We’ve had two wipe outs that have fundamentally changed the party’s status in Harris County. With 2020 a Presidential general election the odds of successfully recovering losses are slim-to-none. With that in mind, what can the party do to recover from the past two cycles? The short answer is to accept we don’t control our fate for 2020 and act to improve our standing rather than think we can reverse the tide in two years.
What the numbers tell us.
The early voting totals paint a grim picture for the county. Derek Ryan voting data after the first weekend can be used to glean information regarding how deep the problem runs. The 310th Judicial District is used for this calculation since that race was in the low average range for Republican votes most of the judicial races saw.
The Derek Ryan data (through the early voting weekend) showed:
R only: 32.3, R last primary: 0.7%
D only: 27.2%, D last primary: 1.4%
No Primary History: 30.0%
No Previous History: 5.5%
From here we assume that the Republican only and Republican last primary voted Republican this time, and Democrat only and Democrat last primary once again voted the same way. That gives a total of 33% Republican vote and 28.6% Democrat vote based on the core party voters. This also establishes a floor for the general election vote.
In order to calculate the remaining values we have to make an assumption on the likely distribution of either the general election only voting history or the first time only voting history. Since the new voters are likely combination of 1) young voters 2) newly registered voters and 3) voters who moved into the state the new voters likely break very significantly for the Democrats. To try and get a range value we can use 80% Democrat and 90% Democrat to establish the boundries. The math so far is:
Republican: 33.0%, Democrat: 28.6%
New Voter allocation: Republican 1.1% high, 0.55% low
New Voter allocation: Democrat 4.95% high, 4.4% low
Republican 33.55 – 34.1%
Democrat 33.0 – 33.55%
So far so good, the core party voters appear to be similar in number. And that’s where the problem lies. The general election results were:
which gives a general election only voting split of
Republican: 9.73 – 10.28%
Democrat: 22.66 – 23.17%
That’s a 2.25:1 Democrat to Republican ratio or 70-30 Democrat break for the general election only voters. In a nutshell, that’s where we lost the election.
Why did we do so badly with general election voters?
Now that we know where we went wrong the first question to try to answer is why.
Straight Ticket Voting
Some have suggested straight party voting is the cause. The argument has some superficial support in that a whopping 76.44% of votes cast were straight ticket. However, for straight ticket voting to be the cause of the poor performance it would have to follow that voters wouldn’t have voted the down ballot races. The evidence doesn’t support that conclusion. With the Senate race, the under vote was 0.99%, and with the 310th the under vote was 3.00%. That’s a difference of 24,000 votes in a 146,000 vote difference race (310th.) Straight ticket voting may have inched the race in favor of the Democrats, but it didn’t make a meaningful difference.
The Cruz Millstone
Ted Cruz is a liability in county politics. Just how bad is he for the county party? Take this piece of information:
Straight Ticket Republican: 410,465
Total votes not straight ticket: 287,389
Ted Cruz not straight ticket vote tally: 88,248
He only gained 30.7% of the available not straight ticket vote. Remember from earlier that the Republicans only gained 30.0% of the general election only voters. That means Cruz was not able to achieve any appreciable amount of ticket splitting voters. Achieving some appreciable ticket splitting was possible as Bush (40.7%) Hagar (42.5%) and Abbott (51.9%) election results showed. Essentially, Cruz is as bad as it gets for the county party.
Lack of Party Leadership
Recently I was asked who is in control of the county party. I couldn’t give an answer. We have Simpson as the titular head. We have the slates. We have the anti-Simpson crowd. The issues and infighting with the three have been ongoing for quite some time and there’s no point in belaboring those issues with analysis.
Separate from the above, some individuals have clout. Bill King looked to be well positioned to make another serious attempt to take out Mayor Turner in the upcoming election. Now that Tony Buzbee has entered the race it essentially assures a runoff and leaves it as an open question as to who will ultimately challenge turner in the runoff. To some extent both King and Buzbee will have some influence as they are the two major alternatives to Turner. Jim Bingham has significant influence in Shapstown and would be a strong candidate for the District J city council seat since Councilman Laster is term limited out this cycle. Then there’s the Harris County Department of Education which has Republicans in office and therefore have some influence.
Then we have the problem of the overall party infighting that’s going on. Outside of the question of who will be the party chair the whole moderate versus far right fighting has become ugly enough that it’s having a detrimental effect on the party. Let me be clear – the party only succeeds when we have a big tent. Right now neither side in the infighting can lay claim to taking the high road on this issue. However, if blame is to be cast, it’s the “get out of my party” element of the moderates who do the most damage. Before the Trump voters started identifying as republicans the far right wing of the party (self identified TEA party as a proxy) was around one third of the party electorate statewide. That would have translated into 30ish seats in the house if Republican makeup of the legislature matched Republican electorate. The Freedom Caucus numbered 11.
