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As Republicans continue statewide dominance, Texas Democrats may need to set sights lower

A sign for Gov. Greg Abbott sits by the entrance of Barq's for the Travis County GOP watch party to see the result of the 2022 election on Nov. 8, 2022.
Patricia Lim
A sign for Gov. Greg Abbott sits by the entrance of Barq's for the Travis County GOP watch party to see the result of the 2022 election on Nov. 8, 2022.

Texas Republicans have a lot to be thrilled about following the results of Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Gov. Greg Abbott handily won re-election over his biggest challenger yet in Democrat Beto O’Rourke. The incumbent governor’s campaign said that Abbott did better in all counties than in previous elections, and the governor highlighted inroads in South Texas in particular.

“We planted our flag in South Texas, and we showed America that South Texas is now electing Republicans to office in our great state,” Abbott said in an election night victory speech.

» TEXAS ELECTION 2022: See election results for statewide and congressional races

But despite the celebratory tone, Abbott’s so-called gains in the region were not enough to fuel what had been touted as a “red wave” across Texas. Most border counties stayed blue.

“When you look at the actual border counties, Democrats continue to be the dominant party in those counties,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project. “It just so happened that in most cases, Republicans were able to cut down on those margins a little bit.”

Out of three Rio Grande Valley congressional races eyed by the party, only one went Republican. One of those saw incumbent congresswoman Mayra Flores, a rising star in the GOP, lose to Democratic challenger Vincente González, an outcome that didn’t come as a surprise to Blank.

“Really the focus on Flores as the archetype of a new Republican in South Texas was useful for the campaign but didn’t really reflect the actual political leanings of the district,” Blank said.

That district, District 34, was redrawn to heavily favor Democrats. But Blank says Republican messaging helped them to perform much better in interior rural counties.

» SEE MORE: The not-so-red wave of the 2022 midterms in Texas

According to Aileen Teague, assistant professor of international affairs at Texas A&M, that messaging included a focus on the economy and immigration.

She says many in border towns — and across Texas — say border security’s top of mind, and see Abbott’s policies, like busing migrants out of state, as a good thing, due to what they see as inaction from the federal government.

“Some people here in Texas, some voters appreciate that,” Teague said. “The governor has actually taken a concrete action even if they don’t 100% agree with the message and the actions themselves.”

Texas Democrats focused messaging on gun safety and reproductive healthcare, which, while important for many, did not end up being the top priorities of most voters in the state as the party’s losing streak at the statewide level extended. Even Democratic candidate Rochelle Garza, who had been seen as having the best chance at unseating controversial GOP incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton, fell short by about 10 percentage points.

Mike Yawn, the director of the Center for Law, Engagement and Politics at Sam Houston State University, says Democrats could one day see success at a statewide level but for now should set their sights lower and embrace a more incremental strategy. Smaller goals, such as winning 1% more of the vote next time, could help Democrats see more success in the future.

“And I think to some degree Beto may have elevated expectations for years ago that weren’t realistic,” Yawn said. “We see some states that have dramatic shifts, and that does happen sometimes. But more often, it is the gradual accumulation of votes over time.”

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Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is the former Texas Capitol reporter for The Texas Newsroom.