Texas Republicans have long coasted to re-election while ignoring their Democratic opponents. Not anymore.
For 2020, GOP incumbents in what has historically been one of the most solidly red states in the union are plotting offense-driven campaigns they hope will insulate them even if the party brand takes a nosedive.
Strategists and party operatives interviewed by the Star-Telegram say the approach comes after a number of long-serving Republicans notched closer-than-expected victories in 2018, while their party lost ground in the suburbs.
Even popular lawmakers aren’t safe if Texas voters continue to move away from the GOP in the Donald Trump era, the strategists said. So they are aiming to more aggressively drive attention to their opponents instead.
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“People are concerned, worried, fearful, about how do we strike a balance between handling the president and the base, versus building that broader outreach?” said Texas GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser, who has worked for Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, as well as GOP Reps. Mike McCaul and Dan Crenshaw.
The answer, Steinhauser said, is offense: “You talk about how the left is out of the mainstream and they want to socialize the country.”
It’s an approach Republicans are gearing up to deploy nationwide. But in Texas, it’s particularly noteworthy after Republicans have for years brushed off national help and many candidates have run successfully in the past without even mentioning their Democratic opponents.
The 2018 cycle scared many Republicans, who lost two congressional seats, and offered the first real evidence that the state might move from red to purple.
“A lot of people were taken by surprise,” said Steinhauser. “It’s going to take a lot more time, money and focus on the district.”
So acute is that concern, that members of the Texas delegation sat down last week with leaders from the House GOP campaign arm — which typically assists with polling, opposition research and negative advertising — to request more help with their races.
“We’re listening to everybody on what they did do and what they want to do next cycle,” said Justin Richards, political director at the National Republican Congressional Committee.
This cycle, Democrats are targeting six more seats representing Texas suburbs — the districts held by Reps. McCaul, Chip Roy, Pete Olson, Will Hurd, Kenny Marchant and John Carter.
Hurd, Roy, Olson and Carter each faced opposition from national Democrats last cycle as well, and Carter reached out to the party committee for help with that race too.
Hurd’s opponent Gina Ortiz Jones is considering another race, as is Carter’s opponent MJ Hegar. Hegar is also mulling a challenge to Cornyn, who is staffing up for re-election in 2020.
McCaul and Marchant each finished fewer than five percentage points ahead of their Democratic opponents, who were not included in their national party’s efforts. McCaul’s opponent, Mike Siegel is running again in 2020. Marchant’s opponent, Jan McDowell, is also considering another bid.
“It’s a presidential year. Presidential turnout, the blind hated of Trump will drive the left out, It’s going to be a battleground everywhere,” said Dave Carney, chief strategist for Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s political efforts.
If he were a Democrat choosing targets in Texas, he said: “I’d pick every seat.”
Republicans, for their part, are hoping to flip two seats held by Democrats, Reps. Colin Allred and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. Congressional Leadership Fund, GOP super PAC, this week launched digital ads attacking Allred.
Carney said he has been encouraged by GOP campaigns that have not run strong races in the past but have reached out to Abbott’s team for hiring advice after the 2018 election.
“If you haven’t thought about this and you’re in Congress today, you’re probably thinking about retiring,” he said.
Republicans are still plenty popular in rural parts of the state, helping many of them hold on without much campaign infrastructure in 2018.
But Democrats expanded their dominance in urban parts of the state, and made up ground in suburban areas that will factor heavily into many of the targeted House races.