Herman: The unmystery of the 2018 Texas U.S. House races

Oh, the rhetoric is so hopeful and optimistic as the Dec. 11 filing deadline for 2018 political races draws nigh. We had an upbeat, uplifting dose of it in this newspaper in a recent story about local folks lining up to run for the Democratic nomination to challenge GOP U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin.

Put me down as in favor of hope and optimism, but I’m also a believer in reality and math. And I know a rigged game when I see one.

U.S. House races are rigged games.

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Amateur tip to Dems who want to challenge Williams: Don’t bother. You can’t beat him. And it’s not about him. It’s about the hims and hers who drew the district to guarantee which party will prevail in that district.

Texas has only one U.S. House district that swings and maybe two that lean a bit. The rest seem pretty rock solid, either for the Rs or the Ds.

Nevertheless, Cliff Walker, the Texas Democratic Party’s candidate recruitment director (and you think you have a tough job), exuded the for-public-consumption enthusiasm a candidate recruitment director should exude.

“I’ve been recruiting candidates in Texas for years, and I’ve never seen an environment quite like this,” Walker told my colleague Taylor Goldenstein.

Yes, thanks to the current White House resident, nobody ever has seen an environment quite like this.

RELATED: Trump’s rhetoric drawing full field of Democrats to congressional race

In another recent story, we told you about Democratic enthusiasm fueled by encouraging fundraising numbers.


And, hey, if the candidate recruitment director isn’t excited, who is? Because I’m a two-party government kind of guy, I’m going to give the Texas Democrats an assist here by noting their website has a “So you want to run for office” page that walks you through the process of advancing from citizen to candidate. Please be advised that advancing from candidate to officeholder is a whole other deal.

Do Texas Democrats have any chance of unseating a bunch of Texas Republicans in the U.S. House? As we used to say when I lived in East Texas: Fuggetaboutit. (Wait a minute, that might be what we used to say when I lived in Brooklyn.) And, by the way, Republicans have a similar slim-to-no-chance of winning next year in any of the Texas districts represented by Democrats.

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The cold fact is barring a ballot-box miracle more miraculous that Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, the partisan outcome of in Texas’ 36 U.S. House races in 2018 seems pretty certain, with the definite exception of one and the possible exception of two others. The current split is 25 Republcians and 11 Democrats.

Thanks to the evil of districts drawn by partisan lawmakers, the sad truth is U.S. House members pick their voters, not vice versa.

This is not a revelation. Nor am I the first to express it that way. This has gone on for as long as the Texas Legislature has been in the district-drawing business, decennial census after decennial census. The Democrats did it when they ran the Texas Capitol. And the Republicans do it now. They’ve got computers and programs that break this down with block-by-block precision. This technology helped produce the odd collection of districts in Travis County.

You’d do this, too, if you could.

Numbers don’t lie?

The data from the 2016 U.S. House races are instructive. In our 36 U.S. House districts, there was only one contest where the margin of victory was under 12 percentage points. Incumbent Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, beat former Democratic representative Pete Gallego by 1.33 percentage points in Texas’ swingingest district.

There were 29 races in which the margin was 20 points or more. Williams, for example, won by 20 points.

The Cook Political Report, a data-crunching authority on these things, says Texas now has 22 solidly GOP districts and 11 solidly Dem districts. The three listed as toss-ups now are represented by Hurd, John Culberson, R-Houston, and Pete Sessions, R-Dallas. Noteworthy and of concern to Culberson and Sessions: Hillary Clinton beat Trump in their districts in 2016. Also noteworthy is that Culberson won re-election in 2016 by 12 points and Sessions won by 52 points when the Democrats didn’t field a challenger.

FYI, all five districts that include parts of Travis County that are solidly one party or the other.

It doesn’t take a lot of R&D to determine that the controlling factor on Election Day is the R or D after the candidate’s name. I’m guessing the one swing district — now represented by Hurd — would have been rigged if it could have been. The rigging system’s not perfect, but I’m sure they’re working on it.

RELATED: U.S. Supreme Court declines to speed Texas redistricting case

Partisan gerrymandering — a foundation of Texas politics — is headed for review at the highest levels. The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year ruled that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional. A pending Wisconsin case presents the same question about partisan gerrymandering. A not insignificant sidenote: Because of racial voting habits and history, there’s an overlap between racial gerrymandering and partisan gerrymandering.

Like so much in public life today, there’s got to be a better way. Periodically, Texas legislators try to set up a redistricting commission, as used in 21 states, to draw the lines. Sounds better, but who would pick the commissioners?

This year’s ill-fated efforts along those lines, all filed by Democrats, included Austin Rep. Donna Howard’s call for a seven-member redistricting commission. Her plan called for letting the seniormost state senator of each party appoint one member. Ditto in the House. So that’s four of the seven.

Those four then would vote on a fifth member. That fifth member then would pick the final two members, which, under the Howard plan, would have to be retired federal judges. One judge would have been appointed by a Democratic president and one by a GOP president.

Yes, it’s challenging to come up with a system in Texas where Democrats can hold much sway. This one never got a committee hearing in the GOP-dominated Texas Capitol.

An unusual election year

Could the 2018 U.S. House races prove to be different? The Democrats seem to think so, bless their optimistic hearts. And there are a couple of potential reasons. First is the year. We’re toward the end of the redistricting cycle, which means districts are out of whack. We won’t find out how far out of whack until the 2020 census. But it’s a pretty good bet we’ll find out some districts have far too few people and some have far too many. And the Dem/GOP split has changed since the lines were drawn.

That will be fixed in the 2021 gerrymandering that will produce litigation that will continue until oh, say, 2027.

What else could make 2018 different? Non-presidential election years like 2018 always are a measure of a president’s popularity. This one could be even moreso because of the polarizing power of this president. But polarizing enough to move someone from voting for a GOP U.S. House candidate in 2016 to a Democratic challenger 2018?

Or is it possible that Democratic challengers, better financed than in recent years, could benefit from Trump-inspired turnout of Democratic voters?

A quick number crunch shows a pattern than might or might not be informative. In 2012, nine victorious GOP U.S. House candidates in Texas polled worse than Mitt Romney, the GOP’s presidential nominee that year. In 2016, every GOP U.S. House candidate polled better than Trump. If you’re a Republican, you could read that as victory despite a presidential candidate less popular than you. If you’re a Democrat, you could read that as vulnerability for GOP U.S. House members who have remained firmly affixed to Trump.

The numbers generally are small. For example, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, ran only 1.4 percentage points better than Romney in 2012. Last year, he ran 5 points better than Trump in easily winning re-election by 19 points in the district drawn to guarantee GOP victories.

So hats off to optimistic Democratic candidates in politically-stacked U.S. House districts. Knock yourself out. Enjoy the trip. You’re going to meet lots of nice people. And shortly after the polls close on Nov. 6, 2018, you’re going to thank those nice people in your concession speech.

Thanks for playing our game.

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