We continue our analysis of potentially competitive Texas House districts with an exploration of Brazos, Brazoria and Fort Bend Counties (We admit we are stretching the definition of Southeastern Texas to include Brazos Co.).

Brazos County

HD14 (Lean Republican) sits entirely within the home county of Texas A&M Univ., and the campus is right at its heart. Comprising nearly all of Bryan and College Station, HD14 has been held by Rep. John Raney (R-Bryan), himself an Aggie, since he won a December 2011 special election. Yet the district is growing less hostile to Democrats, moving from 6.8 points redder than the state as a whole in 2012 to just 1.5 points redder in 2018.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-El Paso) campaign may be one factor behind the district’s sudden 4-point blueward jump in 2018. In the 10 precincts including and immediately surrounding the campus, O’Rourke beat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) by nearly 1,500 votes, and the number of registered voters increased by more than 2K over 2016, when Donald Trump carried the precincts over Hillary Clinton by 274 votes.

Cruz defeated O’Rourke in the district as a whole by just over 1K votes (3.25 percentage points). Trump won the district by nearly 8K votes (15 points) in 2016. Mitt Romney won it by 10.5K votes (28 points) over President Obama in 2012.

The county itself remains quite friendly to Republicans. Countywide, they had a nearly 7K-vote advantage in straight-party voting and one of the lowest rates of straight-party voting (52%), well below the state average (67%). Indeed, HD12 (Safe Republican), the other district comprising the rest of Brazos Co., plus all or part of four more, is even safer as Rep. Kyle Kacal (R-College Station) is running unopposed. In HD12, the Republican straight-party advantage has increased every year since 2010.

HD14’s Republican advantage has gone the other way. Raney’s advantage in straight-party voting was south of 2,500 in 2018, down 4K from 2012.

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Over that period, the number of people voting a Republican straight-party ballot has decreased by 7% while the number of Democratic straight-party votes increased by 38%.

Fortunately for Raney, he still fares well among the full-ballot voters – people who do not cast a straight-party vote – which comprised 48% of HD14’s electorate in 2018. Raney won the full-ballot vote over his Democratic opponent, 58%-42%, and has previously received 60% (2012) and 72% (2014) of the full-ballot vote. He was unopposed in 2016.

Raney faces Bryan accountant Janet Dudding, who appears to be making her first run for office. She raised $52K through June 30, a bit behind Raney’s $85K, which itself is a bit low for an incumbent in a potentially competitive race. Raney held a nearly $100K advantage in cash on hand as of June 30. Raney’s 2018 challenger, who received 44% of the vote, raised $8K over his entire campaign.

Raney has over-performed other Republicans in the district in his last two contested elections – 2 points in 2014 and 1.2 points in 2018. That, and his relatively steady performance among full-ballot voters, makes Dudding’s challenge that much tougher. Our model places this district at the high (more Republican) end of the Lean Republican column. We expect it will remain slightly redder than the state as a whole and Raney to prevail by around 10-12 points.

Fort Bend County

HD26 open (Lean Republican) has experienced the single greatest four-year shift in partisan lean toward the Democrats of any Texas House district since 2014. That year, the district was 7.4 points redder than the state as a whole, and the average Democrat received 31% of the vote measured head-to-head against the Republican. Four years later, it was 1.2 points bluer than the state as a whole. The average Democrat received 47.5% of the vote. That 8.6-point shift in partisan lean is the largest toward the Democrats observed for any Texas House district for any four-year period since 2006-10.

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Rep. Rick Miller (R-Sugar Land) abruptly abandoned his re-election campaign just days before the filing deadline. Former Fort Bend Co. Republican chair Jacey Jetton won the nomination in a runoff. He faces Sarah DeMerchant, a Sugar Land software developer and three-time Democratic nominee. DeMerchant received 48% of the vote in 2018 against Miller, improving upon the 42% she received in 2016. She also needed a runoff to secure the nomination.

Miller had a Democratic opponent in each of his four races. He won his 2012 race by nearly 16K votes, buoyed by a nearly 14K-vote advantage in straight-party voting. By 2016, his margin was down to less than 9K votes – still quite healthy – and the Republican straight-party advantage was down to just south of 5,500 votes. In 2018, the Republican straight-party advantage dropped by nearly half again, to just over 2,800 votes – and Miller’s margin of victory was shaved down to just over 3K votes.

