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In 2020, Joe Biden lost by less than Hillary Clinton did in 2016; eleven of the twelve State House seats we won in 2018 were successfully defended, and overall Democratic voter turnout in Texas was the second-highest of any battleground state.
In other words, we made progress towards an eventual statewide Democratic victory.
As we learned from Georgia, success doesn’t happen in a single cycle. Democratic leaders there like Stacey Abrams took the long view, and over a ten-year period groups like Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project registered and persuaded enough non-voters to become active voters that Georgia was able to play a critical role in electing Biden and giving Democrats a majority in the Senate.
And yet, even with that inspiring example in mind, the progress we made in Texas in 2020 feels deeply unsatisfying.
We didn’t win a single statewide race. We didn’t improve our standing in the State House. And while Biden only lost by 6 points, that’s more than double the margin we lost by in 2018.
Not that Texas is an easy state to win. If it was, we’d be blue by now.
But that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Because the work here didn’t just begin in the 2020 cycle. Though not as well-funded as the Georgia groups, there are longstanding efforts in Texas focused on the big goal of producing statewide Democratic majorities, efforts that go beyond short-term single-cycle thinking. The Texas Organizing Project, for example, has been working since 2009 to persuade non-voters to vote in the very communities that have been the targets of voter suppression and intimidation in our state.
And then there’s the fact that we got so close in 2018. While we didn’t win statewide that year, we won everywhere else on the ballot. We picked up twelve State House seats across Texas, won two tough Congressional races, and saw seventeen African American women elected to judicial positions in Harris County alone. We witnessed a dramatic increase in young voter participation (over 500% in early voting) and the largest turnout in a midterm since 1970.
Why didn’t that extraordinary Democratic performance in a midterm (when Republicans usually have a baked-in turnout advantage) lead to a victory in the 2020 presidential (when Democratic voter performance tends to spike)?
Money has a lot to do with it. Though more Democratic interest group and candidate campaign money was spent in Texas this past year than in any Presidential election in recent memory (by tens of millions), it paled in comparison to what was spent in Georgia (by hundreds of millions).
Imagine if Texas had raised ten times the resources for organizing, infrastructure, and voter registration in 2020!
But it’s not just how much money we raise, it’s how we spend it. While Texas Democrats put up a heroic fight last year on the airwaves, over the phone lines, and by text message, Republicans went out and met voters in person.
As Webb Democratic county chairwoman Sylvia Bruni put it, “while we were making phone calls to turn out voters who were already likely to vote for Democrats, Republicans were going to the bars and barrios, making their case in person. They were determined.”
She added that while Webb county reached the all-time high of 50% turnout of registered voters (in 2016 it was 46%), it looked as though the incremental gain all went to Trump.
Recently released voter data suggests it wasn’t so much that Democratic voters in McAllen, Laredo, and El Paso switched their votes to Trump from 2016 to 2020, but that non-voters turned out for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, and voted Republican.
Democrats’ failure to meet voters in person, to listen to them, and to respond in authentic language that addressed their real concerns and anxieties (about jobs, for example) likely sealed our fate before voting even began.
There are a lot of other things we can look at from the 2020 cycle that might have contributed to the disappointing outcome — from digital strategy and investment to the disorganized rush of last-minute spending — but I think the key takeaways are these:
We’ve got to knock on doors, meet our voters and talk to them. Face to face.
Democrats will win when we have candidates and campaigns that take the field, own the field, and stay on that field until every voter has been listened to, answered to, and then personally asked to vote.
The “messaging” will follow. If you’re a good candidate, you know why you’re running, what you believe in, and what you’ll do if elected to a position of public trust. Listening and talking to voters allows you to share all of that with them in language that connects with their lives, their families, and their communities.
We can’t win on peanuts. Real money has got to be raised for Texas.
Not $25 million, but $250 million. And it can’t be blown on television and the talking points cooked up by pollsters and focus groups, which might be great for consultants but have a marginal impact on voters.
Instead, spend that money on people, campaigns, and candidates. Hire and train Texas organizers to work in the communities in which they live. Ensure that candidates can pay their staff a living wage. This will develop the talent necessary to win current cycle campaigns and the campaigns of Democratic candidates that follow. And unlike the millions spent on TV ads for State House candidates, money invested in people and organizations in Texas doesn’t disappear after the election. It finances the campaign infrastructure that we need for the long term.
Let’s also make sure the resources are there to support candidates who don’t have deep pockets or who aren’t connected to the good old boy network of donors and political bosses. That will guarantee a greater diversity of candidates, a greater level of opportunity, and a greater degree of equity. It’s the right thing to do, and it will engage more non-voters in Texas who finally see candidates who look like them.
We must clearly communicate the courage of our convictions.
In 2018 we showed up in 254 counties and fought for every single vote, sharing our Democratic values without fear or hesitation. We articulated our vision for the future in a way that inspired and excited people of all backgrounds and beliefs. And we did it without pollsters and consultants telling us what to say.
In 2020, the Texas Republican Party shamelessly trafficked in deceit, disinformation, and demagoguery. By not showing up in person to counter their lies with the truth and by not speaking honestly and directly to the tough issues at hand — in our own words — Democrats allowed them to control the message.
We made progress in 2020, but we got beat. No two ways about it, and nothing good will come of sugarcoating it.
But if we choose to learn from our losses, then we can stop settling for progress.
We can win.
Texas Signal is a progressive news organization headquartered in Houston, Texas that is dedicated to empowering Texans with fact-based reporting about their politics and government at a time when right-wing media is on the rise, spreading disinformation across the state. You can support our work by joining our Patreon today.