Flipping the Texas House: Inside Democrats' effort to turn a red state blue
With his presidential hopes dashed, Beto O'Rourke has joined the Democrats' fight to take control of the Texas state House.
Chioma McRipley, center, introduces her 6-month-old daughter, Elyse, to Beto O'Rourke on Jan. 11, 2020, in Richmond, Texas. O'Rourke joined volunteers to canvass for Eliz Markowitz, the Democratic candidate for a state House seat in an upcoming special election.Annie Mulligan / for NBC News
Breaking News Emails
Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
KATY, Texas — A little more than two months after he dropped out of the race for president, Beto O'Rourke drove 700 miles from his home in El Paso to this city in the vast suburbs west of Houston.
He parked his pickup truck on a residential street on a brisk Saturday morning and started knocking on doors.
Nobody answered at the first home, so he scribbled a note on a campaign flyer and left it on the door. At the next house, a woman cracked open her door just wide enough to grab a brochure from O'Rourke's hand and then made it clear that she wasn't interested in discussing politics. A few houses down, a man answered in his bathrobe.
"Oh, my God, it's Beto O'Rourke," he shouted.
"Yes, sir," O'Rourke said before explaining that he was out campaigning for Eliz Markowitz, a Democrat running for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in a special election this month. "I was coming by to see if we could count on your vote in this election."
"That's fine," the man said. "But what's your next move?"
"This is it," O'Rourke said before shaking the man's hand and turning toward the next house on his list.
"I can't think of a better use of my time," O'Rourke said in an interview this month.
For the first time in two decades, Democrats in what has been the reliably Republican stronghold of Texas believe they have a shot at taking control of the state House in November and, in the process, potentially reshaping Texas politics for years. Republicans hold a narrow eight-seat majority, and whichever party prevails this fall will win an additional prize: a seat at the table, along with the Republican-controlled state Senate, when it comes time to draw new congressional district boundaries after the 2020 census.
"That means that a state that is the most gerrymandered in the union, where it is not the voters that choose their elected leaders, it is the elected officials who choose their voters and do so based on your ethnicity, on your race, on your country of national origin ... that we're going to have fair redistricting in this state moving forward," O'Rourke told hundreds of volunteers who came out to knock on doors in Katy.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
Already, hundreds of thousands of dollars are flowing into Texas from out-of-state donors in an effort to win more than a dozen key races targeted by state Democrats in November. National party leaders are forging similar efforts in other Republican-controlled states, including Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia. Texas, which has 36 U.S. House seats and the potential to gain as many as three more because of its rapid population growth over the past decade, is viewed as the most important, said Ben Wexler-Waite, communications director of Forward Majority, a Democratic organization that is targeting several Republican-led state legislatures in 2020.
"Up until now, the opportunity to flip the Texas House has mostly flown under the radar, but we've quietly been implementing a long-term plan to finish the job and upend the entire 2021 redistricting process," Wexler-Waite said, outlining his group's plan to spend at least $2.2 million on 20 Republican-held state House seats, most of them in suburban districts outside Houston and Dallas.
James Dickey, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, said the push to flip the state House reminds him of elections in 2014, 2016 and 2018, when Democrats made a lot of noise about shifting demographics' changing the course of Texas politics — and then went on to lose every statewide race to Republicans, despite making gains in the Legislature.
"I look forward to beating them soundly, as we did then," said Dickey, noting that the GOP is also fielding new candidates in traditionally Democratic-leaning districts with the goal of increasing the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate. "On the other hand, we take very seriously the need to continually earn every Texas voter's support and to remind them that Texas was not the Number 1 state in the country for opportunity and careers prior to the Republican Party taking over the Texas House 17 years ago."
The first test of the Democrats' latest effort comes in the Jan. 28 special election in Fort Bend County, west of Houston. Markowitz, an educator and textbook author, is running against Republican Gary Gates, a real estate investor, to replace state Rep. John Zerwas, a Republican, in a district long considered a GOP stronghold. Early voting begins Jan. 21.
The race, viewed by some as a harbinger of Democrats' chances of taking the House in November, has drawn national interest. Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg went door to door with Markowitz this month. And when O'Rourke put out a call for volunteers to help Markowitz's campaign, more than 400 people came, several from out of state. Some traveled from as far away as New York and Cincinnati to canvass neighborhoods.
Although the winner of the special election will have to run again in November, before the Legislature even holds its next session, the contest has become "a tremendously important race for the future of Texas Democrats," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. Democrats believe demographics have already shifted in their favor, he said, but to win, they'll need to get those groups to vote.
"Democrats are trying to put to the test the idea that turnout is the heart and lungs of potential victory in some of these red seats," Rottinghaus said.
Republican officials seem to be taking the threat seriously. Gov. Greg Abbott recently wrote an email urging supporters to back Gates, saying his opponent was backed by "radical liberals like Beto O'Rourke," who, Abbott said, "want to confiscate your guns, tax churches, and allow abortion up until birth."
House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, a Republican, was caught on a secret recording last year warning that President Donald Trump was "killing us in urban-suburban districts," which have grown increasingly diverse in recent years, and fretting over potential GOP losses in Texas in 2020.
And in an email to local Republicans last fall, a Fort Bend County party official described the special election as "our Alamo," seeming to acknowledge the changing political winds in the community west of Houston. Once a Republican bastion — the home district of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — Fort Bend is regarded as one of the fastest-growing and most rapidly diversifying counties in the country.
Its residents are 32 percent white, 25 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Asian and 20 percent African American, according to 2018 Census Bureau estimates, and about a quarter of the population is foreign born. Hillary Clinton won the county by 7 percentage points in 2016, making her the first Democrat to carry Fort Bend since Lyndon Johnson did it in 1964.
But changing demographics here and in other suburban districts throughout Texas have yet to turn into major victories for Democrats. Even in 2018, when O'Rourke's Senate campaign drew record Democratic turnout, Republican candidates won every statewide office and maintained control of both chambers of the Legislature.
Getting close is no longer good enough, Democratic Party officials say.
"Democrats are licking their chops, ready for wins," Rottinghaus said. "I think Texas Democrats are tired of the good fight. I think they want to be the ones standing in the ring alone at the end."
Chibuzo Nlechi, a Nigeria-born information technology specialist, was amazed to see O'Rourke standing at his front door. Nlechi, 42, thanked him for continuing to fight for change, even if his name isn't on the ballot.
"Honestly, from a human perspective, we really do not like what is going on in this country and in Texas," Nlechi said, emphasizing that he is a U.S. citizen and proud of it. "The inhumanity that's been on display is not what makes this a great country."
O'Rourke asked Nlechi whether he and his family would support the effort to flip the state House for Democrats.
"Yes," Nlechi said. "Just tell me what I need to do."
Mike Hixenbaugh is a national investigative reporter for NBC News, based in Houston.