Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Despite a narrow defeat to Ted Cruz in the midterms, Beto O’Rourke conquered the state’s last major conservative urban area, and helped Democrats statewide.
Fort Worth was always going to be a battleground for Texas.
“Fort Worth is one of the largest conservatively led cities around,” Mayor Betsy Price told me earlier this year. It’s true: Not only is she President Donald Trump’s favorite mayor, Price is one of just a handful of GOP leaders who presides over a large urban center, along with the mayors of Jacksonville and Oklahoma City.
As the biggest city in the state that still voted red before this election, Fort Worth’s Tarrant County loomed as a bellwether even before the midterm. Nearly 433,000 people cast ballots during early voting there, with about 626,000 voting in the Senate race—record-shattering figures for a midterm and counts that fell just short of momentous vote totals in the 2016 presidential election.
Both incumbent Senator Ted Cruz and challenger Robert “Beto” O’Rourke needed passionate voters to turn out in huge numbers in Tarrant County to settle one of the country’s most divisive races. In the end, O’Rourke failed to unseat Cruz. But the contest was far too close for comfort for the GOP in Texas, and Beto won Tarrant County—where voters haven’t sent a Democrat to Congress in decades.
So did Democrat Beverly Powell, who picked up the state Senate seat for the Fort Worth area. Closer to the ground, Devan Allen, a Democratic candidate for the Tarrant County Commission, managed to upend Republican incumbent Andy Nguyen in a close contest. Texas didn’t witness a blue wave, exactly. But liberal voters have stormed the last conservative urban stronghold in Texas.
Urban centers in Texas now provide safe havens for the Democratic Party. Over the last few years, the share of people who voted for the Democratic candidate in the top election contest—so O’Rourke in 2018, Clinton in 2016, and so on—has improved. In Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso, these figures held steady from the presidential election to the midterms. In Dallas and Tarrant Counties, the Democratic share of the electorate actually shot up between 2016 and 2018.
The GOP share of the vote in Texas cities has eroded. That’s a dog-bites-man story from the perspective of any coastal elite. But only a few years ago, voters in the biggest Texas cities were evenly split everywhere but Austin. Since 2014, Democrats have opened up a turnout lead over Republicans in Dallas and Houston, and to a lesser extent, San Antonio. Now, liberals have closed the gap in Tarrant County. In terms of turnout, Republicans lost ground in all those cities. But Republican voter turnout also declined in the smallest counties, too.
O’Rourke may have failed in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz, but thanks in part to his strong showing, Democrats made pick-ups in the House. Colin Allred upset the powerful Republican incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions, while first-time candidate Lizzie Pannill Fletcher took out the longtime GOP incumbent Rep. John Colberson. While Pete Olson held on in Texas-22, at press time, it appeared that Gina Ortiz Jones would squeak out a narrow win against Rep. Will Hurd. Women and people of color managed to mount strong insurgent campaigns in a bastion of power for established, older white men: a microcosm for the national mood.
One of the least-appreciated aspects of Beto O'Rourke's overperformance/Cruz's underperformance in TX-SEN last night: the entire GOP bench of judges was wiped off the map wholesale in Dallas and Houston. The legal topography of the state just changed overnight.— Jeff B. (@EsotericCD) November 7, 2018
Meanwhile, Lone Star Republicans who won did so by margins that would shame their GOP ancestors. Cruz held his Senate seat by just 3 points. (In 2012, he coasted to victory by 16 points.) Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller all won by less than 5 points. Given that Texas Governor Greg Abbott won reelection in a landslide, that suggests widespread defections among Republican voters or disaffection from independents.
For a variety of reasons, Democrats may not have a better shot at the open Senate seat in Texas in 2020; Beto's burgeoning national celebrityhood did boost the party’s fortunes. But no Texas Republican should feel safe: Democrats closed the margin in races that weren’t supposed to be contests, and in places that weren’t supposed to be contested. The historically flailing Texas Democratic Party may have finally found the roadmap for electoral victory going forward.
Texas cities top any list of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. That’s one reason why they’re so solidly blue now. Today they provide safe cover for Democratic statewide candidates and the once-anemic state Democratic Party as a whole. Republicans, looking on from safe rural districts that are bleeding population—or from typically conservative suburbs that helped to deliver the House for Democrats this time—ignore Texas cities at their peril. Fort Worth may have been the GOP’s last red redoubt, but it’s purple now. Just like Texas.