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What the Midterms in Texas Taught Us

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The 2014 election in Texas was an absolute, unmitigated, epic disaster for the Democrats.

There is simply no other conclusion to draw from the results.

I know a few supremely confident Republicans, but no one was predicting that state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, the celebrity Democratic nominee for governor, the beneficiary of at least $35 million of spending, would perform worse than the Democrats who ran for governor in 2010 and 2002 (2006 was a four-way race and not analogous).


Davis earned less than 39 percent of the vote. Greg Abbott earned just less than 60 percent of the vote. Davis won just 19 of the state's 254 counties.

There were ten counties that 2010 Democratic nominee Bill White won in 2010 that Davis lost in 2014: the large urban counties of Bexar and Harris, in addition to Brooks, Culberson, Falls, Foard, Kleberg, LaSalle, Reeves and Trinity.

All in all, Davis earned 300,000 fewer votes than the Democratic nominee four years earlier. Absolutely stunning.

So what did we learn from the electoral bloodbath in Texas?

1. Turnout was down - About 4.6 million Texans voted, down from 4.9 million four years ago. Democrats are blaming voter ID for this, but our turnout was the nation's lowest in 2010 (before voter ID) and in 2014 (with voter ID in place). Given that Battleground Texas claimed to have tens of thousands of volunteers to turn out voters, it is remarkable that turnout was down. Perhaps Republicans turned out their base, but Democrats didn't? Two reasons: Davis didn't motivate them, or they didn't think the race was competitive.

2. Battleground Texas has some explaining to do - How do you spend $35 million or more and go backwards? What major donor would write a check to Battleground today?

3. Positive campaigns work - Campaigns run negative ads because they work, but when candidates are able to run exclusively positive ads, they generally perform very well. Yes, Abbott drew a contrast on ethics, but he ran 90 percent positive on his TV and radio ads, which helped him develop a positive image among voters (Davis' image was upside down). Abbott's ads were memorable: the English/Spanish ad with his mother-in-law ("Madrina"), the ad on the freeway where he was going faster in his wheelchair than cars were going, and the ad about his own perseverance after his accident ("Just one more"), where he pushed himself up the floors of a parking garage to build up his upper body strength. In time, the only TV ad that anyone will remember from Davis was her outrageous attack on Abbott's disability ("the empty wheelchair" ad).


4. Message matters - Abbott had a message: Keep the Texas economy strong, pass border security, advance a first class education system with both accountability and funding and get Texas transportation moving. Davis' message was either narrow (anti-abortion law, equal pay, etc.) or a negative message against Abbott. Candidates must have a positive vision, and Davis didn't have one. She also inexplicably failed to tell her positive and inspirational biographical story.

5. Women and Hispanics - Abbott won women, which wasn't a new phenomenon but was significant given Davis' appeal as a female candidate and her focus on "women's issues." According to the CNN exit poll, Abbott won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, which is 17 points better than Mitt Romney performed nationally two years ago. His focus on the Hispanic vote, with genuine outreach, paid off.

6. Transportation funding is widely popular - Proposition 1, the ballot initiative to divert billions from the rainy day fund toward the maintenance of state highways, overwhelmingly passed, which underscores the priority Texans place on transportation funding. But diversions are pain-free and billions more are needed for new construction, so this issue isn't going away.

7. Statewide drubbing - Democrats didn't just lose the governor's race badly; they lost every statewide race badly. The GOP picked up Davis' state Senate seat, the 23rd Congressional seat, and will have at least 98 elected Republicans in the Texas House. They also won a countywide office in Dallas County and flipped Bexar County.


This election victory was significant for the Texas GOP. Democrats face a long two years, with the survival of Battleground Texas very much an open question.

Yes, higher turnout likely would have benefited Democrats.

But with record spending and so much at stake, why were Democrats unable to turn out their vote?

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