By Chase Rheinhardt Kempner
The historic 2018 midterms were personally disappointing for many Texas Democrats: watching Ted Cruz defeat Beto O’Rourke was enough to ruin the night for them despite what was otherwise a thundering victory for the national party (40 seats in the House, most of the Senate races up for grabs despite a historically poor map, and huge inroads in many state capitols and legislatures). However, focusing too much on one side of the story overlooks the fact that, once you take a closer look at the numbers, you see just how much reason local Dems have reason to be positive.
Despite its history as a red stronghold, Tarrant County surprised everyone this year by showing dominant Democratic turnout. Senator Cruz lost Tarrant County altogether, as did Congressman Ron Wright. All other statewide offices were narrow scrapes compared to their usual dominating returns in this county, so this cannot be chalked up to personal distaste of Ted Cruz alone, no matter how famously disliked he may be.
Activism and awareness over the past two years kicked the voter turnout into overdrive, and while 2018 was a particularly passionate year for both parties it is clear Democrats saw the bigger jump. Compared to the last midterm election before that, in 2014, Democratic turnout jumped 236% compared to a 140% increase in Republican turnout. Those numbers are for the Senate race, but the other statewide offices show similar marked increases among Democrats vs. Republicans:
- The race for governor was the Republicans’ best, and even it wasn’t as solid as usual: Governor Abbott fended off Lupe Valdez by just about 9 points, a massive drop from his 16-point win over Wendy Davis in 2014 and Rick Perry’s similar 15-point win over Bill White. Democrats saw a 178% increase in turnout, Republicans only saw 159% increase.
- The races for Lt. Governor and Attorney General were within just a few thousand of each other (as they usually are), and so for simplicity’s sake they were averaged out: Democrats saw an average increase in turnout of 204%, Republicans just 145%.
- The portion of the Texas 6th Congressional district flipped from red to blue; nearly every portion of a congressional district in the county experienced similar Dem-heavy increase in turnout at similar ratios for both parties. The two exceptions were the 26th (where Democrats had not ran a candidate at all in 2014, but Republicans still saw the same modest increase in turnout), and the 33rd district (where the story is the other way around: Republicans didn’t field a candidate in 2014, and Democrats saw an increase just under doubling their numbers in 2018).
So, was there partisan anger inflaming peoples’ passions and motivating greater turnout all around? No doubt. The increases from 2010 to 2014 are much more marginal for both parties across the board. The marked increases since 2014 can be readily explained by the notion that both sides were angry and ready to turnout, but the evidence is clear that Democrats were the more engaged side in this, locally.
There’s a lot of room for Democrats to go from here. With about 1.12 million registered voters countywide, only about 55% turned out to vote (which is roughly about 44% of the total voting-age population for the county). That means there are literally hundreds of thousands of votes still up for grabs just among registered voters, and hundreds of thousands of potential voters to be engaged and registered.
In future articles we’ll be looking at specific demographics and how they’ve changed over time in Tarrant County, but for now the most important factor is that there is real enthusiasm after overall victories in the midterms, coupled with increasing diversification that has built up the Democratic base (we’ll also go over some possible projections for 2020 based on all this data). The realization that hard work has resulted in tangible change is the reward local activists need to both redouble their own efforts and to win over those disengaged voters and skeptics who might otherwise be active and engaged Democratic voters and citizens.
The notion that Tarrant County is an unassailable fortress of Red America is no longer believable. The midterms in 2018 were the first seismic shock to the status quo, an ominous jump of the needle for Republicans who must surely be worried about their prospects if Democrats continue to ride this momentum into 2020.