Between 2012 and 2018, the number of Republican straight-party voters declined by more than 18% while the number of Democratic straight-party voters increased 36%. Both parties’ straight-party vote total was actually lower in 2018 than in 2016, but the Democratic drop-off (around 1,800 votes) was less than half the Republicans’ drop-off (more than 4,400 votes). Miller received 5K fewer votes in 2018 than in 2016, while DeMerchant added nearly 2,500.

O’Rourke carried the district by just over 1K votes in 2018, a swing of nearly 3,500 votes from Trump’s 5-point victory over Clinton here in 2016. Romney won the district by 17K votes in 2012.

Jetton has out-raised DeMerchant, $408K to $34K, but they each began the general election campaign with fully depleted war chests. They reported having less than $10K, combined, as of July 4 (Runoff reports included a few days in July, unlike semiannual reports, the reporting period for which ended June 30.). When we ran our model after the runoff, we took the large disparity of campaign contributions to date into account in the form of a full point advantage to Jetton. Since then, the Texas Assoc. of Realtors has endorsed DeMerchant, and a number of Democratic and progressive groups have enthusiastically backed her campaign.

The district entered this redistricting cycle as one of the most diverse in the state. Anglos were the largest ethnic group, representing not quite 47% of the voting-age population. The second largest ethnic “group” was “Other” – predominantly Asian-Americans – at 27%, followed by Hispanics/Latinos (15%). It has grown more diverse since.

Our model places HD26 within a third of a point of the Toss Up column. It hovers there by virtue of Jetton’s campaign finance advantage so far. Without that advantage, the seat moves right into the middle of the Toss Up column. As such, it is very sensitive to shifts – even small ones – in Trump’s support and in efforts to get first-time or occasional voters to the polls. We anticipate this to be one of the biggest battlegrounds of the general election, especially given that open CD22 (Toss Up) – itself a big battleground – encompasses this entire district.

At this point, we project a narrow Jetton victory. We also project that Democrats likely need to take this seat to have a realistic path to a majority in the chamber. According to our model, flipping this seat and those likelier to flip than this one would yield a 75-75 tie in the chamber.

Along with HD26, HD28 (Lean Republican) is unquestionably experiencing one of the fastest shifts toward the Democrats in the state. Only three other House districts’ electorates have shifted more during the past four years, and Democratic claimed one of those in 2018. Rep. Gary Gates (R-Rosenberg) self-funded his way to a special runoff election win over Katy educator Eliz Markowitz, and she again is his opponent as he seeks a full term.

The precincts currently comprising HD28 have evolved significantly since 2002, when they were 14 points redder than the state as a whole and the average statewide Democratic candidate received just 28% of the vote (measured head-to-head against the Republican). In 2016, the district’s precincts were just 2 points redder than the state as a whole, and the average statewide Democrat topped 40%. Two years later, the average statewide Democrat topped 45% – more than 15 percentage points better than in 2014 – and the district was less than a percent redder than the state.

In 2018, Cruz held the district by 3 points over O’Rourke, a significantly narrower margin than Trump’s 10-point margin in 2016 and well behind Mitt Romney’s 29-point win and Cruz’s own 30-point win in 2012. Democrats have greatly cleaved into the Republicans’ straight-party advantage, but it was still nearly 7K votes in 2018, the largest of any seat included in this analysis.

Markowitz raised more than $1M for the special election, runoff and primary election, which on paper exceeded Gates’s contribution total. He has outspent her by nearly $2M as of June 30 and has shown a propensity to spend millions on his campaigns, including this one, his seventh since 2002.

Our model places this race near the high end (more Republican) of the Lean Republican column, currently projecting a 7- to 8-point Gates victory. This would be half of his special runoff election win (58%-42%) over Markowitz in January. As of the special election, we ranked this seat as the 14th most likely to flip to the Democrats. It stands today as the 18th most likely. One of the big questions Democratic strategists will need to grapple with is whether to continue spending resources here against an opponent with limitless cash, or divert them to races that are, for lack of a better term, more “winnable.”

