ANALYSIS — After all the hype and money surrounding Beto O’Rourke last cycle, Democrats came away from Texas with just two more House seats than usual. Two years later, Democrats are seriously competing in a handful of House seats due to the strength of their candidates and the weakness of President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket.
It’s true that many of the Democratic nominees in the most competitive Texas races lost in 2018. But not only is that not an insurmountable résumé item, but it’s a metric that quantifies each candidate’s value. And Democrats have some valuable candidates in Texas, including Mike Siegel (10th District), Sri Preston Kulkarni (22nd), Gina Ortiz Jones (23rd), and Julie Oliver (25th).
Vote Above Replacement, or VAR, measures the strength of a political candidate relative to a typical candidate from the same party by comparing the percentage of the candidate’s vote to the party’s Baseline. Baseline is the trimmed mean of each party’s performance in partisan, contested statewide elections over the four most recent general election cycles.
After the 2018 elections, Kulkarni had a 7.4 VAR, followed by Siegel (6.1), Oliver (5.8) and Ortiz Jones (2.6), which means they did that many points better than a typical Democratic candidate, accounting for the 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018 elections.
For some perspective, this current class of U.S. senators includes a number of Republican rising stars with lower VAR scores, including Cory Gardner of Colorado (2.02), Joni Ernst of Iowa (1.41), Thom Tillis of North Carolina (-1.3), and Tom Cotton of Arkansas (-2.87). Those scores were tabulated compared to a Baseline that calculated results from the 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014 elections.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas had a VAR of 5.97 after his reelection in 2014. This year he faces Democrat MJ Hegar, one of the highest-performing Democrats last cycle with a VAR of 9.2, even though she lost to GOP Rep. John Carter in the 31st District. In comparison, O’Rourke, who is regarded as running the best campaign for a Democrat in Texas in recent memory, had a 7.2 VAR after his loss to Sen. Ted Cruz.
The GOP path back to the House majority is difficult in part because of strong Democratic incumbents, including Texas Reps. Lizzie Fletcher (11.1) and Colin Allred (9.3), who had the highest VAR scores of any House candidates in Texas last cycle.
Another way to search for potential takeover opportunities for Democrats in Texas is to watch the VAR score of GOP incumbents after 2018. Rep. Daniel Crenshaw (-6) is in a competitive race with Democratic lawyer Sima Ladjevardian in Texas’ 2nd District. Rep. Van Taylor (-6.1) faces a spirited challenge from lawyer Lulu Seikaly. Reps. Chip Roy (-5.8), Michael McCaul (-4.5) and Roger Williams (-3.4) all face competitive races as well.
After losing to Allred last cycle, former Rep. Pete Sessions (-8) is attempting a comeback in a friendlier district, the 17th, while Reps. Pete Olson (-7), Kenny Marchant (-6.4) and Will Hurd (-1.1) opted not to seek reelection.
Beyond the challengers, the abundance of Democratic takeover opportunities in Texas also has to do with the top of the ticket. Trump continues to hemorrhage voters in the suburbs, putting more seats in the Dallas, Houston and Austin areas at risk for Republicans.
The Lone Star State will be a good barometer of the elections overall. If Democrats can gain a seat or two or more, they will be on their way to expanding their majority. But if Republicans can fight Democrats to a draw on the partisanship of the delegation, they can stave off a disaster. Getting back to the majority is an entirely different question. Republicans would likely need to defeat either Allred or Fletcher, if not both. And that scenario is unlikely with a few weeks to go.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.