Dallas County underwent a dramatic shift from red to blue in 2006, when Democrats won every contested countywide race.
But the success of local candidates hasn’t translated into Democratic wins at the statewide level. More than 470,000 eligible Dallas County voters didn’t participate in the 2020 election, according to the county, a fact Beto O’Rourke is focused on in his race against incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott as Nov. 8 approaches.
Turnout for the presidential election was 66%. The most recent midterm election in 2018 had more who didn’t participate: 607,200 of 1.3 million eligible voters, making turnout about 54%. There are currently 1.42 million registered voters in Dallas County.
Given those totals, Democratic Party leaders say nonvoters present an opportunity to pump up their raw numbers and boost statewide candidates. But that means Democratic candidates have to find ways to appeal to finicky voters. One progressive group has been bailing people out of jail and helping them access photo IDs, and candidates have been meeting people in places they don’t often go, following the advice of cautious political consultants who believe trying to expand the electorate is a waste of time.
“We’ve got to go to where people are,” O’Rourke said last month about campaigning off the political grid. “It shows that basic level of respect and courtesy of meeting people literally where they’re at.”
He’s been campaigning at cafes, football games, barbershops and State Fair tailgates to expand his outreach, and voters at an East Dallas barbershop in August said they appreciated O’Rourke’s efforts.
“If he shows that he’s willing to go wherever he needs to go to be able to connect with people, he’ll get more of us out to vote,” said Wanda Huckaby, a retired school principal from Dallas.
Across town, Republican incumbent Commissioner J.J. Koch said many voters are looking for a “nonpartisan approach to governing,” particularly on the local level, where commissioners determine how much money the county spends and the tax rate and are responsible for maintaining roads and bridges, as well as operating the county jail, the hospital district and the health department. They also coordinate responses to disasters and health emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Koch, the only Republican on the five-member Dallas County Commissioners Court, is trying to retain his seat in a district that includes the northern part of the county and was redrawn to favor a Democrat.
“I’m finding a lot of support,” he said. “The people are receptive to listening and hearing out a Republican. … They don’t think a monolithic party voice is good for balance or holding people accountable.”
O’Rourke and Koch’s campaigns illustrate the disparate paths for Democrats and Republicans in Dallas County. While Democrats are trying to expand their reach with nonvoters to help statewide candidates, Republicans are trying to find ways to not only retain the few political posts they hold, but also claw back into relevance. A national climate that favors the GOP, as Americans grapple with the rising costs of goods and services, could help their case.
“It’s a matter of showing them your work and your commitment,” said Koch, who is being challenged by Dallas lawyer Andrew Sommerman. “It’s a good thing to leave behind the political demagoguery and show people how you have made their lives better.”
Closer than normal contest?
Though Democrats have dominated Dallas County politics for 16 years, the margins of their victories fluctuate.
Longtime Dallas County political consultant Jeff Dalton said Democrats would win countywide races again this year, but at a lower rate than in 2018, when O’Rourke ran a close race for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz.
Dalton said Democrats running in Dallas County got a bump in polls after the June Supreme Court decision to strike down national abortion rights, receiving about 61% of the vote. But since then it’s settled to 57% or lower for some candidates, and the sagging economy has helped Republicans, he said.
“If the polling is correct, I expect this year to be kind of not as good as 2018,” he said. “It’s maybe down 5 to 7 points for us this cycle. … It’s a midterm backlash, even though Roe vs. Wade mitigated the impact of that. The economy is still wacky, the stock market is wacky and I also think that Beto is running against a much tougher opponent. Greg Abbott is not as unpopular as Ted Cruz.”
Some Democrats will win, Dalton said, including Sommerman, whom he’s helping to elect.
“It’s going to be close,” he said of the race against Koch. “But I still think it’s drawn favorably for a Democrat.”
Veteran GOP political consultant Clayton Henry conceded that countywide races are tough for Republicans to win because of the number of Democratic voters, but he said this particular midterm election could bring some surprises because of the headwinds Democrats face nationally.
“When the economy is particularly bad and people feel it in their pocketbooks, and with higher gas prices, higher food prices … they are going to be voting their pocketbooks in this election, so that gives the Republicans an opportunity to make gains, even in a solid blue area like Dallas County,” he said.
Dallas County from red to blue
Before the early 2000s, Dallas County was known as a bastion of Republicanism, a place where business leaders used their cash to help elect presidents. George W. Bush ended his campaigns for the White House with rallies at Southern Methodist University. By the time his presidency ended in 2008, Dallas County was a politically different place.
Republicans controlled nearly every countywide post until 2002, when Democrat Sally Montgomery won a judicial post. Democrat Lupe Valdez was elected sheriff in 2004, and a blue wave followed in 2006, when Democrats won every contested race.
Since then, Republicans have won only one countywide race, when former state district judge Susan Hawk beat Democratic incumbent District Attorney Craig Watkins with a coalition of Republicans and some Democrats in 2014.
Today, Democrats hold every countywide post, and only two Republicans from Dallas County — Reps. Morgan Meyer of University Park and Angie Chen Button of Garland — serve in the Texas Legislature. If Koch loses, the GOP could no longer have a voice on the Commissioners Court.
Since there are more Democrats in the electorate than Republicans based on results since 2006, the GOP’s countywide prospects are grim.
Republican businesswoman Lauren Davis is challenging incumbent Clay Jenkins, while former District Attorney Faith Johnson is in a rematch of her 2018 race against incumbent District Attorney John Creuzot.
Abbott appointed Johnson district attorney to replace Hawk, who stepped down in 2016 to focus on her health.
While they may not win, the presence of Davis and Johnson on the countywide ballot could rally GOP voters, which would help Abbott and other statewide Republican candidates.