AUSTIN — The 2018 Midterm Elections were significant by any standard from record-setting voter turnout to flipping seats. KVUE's Ashley Goudeau sat down with Ross Ramsey, executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, to discuss the results.
Ashley Goudeau: Let's just begin with your overall thoughts.
Ross Ramsey: "I think the biggest takeaway is this was like other midterm elections, a referendum on Donald Trump. And Texas Republicans are clearly backing off a little bit. The Senate race, as we know, was close, it was three points. Greg Abbott did better than any other of the statewide Republicans. He's popular, he had a lot of money, he had a weak opponent. But Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, Sid Miller all had very close races and I think all of those guys are looking at, you know, the numbers that we had in 2014 have shrunk. If you go down the line, the Democrats took two Republican seats in the Congressional delegation, two Republican seats in the Texas Senate, 12 Republican seats in the Texas House. The Republicans didn't knock out a single Democrat incumbent. It was a big night for the Democrats despite the loss at the top. And I think, you know, at the bottom of it, the flashy part of that, the exciting part of that was the Beto O'Rourke campaign. But I think the structural part of that was Texas Republicans are squinting a little hard at their president right now."
Goudeau: And so let's talk a little bit about the voters. Early voter turnout was more than all of 2014, which is fair to compare it to because that's the last non-presidential election. So what does that really say to you about voter apathy in Texas, because we've typically been a state where people don't vote.
Ramsey: "Well yeah, our turnout's terrible. You know, just regularly in a midterm election, it's around 33 percent. Two-thirds of the voters stay home. Two-thirds of the registered voters stay home. We had much better numbers [Tuesday] night, 8.3 million or 8.4 million, some of that's still coming in, voted. And it didn't stay as red as it has, like in presidential years when we have 9 million people vote and it's still a red state. The big change last night, I think, was in the suburban counties that typically are kind of the backbone of the Republican party in Texas. Williamson County, Collin County, Denton County, Fort Bend county, places like that were not as reliably red as the Republicans have come to count on and the Democrats have come to fear. And it looks like if, you know, last night's numbers hold into the next election, this is a competitive state again."
Goudeau: I think Williamson County is a prime example of that. I mean, when we look at MJ Hegar vs. John Carter, she won Williamson County.
Ramsey: "She did."
Goudeau: When we look at the State House, James Talarico versus Cynthia Flores, and that was the seat vacated by Larry Gonzales and it turned blue.
Ramsey: "Yep. Tony Dale's seat in Cedar Park turned blue, pretty decisively. Part of that is Austin bleeding into Williamson County. But the same thing's happening up in Dallas where Dallas is bleeding into Denton County. Ron Simmons got beat last night in a race that really wasn't on anybody's radar. And there were a couple of Collin County seats where the incumbents won, Matt Shaheen and Jeff Leach, both members of Texas House, they won but they won by that much. Tarrant County lost a State Senator, Konni Burton, a lot of the House members up there, Republicans, won but just by the skin of their teeth. It was a different electorate."
Goudeau: The big race at the top of the ticket, Ted Cruz, Beto O'Rourke. This was the closest Senate race we've seen in Texas
Ramsey: "In ages."
Goudeau: In ages! What does that say?
Ramsey: "Well, you know, I think this race started as a race between Ted Cruz and not Ted Cruz. Nobody knew who Beto O'Rourke was. There's 36 members in the Texas congressional delegation, so he had never showed his face in 35 of those districts. So he does this run around where he's doing the 254 counties and he's visiting all over the place and slowly made a name for himself. But the pitch there was, 'I'm running against the guy who ran for president.' And everybody in Texas has an opinion about Ted Cruz. His supporters know who he is. His opponents know who he is. And as it turned out, just by that much, voters didn't want an alternative. But they sure considered one. And you know, Beto O'Rourke, that campaign built a question mark for the Republicans and a challenge for the Democrats. Can you repeat this turnout? And if you can repeat this turnout, maybe Democrats can break the 24-year hold the Republicans have on statewide office."
Goudeau: What we've seen with Ted Cruz and what we're already hearing people say is "Ah, but he's going to get ready for a 2024 run for president."
Ramsey: "Well, he might be getting ready for 2024 and he might be getting ready for 2020. We don't know yet whether Donald Trump's going to run again. If Donald Trump were to for some reason not run again, Ted Cruz would be on the list of names."
Goudeau: And there is some buzz that Beto O'Rourke could be on the list of names.
Ramsey: "You know, I think election night is the wrong time to make life decisions. You know, I think give him a few days and see what he wants to do. There are going to be a lot of people both nationally and in the state thinking about Beto O'Rourke. What are you going to do next? What's going to happen? What's your next plan? You're popular, are you with us? This is a place where we've seen the Castro brothers from San Antonio for a long time. Democrats in Texas are looking for future stars. And they found a star here and they're going to see what they can do with him. Nationally, people are looking at this and saying, you know, if a national ticket, a national Democratic ticket could take Texas away from the Republicans, it would be almost impossible for a Republican candidate to win the presidency. So, what they see in a Beto O'Rourke is A, a rising Democratic star, and B, maybe a possibility of a glimmer of a chance to take away the foundation of Republican national politics, Texas."
Goudeau: So let's talk a little bit, specifically about our State House, about Texas. Governor Greg Abbott sort of gave a similar message as to what Ted Cruz's was, which was I'm going to fight for everyone, I'm going to work for everyone. Do you think some of these big Republicans are a little spooked by that Democratic turnout?
Ramsey: "Yeah, they're not safe anymore. You know, when you win by 21 points like Greg Abbott did in 2014, you don't have to answer the door when the Democrats knock. If you win by nine points, uh, I better go see who that is, right? And I think you're going to see that all the way down. You know, Greg Abbott looked at this thing, he had a safe, comfortable victory. It wasn't the normal Republican victory. But if he looks down the ballot at how Dan Patrick won, how Ken Paxton won, how Sid Miller won, how some of the judges in statewide offices won, those were close and you have to bring the Republicans back who probably voted for Greg Abbott but maybe voted for Beto O'Rourke."
Goudeau: The configuration of the Texas House of Representatives has changed and that's significant.
Ramsey: "Yeah. You know, before this election there were 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats. Now, it's 84-66. That's a different proposition. It means that the Speaker is more likely to come from the middle of the House than from one of the edges. You know, the Freedom Caucus, the social conservatives in the House, they've been pushing very hard to get a more conservative speaker than Joe Straus. That's over."
Goudeau: And what about the Senate?
Ramsey: "The Senate's interesting. You know, Dan Patrick had an iron hold on the Senate and now he has to have every Republican. Any Republican could jump out and change the map. That makes them very, very powerful. Kel Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo, Robert Nichols, a Republican from East Texas, are both in positions where most of the time they're with the party but not always. They're not 'for sure' votes. Eddie Lucio on the Democratic side is usually with the Democrats but sometimes goes with the Republicans. There's going to be more negotiations going on in the Senate and fewer orders coming from the corner office."
Goudeau: All in all, you know, what's the big take away for people who are watching this and wondering what does it all mean?
Ramsey: "In Texas, the dial moved toward the Democrats. It's still a Republican state. It's less so in a real way in both the results that the statewide officials got and in the numbers that are going to show up in the Texas House and the Texas Senate. And I think it's going to moderate some of the things that the legislature can do."
Goudeau: Is Texas still red or is it moving toward purple?
Ramsey: "It's red."
Goudeau: Still red.
Ramsey: "Still red."