Shocking. Humiliating. Just plain not great.
That’s how Democrats describe losing a long-held South Texas state Senate seat to upstart conservative Pete Flores on Tuesday night. The Republican win was historic, the first GOP victory there since just after the Civil War, but the implications stretch far beyond the district.
Republicans are now more likely to hold on to a supermajority in the Texas Senate, lending even more legislative power to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the chamber’s most conservative members. The outcome also dampens Democrats’ hopes that a “blue wave” is coming to Texas.
“It does throw cold water on their side,” Patrick spokesman Allen Blakemore said in an interview Wednesday. Echoing his boss, he added, “For those who were thinking about the ‘blue wave,’ it appears the tide is out.”
‘Dysfunction of Democrats’
Senate District 19 stretches from the small West Texas town of Orla south along the U.S.-Mexico border and east to San Antonio. The more than 800,000 people who live in the sprawling swath were represented by Democrat Carlos Uresti until June, when he resigned after being convicted of 11 felonies and sentenced to a dozen years in prison.
The sudden vacancy created a vacuum, sucking in eight candidates who, after a bitter initial election on July 31, were whittled down to Flores and former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, a Democrat. Despite nearly 100 percent name recognition and three times as much cash left in his campaign coffers, Gallego lost in the runoff Tuesday by nearly 6 percentage points.
The Texas Democratic Party blamed Gov. Greg Abbott. By setting the special election in September — and not November, when statewide races will boost turnout — party officials say, Abbott purposely set them up for failure.
“It’s very clear Gov. Abbott chose a special election day that would make it very hard for people to vote, that would guarantee low voter turnout,” said Manny Garcia, the party’s deputy executive director.
Slightly more than 26,000 people voted for one of eight candidates in the first round of the special election. In the runoff Tuesday, more than 44,000 people showed up. Flores got more votes than Gallego both times.
Texas consistently ranks near the bottom nationally in voter turnout. But twice as many people voted Tuesday than in the last Senate special election runoff, in February 2015. Blakemore gave Gallego’s camp kudos for getting people to the polls.
“The Democrats actually do need a little bit of a pat on the back,” he said. “The turnout itself was a big part of what in fact was historic here.”
Other party insiders attribute the loss to a wholly different problem — Democratic disunity.
“Primarily it’s attributable to the dysfunction of Democrats,” said Colin Strother, a local political consultant who was the chief strategist for Gallego’s Democratic opponent Roland Gutierrez in the first round. “Some people refer to it as crabs in a bucket. We have a tendency to splinter and divide.
“I refer to it as a circular firing squad.”
Strother said the animus between Gallego and Gutierrez was well documented. He called the Bexar County Democratic Party the most dysfunctional in the state. When Election Day arrived on Tuesday, Democrats just didn’t come together.
Christian Archer, Gallego’s campaign strategist, told the San Antonio Express-News he was shocked by the outcome but had no regrets. He should have some, riffed Strother.
“Collectively, as Democrats, we’re all pretty sick about it. It’s absolutely humiliating,” Strother said. “We blew what should have been an easy one, and the Republicans are spiking the football like they just won the Super Bowl. They kind of did.”
The three-fifths rule
Republicans realize they benefited from the Gallego-Gutierrez battle.
“Democrats were really divided in the first round, which provided a path for us to win,” Flores’ chief consultant, Matt Mackowiak, said Wednesday. “And we knew they were unlikely to unify.”
While the Democrats were duking it out, Flores was lining up endorsements. First came a nod from Texas Right to Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group powerful in conservative circles. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who has deep ties in Bexar County, was the first major elected official to support Flores; U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Patrick later gave him their blessings, too.
“Then finally, I guess the biggest piece at that time was the governor endorsing us two days before the [first round of the] election,” Mackowiak said. “It was really sort of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for Republicans.”
In the initial round of the special election, Gallego and Gutierrez split the Democrats, and Flores came in first with 10 times the votes of his next-closest GOP opponent. Then, with just seven weeks between that election and the runoff, his campaign went into overdrive.
His workers knocked on 20,000 doors, made 100,000 calls and visited all 17 counties in the district in six weeks, Mackowiak said. A retired game warden with ties to South Texas, Flores ran as an anti-abortion, pro-gun Tejano. And he ran as though he wasn’t competing in a Democratic stronghold, while Republicans accused Gallego’s camp of taking Hispanic voters for granted.
“The Democrats just don’t get it. They are tone-deaf,” Blakemore said. “They think South Texas is a bunch of Hispanics who will do what they’re told.”
Mackowiak said when detailed election returns become available in the coming weeks, he expects Flores’ stance on abortion to have helped his camp pick off a good number of Hispanic Democrats: “The life issue matters.”
Flores brought in more than $307,000 in seven weeks, with huge donations from Patrick ($125,586), Land Commissioner George P. Bush ($10,000) and the powerful conservative special interest group Empower Texans ($25,000), but he also enjoyed big social and traditional media pushes by the state’s top elected officials.
Republicans saw the race as their best chance in a long time to flip a blue Texas Senate district. They also knew nabbing the seat would give them some insurance heading into November, when they might lose a state Senate seat or two.
The exact breakdown of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate is important because of what’s known as the three-fifths rule. In 2015, when the Legislature held its biennial meeting, Patrick amended the Senate’s rules to allow 19 members to block debate on any bill. The change effectively gave the Senate’s 20 Republicans a lock on the life and death of every bill written by any lawmaker.
With Flores’ win, there are now 21 Republicans in the Senate. That means three Democrats would have to beat GOP incumbents in November to break the supermajority, and that would be a huge political lift. Garcia, the Democratic Party official, said that is the focus now.
“It is critically important that we break the Republican supermajority in the state Senate,” he said. “At the end of the day, Democrats need to come together.”