It’s little secret the Donald Trump era for the GOP was both good and bad electorally. Trump furthered inroads with rural voters for the GOP in 2016 and 2020 but he also cost the party invaluable support in growing metro areas in red states like TX and formerly red states GA and AZ. Democrats made inroads in 16 in these suburban red districts but blew out expectations in their 2018 midterm romp. Gains that year fueled sky high expectations in TX, AZ, GA, NC and more. Yet, despite Biden winning the popular vote by 4.5 percent and House Democrats by 3 percent they lost a dozen seats and only gained a single suburban seat in the Atlanta suburbs.
One of the places the party saw the biggest flop was in Texas. The party had seen signs they could flip a number of suburban seats around Houston, Dallas and Austin. Yet, despite Biden making inroads in every district, his coattails were marginal and Democrats were left to ponder what went wrong.
Republicans largely theorized Republican leaning voters were repelled by Trump’s behavior but supported more conventional down – ballot GOP candidates. Further, with Trump off the ballot, the GOP argued these trending blue suburbs, at least in TX (the same cannot be said for GA or AZ), would revert to somewhat of their pre – Trump form. Democrats scoffed and believed the GOP’s emphasis on culture war issues repellant to suburban voters combined with a popular progressive Democratic agenda would fuel further gains.
Because Republicans surprisingly held a number of state legislatures in 2020 the party is still in a strong position in the suburbs because they can draw favorable lines. But the special election in TX – 6 was fought out under the old lines where Democrats made gains in the last few years. Though Trump carried it in 2020 he lost a lot of ground.
A quick primer on this district and election is necessary to point out how it is the first indicator of a rough 2022 for the party in power. The district was created in 2011 and meant to be the traditional suburban TX GOP district. But, in 2016 that eroded and the Arlington portion of the district went blue and has in every subsequent election. Meanwhile, the district takes in exurban Dallas/Arlington Navarro and Ellis Counties. For reference, Trump lost the Arlington portion of the district by over 5 points while he he won both other counties by plus 30.
Former Representative Ron Wright died from COVID – 19 complications earlier in the year and as a result the seat became open. A massive field of 23 candidates developed including his widow, GOP activist Susan Wright and a number of other Republicans and Democrats. Because Texas uses run-offs and such a massive field developed, it was assumed a run – off would occur. The main questions were who would make it to the run – off and how would the total GOP/Dem vote total compare to 2020.
Admittedly, Republicans spent and raised more money in the race than Democrats but even that cannot explain the results. The trend Democrats saw in 2016 and 2020 they hoped would continue hit a massive and unyielding wall. At last count the vote split between the Republican and Democratic candidates was a whopping 61/36.T is redder than Mitt Romney’s 17 point victory in 2012 and 22 points better than Trump in 2020. Three of the four top vote – getters were Republicans. Susan Wright has advanced to the run – off which has yet to be set (TX law does not allow the date of a special election run – off to be set until the first race is conducted) and Republican Jake Ellzy is narrowly leading Jana Lynne Sanchez, the 2018 Democratic candidate for the district. For Democrats to be locked out of a suburban run – off is a bad harbinger for 2022.
Because of the massive overperformance relative to 2020 the combined GOP vote total in blue Arlington was 53/45 R (+13R), Ellis 79/21 (+20R) and Navarro 80/19 (+14R). Assuming things are static in 2022 (which of course they won’t be) if the GOP overperformed this much nationally from 2020 they would put 100 seats in play. We know they don’t need nearly that many seats to take back the house though.
Let’s keep in mind the national context this race was fought in. President Biden is popular, and the government is doling out money like candy. It is unlikely the national environment is going to look any better for the party yet the party is likely to be locked out of a run – off in a seat Biden lost by a mere three points.
Obviously, each race is unique. But, we also look for indicators about how midterms will go. Legislative special elections have shown a strong resurgence for the GOP down – ballot but this contest was the first true test of how marginal seat races would play out. The result is absolutely damning for Democrats.
It is little wonder why Democrats are acting like they need to pass their entire dream agenda in two years vs. doing it piecemeal and assuming they even have a chance to hold power. Well, after these results, don’t expect the Democratic push to pass their ambitious agenda to be satiated. Rather it is likely to accelerate. That is, until moderates, or perceived moderates, bolt from an agenda which would raise taxes, push an unpopular social agenda and cost them their seats.
Republicans should definitely be optimistic after TX – 6 and a t least confident some of the suburbs will revert to the norm in 2022. Democrats should be worried they suffered such a humiliating setback at a time when they have passed the most popular parts of their agenda and not even touched the the hard part of their agenda. Good luck with that!