down the ballot.


Now that you’re invested in the drama, go read my candidate interview with Jan McDowell! You can read the full, extended interview or the condensed version. Next week I will interview Democratic candidates Will Fisher and (hopefully) Kim Olson.