We continue our series of analyses of competitive, or potentially competitive, legislative seats with an exploration of the I-35 corridor from Bell Co. to Bexar Co.

Republican Targets

HD45 (Lean Democratic): Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood) won this open seat in 2018, becoming the first Democrat to represent Hays Co. since former Rep. Patrick Rose (D-Dripping Springs) was defeated by former Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) in the wipeout election of 2010.

Jason Isaac left the seat for an unsuccessful run for open CD21. His wife, Carrie Isaac, is challenging Zwiener this year.

Collectively, Hays and Blanco Cos. have been bluer than the state as a whole since 2004. Until 2018, they wobbled between 1 and 3 points bluer than the state but with no discernable trend. Nearly every district will trend generally redder or bluer, but not this one. In 2018, our model projected a narrow Zwiener win, despite being at a significant campaign finance disadvantage and the district’s general friendliness to Republicans. We thought the model was overly bullish at the time.

Turns out our model was not bullish enough. The district jumped to more than 6 points bluer than the state as a whole, putting the average Democrat over 50% for the first time in more than two decades. That jump was fueled by a nearly 4K-vote swing in straight-party voting toward the Democrats. Compared to 2016, nearly 2K more Democrats cast a straight-party ballot and almost 2K fewer Republicans did the same. Republicans running in the district still had an advantage, but it was just 4 votes out of the 45K straight-party ballots cast.

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Zwiener’s win was powered by strong Democratic turnout in Hays Co., particularly in the precincts including and adjacent to Texas State Univ., which provided her entire margin of victory. If turnout is reduced there because of coronavirus-related interruptions or reductions in on-campus activity, the seat could easily become a Toss Up.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) carried the district by 11 points over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in 2018. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) was the only contested statewide Republican to win, but he was held below 50%. Two years earlier, Donald Trump won the district by 4.6 points over Hillary Clinton, a bit below Mitt Romney’s 13-point victory over President Obama in 2012.

Carrie Isaac needed a runoff win to clinch the nomination after just missing an outright win. She has narrowly out-raised the incumbent for the election cycle ($316K to $286K) but trails in cash on hand ($101K to $24K). The race is expected to be competitive from a campaign finance standpoint.

This is the fourth likeliest Democrat-held seat to flip according to our model, which does not account for any potential decrease in Texas State turnout. It projects the district will remain 6 points bluer than the state as a whole, which would translate into a roughly 6-point win for the incumbent, even after accounting for Zwiener’s nearly 1-point underperformance relative to other Democrats in the open-seat race.

HD47 (Lean Democratic): Few districts have experienced such a rapid explosion of Democratic voters than this one in western Travis Co. In 2012, then-Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) had a 12K-vote advantage in straight-party voting and won the full-ballot vote by 18 points (measured head-to-head against the Democrat). Four years later, the straight-party advantage was cut by half, and Workman’s full-ballot vote share slipped by 3 points. In 2018, the straight-party advantage was gone, and he lost the full-ballot vote by 13 points.

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The number of Republican straight-party votes increased by 12% between 2012 and 2018, but the number of Democratic straight-party votes nearly doubled, rising to more than 33K from just under 18K. Compared to 2016, Workman received nearly 5K fewer votes while Goodwin received nearly 13K more than the 2016 Democratic challenger. Workman won his 2016 race by 12K votes. Goodwin beat him by 5K votes.

O’Rourke bested Cruz here by 11 points, marking a 28-point shift from Cruz’s 2012 victory in the district. Trump carried the district over Clinton by just 180 votes, four years following Romney’s 16K-vote victory over Obama. The district was one point bluer than the state as a whole in 2016 before jumping to 5 points bluer in 2018.

Goodwin raised $500K less than Workman over the last election cycle, and she spent nearly $600K less. She may well be out-raised and outspent again this year. Challenger Justin Berry, who needed a runoff to secure the nomination, has out-raised her so far, $303K to $274K, but has been narrowly outspent, $146K to $126K. Since the primary, Berry has out-raised Goodwin, $233K to $137K. Libertarian Michael Clark, who has reported no contributions, is also on the ballot.

Our model places HD47 at the top (more Democratic) end of the Lean Democratic column, behind nine other seats it projects more likelier to flip, including Hispanic/Latino-majority HD74, an open seat. It is rare that a district “snaps back” completely after a big shift in one partisan direction, if it snaps back at all. Our model projects a 9- to 10-point win after accounting for the Libertarian.

