Analysis: It takes a village to win big races in Texas

A woman votes at Great Hills Baptist Church on July 14, 2020, in Austin. (Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune, Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune)

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

If you would like to listen to the column, click on the play button below.

(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)

It’s very difficult to win a statewide election in Texas if your party’s candidate in the top race isn’t winning or at least in a very close race. Down-ballot candidates sometimes wail about the amount of attention and money heaped on the people at the top of the ticket. But unless the people at the top do well, everyone else on the statewide ballot is sunk.

The most recent example was in 2018, when a hot race for U.S. Senate endangered many of the incumbent statewide Republicans on the ballot.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz prevailed over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke by just 2.6 percentage points. Gov. Greg Abbott had an easier time with former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, an underfunded Democrat who wasn’t well known in most of Texas. Abbott won by more than 13 points.

That margin was a life preserver for the Republican incumbents below him. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick beat Democrat Mike Collier, but by fewer than 5 percentage points. Attorney General Ken Paxton was reelected by almost 3 points over Democrat Justin Nelson. Comptroller Glenn Hegar and Land Commissioner George P. Bush each won by about 10 percentage points, but Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s margin was under 5 points.

Turn the wayback machine to 1994, when Democrats still held some of the top statewide offices and a Democrat in the White House — Bill Clinton — was having the kind of rough midterm ride that President Joe Biden’s supporters fear today.

Republican George W. Bush beat incumbent Gov. Ann Richards by 7.6 percentage points. In the top race on the ballot, a lower-key race for U.S. Senate, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison walloped Democrat Richard Fisher by 22.5 percentage points.

Most of the Democrats on the statewide ballot were saved by incumbency and by Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock’s runaway 23-point victory over Republican Tex Lezar.

That 45-point swing from Republican Hutchison to Democrat Bullock was enough to bring things around for Attorney General Dan Morales and Comptroller John Sharp, who each won easily.

Like Abbott’s 2018 win, Bullock’s margin helped rescue state Treasurer Martha Whitehead, who won by fewer than 25,000 votes out of 4.1 million cast in her race against Republican David Hartman. Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, a Democrat, beat Republican Marta Greytok by less than 3 percentage points.

And here’s the kicker: Incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry, a Republican, won by almost 26 percentage points. Republican Charles Matthews defeated longtime Railroad Commissioner Jim Nugent by 1.7 percentage points. Republican Carole Keeton Rylander defeated incumbent Railroad Commissioner Mary Scott Nabers by nearly 7 points. All of the Republicans running in statewide court races won, too (a couple of Democratic incumbents were unopposed).

Competitive races at the top of the ballot — where voter interest is highest — can be disruptive in races that get less attention.

Results like those have something for both sides. If Republicans — the incumbents this time — can get a strong win at or near the top of the ballot, they’ll build a firewall for the candidates below them. If the Democrats — next year’s challengers — can get close in a top race, even if they don’t win, they have a chance at taking a statewide race for the first time since 1994.

That’s what happened for Republicans in 1990. U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm won the top race. Richards won the governor’s race, followed by Bullock, Morales, Sharp and Mauro. But the challengers had two big victories: Hutchison was elected treasurer (an office abolished a few years later), and Perry won the agriculture commissioner’s race.

Hutchison went on to win a U.S. Senate seat in a 1993 special election. Perry won the lieutenant governor’s race in 1998 and took over as governor when Bush was elected president. Both owed their initial breakthroughs to competitive candidates above them on the ballot.

The political landscape in Texas in 2022 favors Republicans, who hold all of the statewide offices, drew the new political maps in redistricting and have the historical midterm advantage that goes to the party that doesn’t occupy the White House.

To break through anywhere on the statewide ballot next year, Democrats need a close race at the top, along with strong enough candidates to take advantage of it. To hold them off, the Republicans will need someone at the top to rack up a decisive victory, protecting any weaker candidates below.

Election season is only beginning, but the Republicans start with much better odds.