When the Bottom Fell Out: Soul-Searching in North Texas

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The path to flipping Texas from red to blue was supposed to go through North Texas. There were so many allegedly competitive races in North Texas that were touted as the linchpin for changing the trajectory of this state. And then: nothing.

Texas Democrats did not flip any of the eight targeted congressional seats from the DCCC’s red to blue program. On a state level, Democrats gained no ground in the state House. Democratic statehouse challenger Joanna Cattanach, who in 2018 came within 220 votes of defeating state Rep. Morgan Meyer, saw her second bid in the Dallas district come up short again. But this time by over 1,600 votes.

In another rematch, Democratic challenger Brandy Chambers appears to be losing to Rep. Angie Chen Button by less than 250 votes. As of publication, Chambers has not conceded. In 2018, Chambers lost by 2 points against Button in the Dallas and Garland district.

One Democratic operative, who requested anonymity, blamed the lack of a ground game for Democrats underperformance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The operative pointed out that talking with voters on the ground and in-person is crucial. Most Democratic candidates did not campaign in-person or had any in-person ground game, while their Republican counterparts did.

Another Democratic strategist, who previously worked for a state house challenger in 2018 and spoke on background, also echoed those frustrations about the lack of a ground game. This strategist, who lives in the Texas 24th district (where Candace Valenzuela was challenging former Irving mayor Beth Van Duyne), had a lot to say about where Democrats had gone wrong.

“We just targeted incorrectly. We weren’t talking about the right issues at the right time,” the strategist told the Signal in a phone interview. The strategist conceded that the negative attack ads against Valenzuela, saying she wanted to defund the police, were effective.

The strategist cautioned though, that the Republican message on “law and order” wasn’t the whole story. The strategist saw plenty of ads for Democrat Jeff Whitfield, running in the seat vacated by retiring state Rep. Jonathan Stickland that touted his support for law enforcement. Whitfield was endorsed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial board (Valenzuela was not). Whitfield was also endorsed by Republican Todd Smith, the former Republican State Rep. of District 92 before Stickland. Whitfield lost by a little over 3 points.

In 2018, Republican incumbent Congressman Kenny Marchant only won the 24th congressional district by 3 points against a severely under-funded Democratic challenger. Instead of fighting for re-election, Marchant decided to retire, which opened the door for a competitive race.

The strategist was stunned by the lack of outreach from Valenzuela’s campaign. The strategist lives in a reliably blue precinct, but never received a door-hanger or phone call. There were some mailers towards the end. Some of those mailers were poorly designed. The strategist, who is Asian-American, was miffed that it was just non-nuanced translations into Mandarin and Vietnamese. The mailer was not translated into Korean, a sizable population in the district.  

The strategist assumed the DCCC was attempting to target the high number of Asian-Americans in the district, but whiffed on the actual effort. The chairwoman of the DCCC is Rep. Cheri Bustos from Illinois. She won her re-election by less than 4 points (in 2018 she won by over 20 points).

For the strategist, the Van Duyne campaign was laser-focused. The volunteers that knocked on doors for Van Duyne were college-aged and persuasive.

When it came to the Biden campaign, the strategist didn’t outright criticize their efforts. They did, however, point to the chaotic visit to Fort Worth by Senator Kamala Harris during her three-city swing through Texas. They criticized who was invited as “mostly people from Dallas.” They also said they personally knew grassroots activists in Tarrant County who were disappointed they were never even considered to attend.

Valenzuela has not formally conceded to Van Duyne, though she is down by 4,600 votes. When it comes to the DCCC, the strategist in our conversation had a long pause before they offered their conclusion. “Heads need to roll,” they said.

Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

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