HD52 (Lean Democratic): This district has mostly mirrored HD45 over the past decade, always a bit bluer than the state, owing to its proximity to bright blue Travis Co., but not enough to be winnable by Democrats until 2018, when it made a 3.5-point blueward jump. Freshman Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) won the open seat despite under-performing other Democrats by nearly a point.

O’Rourke beat Cruz here by more than 13 points two years after Trump won the district by 1K votes over Clinton. Romney carried the district by 12 points in 2012. Since that year, the number of Republican straight-party votes has increased by nearly 4K, while more than 9K more Democratic straight-party votes were cast. It was enough to flip the straight-party advantage to the Democrats. Talarico also won a slight majority of the full-ballot vote, improving by 11 points over former Rep. Larry Gonzales’s (R-Round Rock) 2014 challenger. He was unopposed in 2016 before opting to retire.

Talarico’s Republican challenger, Hutto retired police officer Lucio Valdez, was the lone person to challenge him from any party. So far, Valdez has raised just under $21K, less than a tenth the amount raised by the incumbent to date. Nothing against Valdez, but one senses a failure in candidate recruitment here. The challenger has been endorsed by Texas Right to Life PAC – He is a Republican – but has thus far failed to attract the endorsements and, more importantly, the caliber of campaign donors, necessary to separate himself from the Republican brand and compete against Talarico.

Our model sees this race as being more competitive than it probably should be. That said, like HD45, it projects a 6- to 7-point Democratic win.

HD136 (Likely Democratic): This district’s shift toward the Democrats was greater and faster than HD52, Williamson Co.’s other competitive district, and among the severest changes of fortune in the state. Since 2012, the straight-party advantage shifted by nearly 10K votes, going from a 7,300-vote Republican cushion to a nearly 2,700-vote Democratic edge. Compared to 2012, nearly 2K more people cast a straight Republican ballot (10% increase), while the number of Democratic straight-party voters more than doubled.

The sentiment of full-ballot voters also broke sharply toward the Democrats in 2018. Former Rep. Tony Dale (R-Cedar Park) won 58% of the full-ballot vote, measured head-to-head against his 2016 Democratic challenger, but managed just 42% against current Rep. John Bucy (D-Cedar Park), who was making his second run for the seat.

Bucy raised $440K during the last election cycle, just over half of Dale’s $800K. So far this cycle he has raised about half that ($204K), but his opponent, Cedar Park council member Mike Guevara, has collected just $24K. Libertarian Brian Elliott is also on the ballot.

The district was nearly 9 points bluer than the state as a whole in 2018, up from 3.9 points in 2016 and 0.2 points in 2012 and 2010. It was right at the statewide average in 2008. Since 2002, the average Democrat has gone from 32% of the vote to 55%.

O’Rourke beat Cruz here by 17.5 points – nearly 14K votes – improving significantly upon Clinton’s 2K vote win over Trump here in 2016. Romney beat Obama by nearly 9K votes – 15 percentage points – four years earlier. Put another way, Cruz received 3K fewer votes than Romney, and O’Rourke got 20K more votes than Obama.

It would take a hard reversal of political fortunes for an under-funded challenger to claw this district back. There are 13 other Democrat-held districts more likely to flip than this one, according to our model, which projects a 15- to 16-point Bucy victory.

Democratic Pick-up Opportunities

HD54 (Lean Republican): The Bell Co. portion of this district has been friendly to Democrats for awhile. Since 2008, Democrats have had a straight-party voting advantage, typically around 1,500 votes, in Bell Co. except in the relatively down years of 2010 and 2014, when Republicans had a larger advantage. The problem for Democrats is Lampasas Co., where Republicans ran up a more than 3K vote advantage in straight-party voting in three of the last four elections. In that county, barely one out of every six straight-party voters went Democratic.

The district reminds us of HD23, which is today more Republican on balance than HD54 (and getting redder). That district, currently held by Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville), contains a relatively competitive portion of Galveston Co. – at least until very recently – and a ruby red county making up a small portion of the total vote but a very significant portion of the margin of victory. HD23 was held by a Democrat as recently as 2014, when it was 4.5 points bluer than the state as a whole. In 2018, it was more than 3 points redder than the state, a four-year shift of nearly eight points.

HD54 is not on the same partisan journey as HD23, but it has been more blue, relative to the state, this decade (3.6 points in 2012) than it was in 2018, when it was just a point bluer than the state as a whole. The district was its most competitive in 2008, when no Democrat sought either this seat or adjacent HD55, which, as now, contains the bulk of Bell Co., including Fort Hood. Rep. Hugh Shine (R-Temple) is running unopposed there.