HD85 (Likely Republican) is one of those rare districts that is not showing much of a trend in partisan lean. Since it was drawn, it has wobbled between 1.6 and 5.3 points redder than the state as a whole. In 2012, the average Democrat received 39% of the vote measured head-to-head against the Republican. In 2018, the Democrats improved to 43% – a far smaller shift than we observe in other Republican-held districts.

This lack of volatility is probably due to the addition of Jackson and Wharton Cos. to the exurban and rural portions of Fort Bend Co. Just 18% of Fort Bend Co.’s 2010 population is included in this district, and that percent is likely lower today.

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Republicans’ straight-party advantage has remained fairly steady at between 4K and 5K votes since 2012 with a peak of just over 6,500 in 2014, when Democratic straight-party voting here crashed. It has since recovered, and Republican straight-party voting has remained steady. The Fort Bend Co. portion of the district has gotten less red, to the point that Democrats have a small straight-party voting advantage, but Jackson and Wharton Cos. are offsetting that by getting redder.

Cruz won the district by 10 points in 2018. Trump won it by 15 points in 2016, down from Romney’s 23-point win in 2012.

Rep. Phil Stephenson (R-Wharton) faces Louise educator Joey Cardenas III, who has raised less than $10K for the race as of June 30. Libertarian Michael Miller is also on the ballot.

The Republican advantage here is smaller than some districts in the Lean Republican column, but the lack of movement in partisan lean and the challenger’s lack of resources – likely to continue – keep this seat in Republican hands. Our model projects a 13- to 15-point Stephenson victory.

Fort Bend Co.’s other district, heavily Democratic HD27 (Safe Democratic), will almost certainly be won again by embattled Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City). He faces Stafford development director Tom Virippan in a district O’Rourke won by 45 points in 2018 and in which Trump received just 27% of the vote in 2016.

Brazoria County

HD29 (Lean Republican) occupies the northeastern portion of Brazoria Co. along its borders with Fort Bend, Galveston and Harris Cos. Since 2003, the district has been anchored by Pearland and been represented by a Republican. Rep. Ed Thompson (R-Pearland) succeeded former Rep. and current U.S. Rep. Randy Weber (R-Pearland) in 2013 and has held the seat ever since.

Like many other suburban and exurban districts, HD29 is historically Republican but getting less hostile to Democrats. In 2002, the precincts currently comprising HD29 were 10 points redder than the state as a whole, and a typical Democrat received less than a third of the vote. In 2012, it was still 6.4 points redder than the state as a whole, and Democrats had only barely moved the needle here, gaining just 4 points over the decade.

Six years later, the district was just 1.2 points redder than the state as a whole, and a typical Democrat got 45% of the vote. O’Rourke did a little bit better but still lost to Cruz here by 5 points. Trump carried the district by 14.5 points in 2016, roughly half Romney’s margin in 2012.

Democrats cut the Republicans’ straight-party voting advantage by nearly half between 2012 (13K votes) and 2018 (7K votes). An additional 10K people cast a Democratic straight-party ballot in 2018 than in 2012, but the number of Republican straight-party votes also rose, albeit by a more modest 4K votes.

Thompson has had a Democratic opponent twice. He has over-performed his fellow Republicans by more than a point both times. Both times, he received more than 63% of the full-ballot vote. He faces Pearland home health care manager Travis Boldt this year.

Thompson has out-raised Boldt, $153K to $27K, through June 30, and he had a nearly $400K advantage in cash on hand as of that date. It’s difficult to see how Boldt would be able to reverse Thompson’s past over-performances or sustained success among full-ballot voters on his own absent a sudden, large infusion of campaign cash. The model places this district on the upper (more Republican) side of the Lean column. It projects a 7- to 9-point victory for Thompson.

Brazoria Co.’s other district is open HD25 (Safe Republican), which includes Matagorda Co. Our model projects this district as less likely to flip than HD6, which is centered on Tyler in East Texas, and HD98, which includes Tea Party strongholds Colleyville, Keller and Southlake. In other words, it’s safe.

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