Simpson and RINOs Crash and Burn
February 21, 2017
The Weekly Standard
There’s an untold story from the 2016 election that should encourage Democrats and worry Republicans. It happened in Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city in population and the hometown of former President George H. W. Bush. To be precise it’s Harris County, Texas—which consists mostly of Houston—that we’re talking about.
On November 8, Hillary Clinton lost Texas to Donald Trump by 9 percentage points. But she won Harris County by an astonishing 13 percentage points. And that’s not all. Republicans lost every county-wide race (including incumbents) and 24 of 24 judgeships. The son of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick was among Republican judges who were ousted.
For Republicans, it was literally a wipeout. Even so, that doesn’t quite capture how bad it was for them. The Democratic sweep underlined how rapidly the GOP is fading in Harris County, third population-wise among the nation’s counties. In 2012, Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama by 971 votes. In 2016, Trump lost to Clinton by 161,511. She beat Trump by a larger margin than former Texas governor and President George W. Bush achieved in his two presidential campaigns.
The GOP’s suffering is all the more painful because of the false dawn provided by city’s 2014 ordinance that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation, “sexual identity,” and 13 other factors. The ordinance was challenged in a referendum in 2015 as opponents rallied around the battle cry of “no men in the women’s bathrooms.” That killed the ordinance. It lost by a whopping 61 percent to 39 percent, raising Republican hopes that Houston is more conservative than everyone thought.
Maybe it is, but Republicans haven’t benefitted from that. Gary Polland, a three-time Harris County Republican party chairman, can’t remember a time the GOP has done so poorly. “It could be back to the 60’s.” Jared Woodfill, who lost the chairmanship in 2014, does remember. “This is the worst defeat for Republicans in the 71-year history of Republican party of Harris County,” he said.
But crushing Republicans in a county of 4.5 million people doesn’t mean Democrats are on the verge of capturing Texas. In fact, Democratic leaders were as surprised as Republicans by the Harris sweep. But it does show there’s a political tide running in their direction.
Democratic strategists are relying on a one-word political panacea to boost the party in overtaking Republicans: Hispanics. They’re already a plurality—42 percent—in Harris County. Whites are 31 percent, blacks 20 percent, and Asians 7 percent. And the Hispanic population continues to grow. Democrats control the big Texas cities—Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, to name three—thanks to Hispanic voters.
But in Houston, at least, Democrats have another factor in their favor: Republican incompetence. It was in full bloom in 2016. Though it was the year of a change election, GOP leaders chose a status quo slogan, “Harris County Works.” Whatever that was supposed to signal, it wasn’t change.
“It doesn’t exactly have the aspirational ring of ‘Make America Great Again’ or even Hillary’s ‘Stronger Together,'” Woodfill said. “It is very much a message of ‘everything is okay here, let’s maintain the status quo.’ People were confused and uninspired.”
A separate decision was just as ruinous. GOP leaders, led by chairman Paul Simpson, panicked at the thought of Trump at the top of the ticket. So they decided to pretend Trump was not on the ticket. They kept his name off campaign literature. They didn’t talk about him. And Trump, assured of winning Texas, didn’t spend a nickel in the Houston media market. It became an “invisible campaign,” Polland said. “There were votes to be had,” Polland told me. They were Trump votes. They weren’t sought.
This strategy defied reason and history. Disunited parties usually do poorly. GOP leaders gambled that their candidates would do better if the Trump connection were minimized. That may have eased the qualms of some about voting Republican. But it’s bound to have prompted others to stay at home on Election Day. We know one thing about the gamble: It didn’t work. Republicans were slaughtered, and it wasn’t because the candidates were bad.
“Our overall ticket was of high quality, but no casual voter would know it since the campaign focus was on ‘Harris County Works,’ and Houston doesn’t,” Polland insisted. “Did we read about any of the high-quality women running? Not much. Did we read about issues raised by Donald Trump that were resonating with voters? Nope. Did the Simpson-led party even mention Trump? Nope.”
Republicans tend to do better in non-presidential years in Texas, just as they do nationally. After Romney lost to Obama in 2012, Greg Abbott carried Harris Country by 20,655 in his successful race for governor two years later.
Abbott told the Texas Tribune he expects Republicans to bounce back in 2018, when Sen. Ted Cruz will be running for reelection. The debacle in Harris County “was really just kind of an echo of what happened in the last few presidential cycles and little more than that,” Abbott said.
Republican Rep. Kevin Brady, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the “holy grail” for Democrats, both in Texas and nationally, is winning the Hispanic vote. “They did that somewhat successfully” in 2016, he said in an interview. Unless Democrats attract significantly more Hispanic voters in 2018, Brady thinks Republicans should recover. His district north of Houston lies partly in Harris County.
For this to happen, they will need to attract more Hispanic voters themselves. They recruited a number of Hispanics to run in 2016, several of them impressive candidates. All were defeated in the Democratic landslide.
Polland said Republicans can’t wait to elect a new Harris County chairman in the 2018 primary. “This is not about ego. It is not about who is in charge. It’s about the survival of the GOP in Harris County.”
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