In HD54, freshman Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Salado) faces Harker Heights retired Army officer Keke Williams (D). The incumbent raised $125K through June 30, a little more than double the challenger’s total but below average for someone seeking to hold a competitive seat. He had a $50K advantage in cash on hand, again below average for an incumbent. He is the third person to represent the district in the last three election cycles, and this turnover has prevented the accumulation of a deep war chest.

On top of his straight-party advantage, Buckley received 57% of the full-ballot vote in 2018. Although this was the lowest such percentage in a contested HD54 race this decade, it didn’t move much from former Rep. Scott Cosper’s (R-Killeen) 58% in 2016 or, for that matter, former Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock’s (R-Killeen) 64% in 2012.

Trump carried the district by 7 points in 2016 entirely because of his 78%-18% win in Lampasas Co. Cruz bested O’Rourke by fewer than 600 votes two years ago, and no other statewide Democrat came within 3 points of their Republican opponent. Our model places this district on the high (more Republican) side of the Lean category, and it projects 16 other Republican-held House seats are more likely to flip than this one. We expect Lampasas Co. voters will remain a pretty effective check on any potential Democratic gains Williams can make in Bell Co.

HD121 (Lean Republican): Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) faces a rematch against San Antonio consultant Celina Montoya, who he defeated, 53%-45%, in 2018.

Democrats have erased two-thirds of the Republicans’ 2012 advantage in straight-party voting, but it remained north of 4K in the last general election. On top of that, Allison won the full-ballot vote by 6 points.

The district has been getting steadily friendlier to Democrats over the years, and it is likely to cross over from redder to bluer than the state this year. Statewide, HD121 was the most “average” House district in 2018 when it was 0.2 points redder than the state as a whole.

Trump carried the district by 8 points in 2016, a significant erosion from Romney’s 23-point win four years earlier. O’Rourke eked out a 262-vote win over Cruz here in 2018.

The incumbent has out-raised Montoya, $275K to $176K, for the cycle so far, and he held a $113K to $61K advantage in cash on hand as of June 30. Montoya raised $184K during the entire 2017-18 election cycle. Allison, who needed a runoff after emerging from a six-way open-seat primary, raised $881K.

It should be a bit concerning that the number of Republican straight-party voters declined by more than 5K since 2012. However, the increase in Democratic straight-party votes – just over 3K – is smaller than for many competitive districts. Our model projects just shy of a 6-point win for the incumbent, representing a slight narrowing from their first race. This district may be more sensitive to the presidential race than others, so a further erosion in Trump’s support could, by itself, boost the challenger into a dead heat.

‘Likely’ Out of Reach

HD117 (Likely Democratic): This was a seat won by a Republican in 2014 in a low-turnout election, but it returned to Democratic hands two years later. Since 2002, it has wobbled between 7 and 11 points bluer than the state as a whole, coming in at just under 10 points bluer in 2018.

Rep. Philip Cortez (D-San Antonio) faces three-time candidate Carlos Antonio Raymond (R), who has reported no contributions. His chance of victory rests entirely on the Republican brand in a district Trump lost by 11 points in 2016. Libertarian Tony Quinones is also on the ballot.

HD118 (Likely Democratic): Another “wobbler,” HD118 has performed 11 to 16 points bluer than the state since 2002, settling at 12 points in 2018. Clinton beat Trump here by 15 points in 2016, and O’Rourke won it by nearly 20 two years later.

Rep. Leo Pacheco (D-San Antonio), who has raised just $45K as of June 30, faces former Universal City council member Adam Salyer, who has raised less than a tenth of that amount. Libertarian Eric Velasquez is also on the ballot. Our model projects a 17- to 18-point win for Pacheco.

HD122 (Likely Republican): At the upper (more Republican) end of the Likely column, the other Republican-held Bexar Co. district has experienced a shift in straight-party voting of more than 10K votes toward the Democrats since 2012. While it is one of the larger shifts in the state, the base was much redder than the others. Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) had a better than 13K-vote straight-party advantage in 2018.

He faces a rematch against San Antonio technical advisor Claire Barnett, who Larson defeated, 62%-38%, in their first meeting. The incumbent has out-raised her, $284K to $3K, and he has a better than $500K advantage in cash on hand. Our model projects a 21-point Larson win.

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