Texas’s 6th is a microcosm of the sort of place Democrats need to capture to establish a dominant majority. The seat is based in the southern suburbs of Fort Worth and moved rapidly to the left in presidential elections during the Trump era. Mitt Romney won it by 16 percent in 2012, but Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) won it by only three points against Beto O’Rourke in their 2018 Senate race, a showing Donald Trump repeated last year. As a result, Democrats were mildly optimistic that they could gain the seat when it became vacant after Republican Rep. Ron Wright died in February after being diagnosed with covid-19.
The special election’s structure encouraged those hopes. Under Texas law, all candidates are placed on the same ballot, with the top two advancing to a general election regardless of party should no one receive 50 percent of the vote. Saturday’s race had 23 candidates, including 11 Republicans. Most Democrats expected their leading candidate would advance to the runoff, a reasonable expectation given that both Biden and O’Rourke had received 48 percent of the vote. If that person then faced an extreme Trumpian conservative, he or she might have had a chance to prevail.
Saturday’s results dashed those hopes. Two Republicans — the late congressman’s widow, Susan Wright, and state Rep. Jake Ellzey — took the top two positions and advanced to the runoff. Democrats went from hoping to ride a blue tide to victory to being entirely shut out of the race.
But that wasn’t even the worst news to come out of the evening for Team Blue. Republicans combined outpaced Democrats by a whopping 25 points, 62 percent to 37 percent when all votes were tallied. That’s an even greater advantage for Republicans than had been the case last decade when this area — and many similar suburbs nationwide — were considered safe territory for Team Red. If this result is a harbinger of the midterms, Democrats are in for a bloodbath as the suburbs snap back into Republican lockstep.
Democrats will be sure to throw cold water on this notion. Turnout was very low, with only 78,374 people voting in the special election compared with nearly 345,000 in November. Turnout was also apparently skewed toward Republicans. County turnout data show that the two Republican rural counties in the district, Ellis and Navarro, had a higher percentage of registered voters casting ballots than did Democratic-leaning, suburban Tarrant County. That, plus the fact that Republican candidates combined outspent Democrats by a significant margin, gives Democrats reason to argue this result is not representative of broader voter opinion.
That might be, but consider the opposite argument: Despite all the favorable news coverage of Biden’s first 100 days in office and the prospect of enacting a far-reaching agenda, Democratic voters weren’t motivated to vote. Nor did swing voters, apparently, and those who did vote clearly cast Republican ballots rather than stick with the party they had backed in the past two races. It seems winning control of government and to cast Trump out of office both took the steam out of Democratic voter enthusiasm and depressed swing-voter anger at Republicans.
The magnitude of the implied pro-GOP shift is probably too high, but even a mild drift in seats such as this would cost Democrats their congressional majorities. Democratic data analyst David Shor recently analyzed the historical trends between generic ballot polling in the first quarter after a president’s inauguration to the result for his party in the ensuing midterm. He found that on average, the incumbent’s party standing dropped about four points in that time period and that the party drops more support the larger its initial percentage is. This pattern was significantly broken only in 2002 when the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed political loyalties, and it was mildly broken in 1998, likely due to the effort to impeach Bill Clinton. Shor projects that Democrats will win 48 percent of the midterm vote. If that does happen, and Texas’s special election suggests it will, Democrats could lose 10 to 20 House seats and probably the Senate majority as well.
More than four decades of following politics have taught me that Democrats rarely ever notice how the canary in the coal mine is doing, a gift Republicans always appreciate. That canary is struggling after the party’s abysmal showing in Texas’s 6th. We’ll see if Democrats take the hint before it’s too late.