Turnout was historic in Texas and the races were closer. But the results in America’s biggest red state remained the same.
President Donald Trump again carried the state, Republican Sen. John Cornyn easily won reelection and Democrats, who believed this was finally their year to end decades of losses and even seize a majority in the state House, instead had virtually nothing to show for an election that was on the brink of surpassing 11 million voters by early Wednesday.
“Texas DID stay Red,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted even as results were being counted in many races.
It wasn’t just the Texas House, where Democrats’ hopes of returning to power for the first time in 20 years were extinguished. Republicans were also on the brink of sweeping battleground races for Congress, defeating both high-profile challengers like Wendy Davis, who lost in her first run for office since a failed campaign for Texas governor in 2014, and upstart candidates in suburbs that trended hard toward Democrats two years ago.
"National Democrats had seen 2018 as the chance to take the state and they really saw 2020 as their chance with President Trump at the top of the ticket to overtake it, and that they didn't even come close has to be a huge disappointment," former Dallas County Republican Chairman Jonathan Neerman said.
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It was yet another Texas letdown for Democrats and their allies, particularly in their bid for the Texas House that was the most expensive of any legislative chamber fight in the nation. The Texas border, which is heavily Latino and a reliable Democratic stronghold, was especially bleak for Democrats — Joe Biden fared far worse in the Rio Grande Valley than Hillary Clinton did just four years earlier.
“I think Texas is still safely a red state, Neerman said. "I think there are certainly areas where Democrats continue to make inroads. Harris County, Dallas County clearly. But in the suburban areas, Republican candidates found messages that resonated with those voters who voted Democratic in 2018 and were able to come back out this cycle."
The election solidified the GOP’s grip on Texas for at least another two years and keeps a streak of statewide victories at 26 years and counting.
Trump was up on Biden by more than 5 points with some votes still outstanding, a margin that would be the closest presidential race in Texas in decades if it holds. Cornyn, meanwhile, was potentially headed to a double-digit win over Democratic challenger MJ Hegar.
“I think our friends on the other side had so much money, they had more money than they knew what to do with, so they ended up in a long shot in places like Texas,” said Cornyn, who received a call from Hegar conceding race less than a half-hour after polls closed.
Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a rising star in the GOP, won a second term representing his congressional district near Houston. Ronny Jackson, Trump’s former doctor in the White House, also won a U.S. House race in West Texas.
Davis lost to Rep. Chip Roy, one of the most conservative freshmen in Congress, and Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls beat Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni for an open seat in one of America’s most diverse districts outside Houston.
Few problems were reported at polling places as scores of voters continued turning out. In Harris County, a crucial battleground home to nearly 5 million people, election officials reported that at least another 190,000 more votes had been cast.
Democrats had high hopes to flip the Texas house, after they picked up 12 seats in 2018. They needed nine more this year.
“It is a disappointment. There is no doubt about it," Texas House Democratic Caucus Chairman Chris Turner (D-Arlington) said. "I am very happy and pleased that all of our Democratic incumbents in North Texas did win their re-election last night, and a lot of them had very tough races. Republicans spent a lot of money against Democratic incumbents."
Turner said his first priority was to get back to Austin and work with Republicans to address the pandemic, economy and unemployment.
He said Democrats need to look at what happened on Tuesday.
“Politically, yeah, I think that those of us in the Democratic party have to look at what went wrong, you know what can be done differently and learn from it," he said. "I think that's what you have to do after any election -- win or lose."
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James Price, a 55-year-old forklift driver from the suburb of Tomball, voted for Biden and believed that Democrats were on the brink of making a breakthrough in Texas after years of irrelevance.
“But it don’t matter whether it turns blue or red, green, purple. If these elected officials ... cannot work together, this is not going to work. It don’t matter who flips what,” Price said.
Voters in Texas backed Trump for president while holding negative views about the country’s direction, according to an expansive AP survey of the American electorate. AP VoteCast found that nearly three-fifths of Texas voters said the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction and about two-fifths said it is on the right track.
In Dallas, retired antiques dealer Cheryl North, 71, said she voted for Trump and every other Republican on the ballot.
“They didn’t have a place on the ballot where you could vote straight Republican but I just went through one at a time,” she said.
She said her biggest motivation to vote was “fear of my country becoming socialist and (I) just didn’t want that to happen.”
The avalanche of votes reflected high enthusiasm and signs that Texas, where Republicans have coasted in lopsided elections for decades, was rapidly transforming into a battleground.
In Hidalgo County, along the Texas-Mexico border, officials kept voting centers open an extra hour due to “laptop check-in issues” that delayed lines earlier. The heavily Latino border lagged in turnout behind other parts of Texas, and Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said his party’s decision to not knock on doors for much of the campaign because of COVID-19 hurt outreach efforts.
“We’ve been calling the hell out of everybody, but that’s only so effective,” he said.
For Democrats, the disappointing results along the heavily Latino border came just days after Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris visited the region in the race’s final days.
The road to Election Day in Texas was littered with legal battles over voting access in the middle of a pandemic. Whereas the vast majority of states are allowing widespread mail-in voting because of coronavirus fears, Texas is only one of five that refused, choosing instead to expand early voting by one week.
On Monday, a federal judge rejected a last-ditch effort by GOP activists to toss out nearly 127,000 votes in Houston that were cast at drive-in polling centers. Later Monday night, a federal appeals court panel denied the group’s request to halt drive-thru voting in Harris County on Election Day.
Polls suggested a closer-than-normal race in Texas — which Trump won by 9 points in 2016 — although the president gave little indication of outward concern. He didn’t campaign in Texas down the stretch, focusing instead on tossup battles in Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Biden did not campaign in Texas either — frustrating Texas Democrats who pleaded with the former vice president to make a bigger push with his chances here looking remarkably viable. He instead ran a relatively small campaign in Texas, and left the heavy lifting to millions of dollars that Democrats poured into down-ballot races to oust vulnerable GOP state lawmakers and members of Congress.
Associated Press writers Juan A. Lozano in Houston and Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.