Texas Democrats and Republicans are on the hunt for rare chances to flip seats in 2024

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Robstown, a western suburb of Corpus Christi, on Oct. 22, 2022. (Lucas Boland/Caller-Times Usa Today Network, Lucas Boland/Caller-Times Usa Today Network)

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Texas Democrats and Republicans are beginning to gear up for a presidential election cycle in which opportunities to flip seats for Congress and the Legislature appear limited.

It’s a natural outcome after Republicans redrew legislative and congressional district boundaries in 2021 to shore up their majorities for the next decade, stamping out most districts that had turned competitive by the end of the last decade. Most of the remaining competitive territory was in South Texas, which is predominantly Hispanic, and where the GOP poured almost all their resources in 2022 — to mixed results.

On paper, there are few obvious pickup opportunities based on an analysis of the governor’s race results in each district. Among U.S. House seats, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke did not carry any districts that are currently held by a representative from the other party. The same was true in the Texas Senate. And among state House districts, Abbott and O’Rourke each won only one that is currently controlled by the opposing party.

The statewide election results often provide a helpful guide of how a district is trending given that they often represent the highest-turnout contest in a district.

The size of the battlefield in 2024 could depend on the top of the ticket, which will be the presidential race. President Joe Biden is expected to run for reelection, and the Republican frontrunner to challenge him is former President Donald Trump, whose 2016 and 2020 runs yielded some of the closest presidential races in Texas in recent history. His closest competitor for the nomination is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has not launched a campaign yet but is widely expected to jump in.

There are other factors for the down-ballot contests that remain to be seen.

Even though Abbott signed off on redistricting in 2021, the lines could still change for the 2024 election. Various groups are suing over the maps, alleging things like intentional discrimination and efforts to dilute voters of color, and they are currently awaiting a trial in federal court in El Paso. On the line in the case are boundaries for seats such as a San Antonio state House seat currently held by GOP Rep. John Lujan; that seat is a top battleground in the Texas House.

There could also be retirements that alter the dynamics of individual races. The initial forecast for retirements in the congressional delegation, however, is low, with Republicans newly in the majority — and Texans rising in leadership — and Democrats hopeful they can regain the majority in 2024. Retirement announcements in the Legislature do not normally come until after the biennial legislative session ends, which is in late May.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is also running for reelection toward the top of the ticket, though his statewide race is not being discussed as particularly competitive from the onset.

The dearth of competitive down-ballot races could contrast with the last few election cycles in Texas, when multiple congressional seats and state legislative seats drew significant national investment. In 2018, when O’Rourke challenged Cruz, Texas was awash with competitive races and Democrats were able to flip two U.S. House seats, two state Senate seats and 12 state House seats. In 2020, overconfident Democrats thought they could flip enough seats to take control of the state House for the first time in decades, however, they ultimately ended up underperforming.

U.S. House races

For Texas’ congressional races, a major question will be how hotly contested South Texas is again. National Republicans targeted three seats there in 2022 and underwhelmed by capturing only the most likely of the three, the 15th District, which was redrawn to slightly favor Republicans. So far, every major forecaster has labeled the other two seats — the 28th and 34th districts — as “Likely Democratic” for 2024.

Anchored in Laredo and San Antonio, the 28th District is held by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, the resilient centrist who exceeded expectations last year by defeating his Republican challenger by double digits. That’s despite attacks highlighting his home being raided by the FBI weeks before his primary.

The 34th District, based in the Rio Grande Valley, is occupied by U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, who knocked off U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, after she flipped the seat in a special election months earlier that drew national attention.

Flores repeatedly teased a comeback campaign in the weeks after her loss, but she has been less vocal recently and at least one fellow Republican, businessman Mauro Garza, has gone ahead with his own campaign for the seat. And Abbott lost in the district by 13 percentage points, further foreshadowing an uphill battle in 2024.

Abbott lost in Cuellar’s district by a much narrower margin — 5 percentage points — but Republicans are under no illusions about the difficulty of unseating Cuellar after their experience last cycle.

The National Republican Congressional Committee announced Monday it would target Gonzalez’s seat again in 2024, meaning they plan to invest heavily in the Republican opponent. The NRCC omitted Cuellar from the same announcement.

In a statement for this story, the committee indicated Texas will continue to be a focus.

“Texas Democrats shouldn’t get too comfortable,” NRCC spokesperson Delanie Bomar said. “While they might like open borders and skyrocketing inflation, Texans do not.”

Whether at the congressional or state legislative levels, some incumbents may be confronting something of a redistricting hangover in their districts. The new maps were not finalized until weeks before the 2022 candidate filing deadline, and possible challengers looking to capitalize on the redrawn boundaries may have opted against running knowing they would have more time to build their campaigns in 2024.

