Texas Democrats lick their wounds, look for silver linings after rough night

As Texas Democrats pick up the pieces of the 2016 election, a single-digit margin in the presidential race here and a few legislative victories don't offer much comfort.

Guests watch the election coverage during the Dallas County Democratic watch party in Dallas, Texas on Nov. 8, 2016.

Texas Democrats expected to watch their presidential candidate shatter the highest and hardest glass ceiling on Tuesday — and to loosen the Republican grip on this deeply red state in the process.

Instead, Election Night delivered more complicated results.

Despite the top-line outcomes — an upset victory for Donald Trump and a loss in a key Texas congressional district — Democrats here managed to narrow the GOP margin of victory in the presidential race to the closest it’s been in two decades. They also gained four legislative seats.

But as Democrats pick up the pieces of the 2016 election, the single-digit margin in Texas and a few legislative victories don't offer much solace.

“Everybody was expecting Trump to have some seriously negative coattails, not just in Texas but everywhere, and the opposite turned out to be true, which means that we have altogether been dead wrong and underestimated some things about the electorate," said Harold Cook, a longtime Democratic operative. "What those things are will be our discussion for weeks to come.”

In the Congressional District 23 rematch, Democratic challenger Pete Gallego sought to tie incumbent Will Hurd to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Gallego, who won the seat in 2012, lost to Hurd in 2014.

But Hurd, considered among the U.S. House’s most vulnerable Republicans, successfully staked out his own territory as a conservative, repudiating Trump after the release of a vulgar video showing the GOP nominee boasting about groping women.

For Cook, some of the election's most instructive lessons for Democrats come from studying what happened in that congressional district. Hurd narrowly beat Gallego in 2014, in a year without a divisive presidential election expected to draw more Democrats and Latinos to the polls. 

"There is a change in the electorate, and Democrats are going to have to get to the bottom of it," Cook said. 

Heading into Tuesday's election, roughly 10 House Republicans faced competitive races. Democrats picked up four of those seats. Republican Reps. John LujanRick Galindo and Gilbert Peña lost to Democratic challengers who had previously faced off against them. And incumbent Rep. Kenneth Sheets of Dallas fell to Democratic challenger Victoria Neave by fewer than 900 votes, marking the conclusion of the state’s most expensive House race.

Neave said that uniting a divided electorate means governing in ways that improve Texans’ lives.

During her campaign, Neave tried to tie incumbent Sheets to Trump’s controversial comments about women and minorities. But she said she also vowed to be an advocate for middle-class Texans and to fight for higher wages, better public education and affordable college tuition. That’s what she believed put her over the edge in her race even as other Democrats faltered. 

“For me it’s about people, regardless of what party they’re in,” Neave said.

Early Wednesday morning, as Gallego delivered remarks at the Paramour Hotel in San Antonio conceding his defeat, he acknowledged the devastation his party faced nationally.

"There is a lot of concern and trepidation," he said.

But he also attempted to look forward.

"The sun rises tomorrow. It's a new day,” he said. “And we begin putting one foot in front of the other as we have every other day for generations and generations past, and as I know we will for generations to come."

Brandon Formby and Abby Livingston contributed to this story.

Read more of the Tribune's related coverage:

  • Texas Democrats notched small gains as the minority party in the 150-member Texas House Tuesday, ousting incumbent Republicans in four races, according to unofficial returns.
  • Donald Trump's presidential victory was the stuff of Texas GOP dreams, and the state's party leaders are moving quickly to capitalize on this once-in-a-century opportunity.