By most measures, Republicans are still dominating in Texas.
In this past election, the party won every statewide office – just like it has in the past two decades. This time around, however, the margins were close. So close, in fact, some Texas Republicans say they are nervous ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
“[The election] was a wake-up call for my fellow Republicans,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist in Austin.
In particular, Steinhauser said he was surprised by Beto O’Rourke’s challenge to Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz. Cruz won by a mere 2.6 percentage points in that race.
Preliminary turnout data and exit polls also show O’Rourke’s ambitious campaign brought a lot of new voters into the mix – including young voters and racial minorities. Steinhauser said that electorate drastically cut the margins of victory for Republicans, compared to the past several elections.
“There are a lot of things that gave us a lot of pause and concern and especially as we look ahead to the 2020 election,” Steinhauser said.
He said Republicans could face an even tougher challenge then because, unlike in midterms, Democratic turnout during presidential elections is significantly more reliable.
And then there’s the Latino vote.
During this past election, Latinos voted in higher numbers for Democratic candidates, which is a concern for the GOP. Historically, Texas Republicans have done fairly well with Latinos. But Steinhauser said the state party is facing an “uphill battle” with those voters in the Trump era.
“My sense is that when you make people feel unwanted and unwelcome through your rhetoric and through your tone, they see that, they reject it and they punish you at the ballot box,” he said.
Steinhauser isn’t just worried about Latinos, though. He’s also worried that Democrats are now winning in every single major city in Texas. And losses in the growing suburbs and exurbs around those cities cost Republicans two seats in Congress.
“If Republicans can’t win or at least compete in those counties and keep it as even as possible, we are going to be in big trouble,” he said.
Following the election, James Dickey, the Texas GOP chairman, said the party needs to do a better job in the urban and suburban areas of Texas.
“Clearly we need to do significantly more in those areas for 2020,” Dickey told Spectrum News in Austin, the day after the election.
But not all Republican operatives are wringing their hands.
“I think when the state is more competitive … it’s good for the people of Texas,” said George Seay, former finance chairman for Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential run.
Seay said he’s looking forward to closer elections in Texas because he thinks it will make Republicans better at campaigning and governing.
“Republicans need to come in every cycle and make a strong case for whey they should be governing and making decisions that affect all of us,” he said.
Even if races get closer, Seay said, he thinks voters here will still continue to choose Republicans in larger numbers. He also said he expects the party will be able to win back some Hispanic voters.
Steinhauser said he thinks tough fights are coming sooner rather than later. Because Texas is a little more purple now, he said he expects left-leaning groups to start spending more money here. He also said he expects O’Rourke will “stay around” and that the close Senate race will inspire other Democrats to run statewide.
“This is where the future of Texas politics lies," he said, "and we have a lot of work to do."