In a sign of changing demographics in historically red Texas, Democrats there unseated two prominent Republicans on Tuesday in marquee contests for seats in Congress.
Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a corporate lawyer, defeated longtime Rep. John Culberson in Houston by 5 percentage points. And Colin Allred, a lawyer and former professional football player who had served in the Obama administration, beat Rep. Pete Sessions in Dallas by 6 percentage points.
“This could very well be the beginning of the end of the hegemony the Republicans have enjoyed for the last generation in Texas,” said Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
Both congressional seats were considered at risk by Republicans due to changing demographics. Dallas and Houston have long been blue dots in a sea of red, but the dots have been expanding with the urban cores, drawing transplants.
Experts said that Democrats’ success in flipping the two congressional seats shows the state is in play and could start to draw more attention and investment from national campaigns.
James Dickey, the state’s GOP chairman, called his party’s losses a “side effect of nearly $100 million and years of effort by the Democrats to try to flip Texas.”
Both losses were in districts Hillary Clinton had won in 2016.
“Clearly the Republican Party in Texas needs to do more work in urban and suburban areas,” Dickey said. “We have begun that work and we will redouble those efforts leading up to 2020.”
Still, he pointed out, every Republican running for statewide office won — as they have for the past 24 years.
Democrats and their supporters were thrilled by the two victories, as well as the unseating of half a dozen Republican state legislators in the Dallas area, across-the-board wins for Democrats in Houston’s Harris County and local victories in suburban Fort Bend County, the home district of Republican Tom DeLay, the former House Majority Leader.
“This is really the beginning of the end for the Republican Party in Texas,” Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said.
“Dallas County in particular last night was a huge blue wave,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based advocacy group.
Miller’s group was among those that drove turnout around Texas cities by focusing on issues such as criminal justice reform, Black Lives Matter, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and gun violence. She said that appealed to the increasingly diverse and motivated young electorate and helped Democrats.
“For 25 years they haven’t felt voting on those issues would make a difference,” Miller said. “Those voters have been identified, and they are a sleeping giant.”
But some experts questioned whether those voters would continue to turn out at the same rate in future elections. Many young voters were energized by the candidacy of Rep. Beto O’Rourke, whose success in urban and suburban areas was not enough to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who won big in rural areas.
The “Beto effect” may not be sustainable, said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political science professor at the University of North Texas.
“Is it an indicator of a movement toward a more purple Texas? It’s hard to tell,” he said. “We’ll have to wait until the next congressional election.”
Analysts also pointed out that this year’s election was unusual in that many voters were motivated by their dislike of President Trump.
Trump campaigned for Sessions, and while Culberson avoided Trump’s Houston rally with Cruz last month, the president still mentioned him — a sound bite Fletcher quickly posted online.
She appears to have persuaded a significant share of Republican women to split their tickets, voting for her and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who won the district, said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones.
“Trump is a major liability for Texas Republicans,” Jones said, alienating women, younger voters and Latinos. “As long as Trump is in the White House, the future is not nearly as bright for Texas Republicans as it was when Obama was there.”