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Democrats Have A Shot At Winning A Majority In Texas House Of Representatives

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Voters in Texas have already cast more than 5 million ballots. While polls show the presidential race is tightening in the historically Republican state, one of the bigger prizes for Democrats actually lies in the state House, where many millions of dollars have been spent. As Ashley Lopez of member station KUT reports, a Democratic win could change state politics for years to come.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: For Democrats, the possibility of flipping the Texas House didn't really start to feel real until, believe it or not, the party suffered a big loss.

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LOPEZ: It was Election Night 2018, and Beto O'Rourke had lost his U.S. Senate bid.

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BETO O'ROURKE: I'm as hopeful as I have ever been in my life. And tonight's loss does nothing to diminish the way that I feel about Texas or this country.

LOPEZ: And even though he lost, O'Rourke's campaign helped Democrats down the ballot. The party flipped two congressional seats that year and a whopping 12 seats in the Texas House. And now Democrats are just nine seats away from winning a majority in the 150-member chamber.

ANDREW REAGAN: It will be a seismic change for Texas. And that means that we will have fair maps in the redistricting process. The Republicans won't be able to gerrymander and to draw maps that are unfair to voters.

LOPEZ: That's Andrew Reagan with the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee. Next year, the Texas Legislature will be drawing new political maps, and Democrats want to make sure they have a seat at the table this time. But they need the state House. And Reagan says they have a good shot at some seats.

REAGAN: So there are nine currently Republican-held state House districts where Beto O'Rourke won a majority of the vote, but the Democratic candidate was unable to perform as well as him. And in a lot of cases, that was because they were outspent, and they weren't on people's radar. And that's not the case this time.

LOPEZ: But Republicans say they aren't worried. Luke Macias, a Republican political consultant for Texas House members, says 2018 was about Beto O'Rourke and not the Democratic Party's strength in the state.

LUKE MACIAS: And there's no doubt that in 2018, Beto O'Rourke had a tremendous amount of energy and people excited about voting for him.

LOPEZ: But Macias says he thinks that enthusiasm isn't matched in Joe Biden's presidential run or in any of the down-ballot Democratic candidates in the state either.

MACIAS: Each and every individual voter is going to have to decide, what do I want at the top of the ticket? What do I want in my U.S. senator, and what do I want in my state representative? And the truth is, most Texans are incredibly happy with where Texas is in comparison to the rest of the nation.

LOPEZ: Democrats say it's changing demographics that are making Republicans vulnerable. And Andrew Reagan says those nine seats they're hoping to flip are a perfect example of that.

REAGAN: It's hard to really get your finger on the rapid change that's happening in these districts because it's both younger, more diverse. And it's more college-educated than the country as a whole. And we've seen that college-educated voters specifically have been repelled by both Trump and the Republican Party.

LOPEZ: And while Democrats haven't won a statewide race in decades, Jim Henson, a pollster in Texas, says Republicans are losing a lot of ground in some of those down-ballot races in suburban and exurban parts of Texas.

JIM HENSON: You know, I mean, I have little doubt that this is likely to be another pretty good Democratic year based on the path that we're on.

LOPEZ: Henson says the pandemic and voter enthusiasm among Democrats are also making it harder for Republicans this year.

HENSON: You know, I think it's closer than it's been in a long time - you know, at least 10 to 15 years.

LOPEZ: And if Democrats do pull this off, it would be the first time in about two decades that Republicans in Texas don't have a complete lock on every branch of government in the state.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.