Take for example U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, D-Houston, whose district transformed from a national battleground to a bright-blue slice of the fast-growing, highly diverse Houston suburbs. She managed to run unopposed in her first primary under the new lines last year, but she likely will not be so fortunate this time. She has already drawn one opponent, Pervez Agwan, a renewable energy developer from Houston who is aggressively challenging her from the left.

Among Texas Republicans, Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio could have the bumpiest primary. Redistricting made his district more red, and he has split with his party in notable ways since then, earning a censure by the Republican Party of Texas on March 4 over his votes on same-sex marriage and gun control. Within two days after the censure, two fellow Republicans, Victor Avila and Julie Clark, announced they would challenge Gonzales, and a third, Frank Lopez Jr., said he was exploring a run.

Avila is a retired ICE agent who unsuccessfully ran for land commissioner last year; Clark is the chair of the Medina County GOP, which initiated the Gonzales censure; and Lopez is the former Val Verde County GOP chair who ran against Gonzales as an independent last year.

For Texas Democrats, the biggest primary could again be that of Cuellar. He has leaned in to his independent streak — as members of his own party have chastised him for occasionally voting with Republicans — as he has survived back-to-back challenges from progressive Jessica Cisneros and she has not ruled out a third run yet.

“She’s been busy working as an immigration attorney again, so that’s been her focus now,” said Alejandro Garcia, who was a spokesperson for Cisneros’ campaign. “I think she’ll let people know if/when she’s ready.”

Texas Senate races

In the Texas Senate, the only competitive seat in 2024 is set to be in Senate District 27 in the Rio Grande Valley, which was also the chamber’s only close race in 2022. With veteran Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, retiring, Democrat Morgan LaMantia and Republican Adam Hinojosa duked it out, and LaMantia won by 659 votes. Hinojosa requested a recount, but it was not enough to change the outcome.

Then, as the legislative session got underway in January, LaMantia had the misfortune of drawing only a two-year term, ensuring she would be in for another competitive race soon.

Hinojosa announced Tuesday he would run again in 2024.

“We are the party of safety, opportunity, and family values – and we need a State Senator in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley who will turn those shared values into real policy here at home,” Hinojosa said in a statement that also knocked Biden over border security.

The only other state Senate seat where Abbott and O’Rourke were separated by single digits was Senate District 20, also in South Texas and currently held by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. He is up for reelection in 2024, but O’Rourke won the seat by 9 percentage points, making it a harder target for Republicans than SD-27.

Texas House races

The Texas House battlefield is set to be wider. There were 12 districts where Abbott or O’Rourke won by single digits in 2022, including six that were decided by 5 percentage points or less. Those races are not enough to change the House majority but could give either side a foundation to work from as they hone their ambitions for later in the decade.

House Democrats have a new caucus chair, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, who argued that Republicans did not have much to show for after their first post-redistricting election.

“Despite their best efforts, the Texas GOP only yielded one additional seat, proof that the political landscape continues to change in the Texas House,” Martinez Fischer said in a statement. “As our state changes demographically, so will these districts, and if Republicans continue to prioritize extreme governance over kitchen table priorities, they will pay the price at the ballot box.”

The No. 1 target for Democrats will be District 118 in San Antonio, which is the only House seat that O’Rourke carried that is currently represented by a Republican. The GOP incumbent, Lujan, won the district by 4 percentage points, while O’Rourke carried it by 2.

The Democrat who ran against Lujan in 2022, Frank Ramirez, has not ruled out running again.

“There’s a deep chasm between our state leadership playing politics and the several needs of our state,” Ramirez said in a statement, mentioning health care, public education and voting rights as examples. “With all this in mind, my team and I are watching with a hawks eye to see if the current leadership in this seat is meeting the real needs of the people of HD118.”

The one district that Abbott carried in 2022 that is currently represented by a Democrat is House District 80. The incumbent is Rep. Tracy King, a moderate Democrat from Batesville who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. Despite Abbott carrying the district by 6 percentage points, Republicans did not field a challenger to King, a glaring omission in their otherwise full-throated South Texas offensive last year.

The seat that saw the tightest gubernatorial results in 2022 was House District 74 in south and west Texas, home to moderate Rep. Eddie Morales Jr., D-Eagle Pass. But while O’Rourke carried the seat by eight-tenths of a percentage point, Morales was able to far outrun the environment and vanquished a well-funded GOP challenger by 11 points. That could make him a tougher target for 2024 than the Abbott-O’Rourke numbers indicate.

Beyond Lujan, Republicans will have to defend their one true pickup in 2022, House District 37 in the Rio Grande Valley. Republican Janie Lopez won that seat by 4 percentage points as Abbott carried it by a similar margin.

When it comes to state House primaries, much of the drama will depend on what Republicans get done — or do not get done — during this legislative session. There are ample issues that could animate the next round of primaries if they do not get across the finish line, like the Abbott-championed push for “school choice.”

Abbott has suggested Republicans lawmakers, particularly in rural areas, would be voting against their own constituents’ interests if they oppose the cause, laying the groundwork for potential post-session recriminations.

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