Will Biden’s coattails bring a blue Texas?

Earlier this week, the stream of good state-level polling news for Joe Biden made its way to the Lone Star State. Quinnipiac had Biden up 45%-44%, with YouGov/CBS having him down just a point a week earlier. While a win for Biden in Texas would be historic and momentous, it is highly unlikely to be the tipping point state in the 2020 presidential campaign. The opportunity to win the Texas State House, however, could help to reshape the policy direction of the state and would have substantial influence on redistricting following this year’s Census.

The question was asked (by Conor Sen on Twitter): what sort of margin do Democrats need to win the State House in 2020? Using our state legislative data, we’re here to answer that question, in a couple of different ways. Let’s start with a look back at 2018.

Beto won in a majority of Texas State House Seats in 2018

When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2018, Beto O’Rourke carried 76 of the 150 Texas House of Representatives seats, despite losing the election by 2.6% to Ted Cruz. In doing so, Beto carried the 12 seats that Democratic state legislative candidates picked up in 2018 and nine additional seats, the so-called “Beto Nine” that are the focus of major fundraising efforts this year. So, in 2018, Beto showed that a statewide Democrat can claim victory in a house majority coalition, even when losing. It won’t take a Biden victory in Texas for Democrats to be in the game.

For Biden to carry a majority of Texas House districts, he probably needs to perform similarly to Beto.

In the table below, we highlight the top 14 targets for State House pickups for Democrats and how Beto and the 2018 Democratic state legislative candidate fared. The furthest right column shows the margin that Biden would need to achieve in order to win in the district.

Texas is a quickly changing state, where districts that voted for Republicans by double digits less than a decade ago are now pure purple toss-ups. But for this analysis, we conservatively assume that no districts have gotten bluer.

With this assumption, the table tells us that if Biden gets within 10 points (45%-55%), he is likely to carry 3 R-held State House seats. If he gets within 5 points, that number increases to 6. Of course, matching Beto’s margin of -2.6% gets him those 9 seats. Winning the state could bring at least 14 seats into the Biden column.

How Biden Needs to Perform to Win a Majority of State House Seats

Legislative District2018 Beto Margin2018 State House MarginBiden Statewide Margin Needed
HD 13421.3%-6.3%-23.9%
HD 10815.2%-0.3%-17.8%
HD 1129.6%-2.1%-12.2%
HD 1386.3%-0.1%-8.9%
HD 665.7%-0.6%-8.3%
HD 675.5%-2.3%-8.1%
HD 261.6%-4.8%-4.2%
HD 640.5%-8.3%-3.1%
HD 1210.4%-8.4%-3.0%
HD 96-0.1%-3.6%-2.5%
HD 54-1.2%-7.6%-1.4%
HD 97-2.1%-8.3%-0.6%
HD 92-2.5%-2.4%-0.1%
HD 93-2.7%-7.7%0.1%

For the state legislative candidates themselves to win, a bit more needs to happen.

Even when Beto was winning that majority of State House seats, we did not claim a majority of actual State House seats. This was a not infrequent occurrence in 2018. For example, Governor Tom Wolf and U.S. Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania won over 30 state legislative seats held by Republicans in 2018. Republicans retain majorities there. Why?

There are a few interrelated factors for why Democrats might win statewide in a majority of districts, but not use that to power a legislative majority. Broadly speaking, the main issue is so-called downballot drop-off or roll-off. This occurs where voters who voted Democratic at the top of the ticket don’t do so down the ticket. Such roll-off can be caused by poor candidate recruitment and voters not seeing a state legislative candidate they want to vote for. In cases where there is good recruitment, like in Texas in 2020, a larger driver of roll-off is money. As we’ve written about previously, if state legislative candidates do not have the resources they need to get their name out there, they will perform below the statewide ticket in many cases.

In the 21 GOP-held seats that Beto won in 2018, the median gap between Beto’s margin and the state legislative candidate was 6.43%. As shown in the table below, what that means is that if that gap persists in 2020, Democrats would need to do even better statewide to claim a majority.

If Downballot Roll-off Persists, What Democrats Need Statewide to Win in Key Districts

Legislative District2018 Beto-State House GapStatewide Margin Needed to Win Seat
HD 134-27.7%-17.5%
HD 108-15.4%-11.3%
HD 112-11.7%-5.8%
HD 138-6.4%-2.5%
HD 66-6.3%-1.9%
HD 67-7.8%-1.7%
HD 26-6.4%2.3%
HD 64-8.8%3.3%
HD 121-8.8%3.5%
HD 96-3.5%4.0%
HD 54-6.4%5.0%
HD 97-6.3%5.9%
HD 920.1%6.4%
HD 93-5.0%6.5%

Taking it a step further, we can compare Biden’s pickups to state legislative pickups if the 2018 trends persist into 2020. The table below shows that even in a scenario where Biden wins statewide, some house candidates could be left behind.

GOP-Held Seats Won, Biden vs. Democratic State House Candidate

ScenarioState House Seats Biden WinsState House Candidate Wins
Biden loses by 10%32
Biden loses by 5%63
Biden loses by 2.6%94
Biden wins by 1%146

We also recently modeled the key 2020 states based on Democrats’ best state-level performances in 2018 and 2019. Using incumbency information and partisan lean, we estimated that if Biden continues on his polling hot streak, at least 7 Texas House pickups look likely.

State legislative candidates can flip the script to increase our chances regardless of Biden’s final number.

While a competitive statewide race in Texas could bring many house races into play, the evidence above is that if the legislative candidates themselves continue to poll several points below the top of the ticket, we might miss the chance to take control of the Texas House this year. How can Democrats increase the likelihood of a big state legislative pickup? Reverse coattails.

While we usually think about strong statewide Democrats carrying the day for downballot candidates, well-funded and energized state legislative campaigns can help build enthusiasm for top-of-the ticket races. We saw that in 2017 in Virginia, where 15 State House candidates were elected through quality fundraising and strong grassroots organizing. If candidates have the resources that they need to succeed in Texas in 2020, they can meet or exceed the statewide candidate’s margin. They can also use their local focus to contact voters who might be missed in a larger GOTV effort.

The only obstacle for achieving this outcome right now is money. Strong candidates have been endorsed in the critical districts – EveryDistrict has endorsed ten. But right now, Democrats are losing to Republicans in these districts in the money race by $2.5 million. It’s a small chunk of change in the scheme of things, but Republicans have more than double the resources of Democrats.

To support our ten candidates and help flip the Texas State House blue, make a donation today. 100% of what you give will go directly to our ten candidates. Want more content like this? Sign up for our email list.