The whole Empower Texans is trying to take over the state cry is nothing more than histrionics. The far right segment of the Republican Party is simply trying to obtain representation in line with their percentage of the electorate. No harm there; and the bitter attacks against that segment of the electorate doubtless cost us seats. We may disagree in March, but need to remember we are closer to each other than to the average democrat. That’s just as true for Sarah Davis as it is for the Freedom Caucus.
What can we do?
Identifying the problem and causes aren’t worth the time and effort if we don’t also look to what we can do to turn things around.
It won’t happen next cycle
The first thing to do is assess what can be done for next cycle. The overall atmosphere isn’t going to be conducive to erasing the gains. The top of the ballot drag will continue. Texas Politics Project job approval data for October 2018 shows that Cruz is significantly more disliked than Cornyn (37% disapprove strongly versus 25% disapprove strongly) so there’s the potential for the Senate race to be less of a drag on the county. However, the county will have to contend with Trump on the top of the ballot (40%) so the lack of coattails at the top of the ballot will remain next cycle. Senator Cornyn is a great contrast to Trump insofar as the county party is concerned, and to the extent that the party apparatus can need to appeal to him to campaign in the County. He has a long history of reaching out to Hispanic voters and can be a positive factor. However, Trump will still be too much to overcome coattail wise and the best the county can hope for is to blunt the negative effect.
Understand we don’t control the message
It doesn’t matter what message we put out. We don’t control the message, and the county party needs to stop trying for now. Any effort to push a theme such as “Harris County Works” is simply a waste of resources. Trump will suck the oxygen out of the room big picture wise. It’s going to be far more productive to focus on issues rather than message. To that end, the party needs to stay in the background in the upcoming mayor and city council elections and let the candidates shape the message. Bill King did an excellent job of taking on Mayor Turner last time and Tony Buzbee is capable of dwarfing any effort the county party can muster message proliferation wise. The party needs to let them run their races and focus on logistical support if asked.
Transition to a caretaker party chair
Simpson does a great job fundraising, but the election results don’t have anything to show for his significant fundraising prowess. He is once again going to have a target on him should he seek reelection. If the county party is going to try to coalesce around a leader it’s going to have to be someone else. At the same time, if Simpson is ousted in a bitter contested election it’s not going to be possible to rally around the new chair. The existing battle lines are too entrenched. To that end, it’s best for either a negotiated arrangement for the next party chair, or in the alternative a caretaker chair until the behind the scenes infighting can resolve.
A negotiated resolution is preferable as it would allow Simpson to focus on his prolific fundraising while someone else can focus on the messaging/unification aspects of the party. It would serve as détente rather than solution, but even détente is a step in the right direction which could hopefully lead to a future power structure where the parts were working where they are better suited rather than against each other.
With the players having such a long and bitter recent history détente is likely not possible. To that end, a caretaker party chair who could act more as a mediator/felicitator and resource for candidates may be the better route to go party chair wise. The players have to learn to work together again, or one side needs to win. As long as the battle is fought intraparty on the county party level the ability to focus on improving our position is in the background.
Focus on issues rather than message
Right now we aren’t in a position to erase gains next cycle or to advance a message. The next best course of action is to focus on issues. By focusing on issues the party gains in two ways. First, the party transitions into an entity that does good in the eyes of the electorate. We are the party of personal and fiscal responsibility, but we are also the party of social conservatives who believe in lifting others out of poverty rather than simply issuing a handout. The city has significant problems that need to be addressed. By focusing in on the issues the problems cause the party transitions away from Trump Wall Bombast to hey, they’re the ones articulating solutions to the problems we’re facing. The second benefit is that the issues will come to us. The next mayoral election is going to be a contrast in vision. The contrast highlights the issues, and we take advantage of the mayoral race issues to organize our articulated stances.
This doesn’t mean that we abandon the traditional social conservative values such as abortion as an example. Address abortion from a practical stance while the legislature and PACs fight the fight on the overall big issue. Let the right to life groups push abortion big picture activities. The county party can push the hospital district to make sure they are not improperly excluding applicants (which has become a huge problem lately) to ensure that the destitute have appropriate medical care. The county party can push to make sure that WIC is sufficiently funded to assist if the economy worsens. Both of these activities bear on abortion in that if expectant mothers in crisis pregnancies are satisfied they have the necessary support for the baby they are more likely to choose life.
This blueprint of practical action in support of others fighting the big picture battle can be carried out on a myriad of social issues. This, along with the aforementioned apolitical issues that will arise in the citywide races, gives the county party a great opportunity to change the local image within the overall toxic environment.
Addressing issues on the practical rather than message level makes the county party seem reasonable and like they are doing good. Then outreach becomes significantly easier. Then it’s a lot harder for the voters to simply vote democrat because of the overall toxic environment. We don’t take the county back in 2020, but we do make inroads, which is the best we can do for now.