Throughout North Texas, there are very few competitive state legislative races, and they all happen to be in Dallas County. Democrats in the county are hoping that changing demographics, higher turnout and Donald Trump might be the right combination to help them take a handful of Republican-held seats.
Across Texas, state legislative districts tend either favor Democrats or Republicans by practically insurmountable margins. In Dallas County, though, a handful of seats have a party mix that makes them more competitive. They’re all held by Republicans, and Democrats are working hard to take over.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat who’s not up for election this year, says more people vote in presidential election years -- and that helps his party.
“What you see is when more people vote, the vote trends Democratic,” he said.
Jenkins says he thinks having a polarizing figure like Donald Trump at the top of the ballot will help increase Democratic turnout. It also makes it easier to contrast the two parties, he said, which benefits Democrats.
Overall, Jenkins thinks the county is more Democratic than the representatives it sends to Austin, but says that Republicans have benefited from districts they gerrymandered. He thinks that advantage is fast disappearing.
“Dallas County is a very progressive, forward-thinking county, and it’s hard to carve districts that can be safe Republican districts in Dallas County,” he said.
Most big cities in Texas, with the exception of Fort Worth, look like Dallas: They’re blue in the urban middle, red on the suburban edges. Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson says the battlegrounds this year are all in that first ring of suburbs, which he says are increasingly diverse and increasingly Democratic.
“The Democrats expect to pick up, statewide, five for 10 house seats that they don’t hold,” he said. “So there’s an evolution of the urban areas in Texas that Dallas is a part of.”
One tough race is in Texas House District 107, which includes chunks of eastern Dallas, Garland and Mesquite.
Four years ago, Republican Kenneth Sheets won that seat by less than a thousand votes. This year, Democratic challenger Victoria Neave is pushing hard to unseat him. The race has drawn in more than $1.2 million, with Sheets out-spending Neave two-to-one. Sheets has run ads touting his military record, his support for consumer protections and law enforcement. He’s also gone negative against Neave.
A Democratic political group backing Neave blasted Sheets in its own ad. The Lone Star Project produced ads tying Sheets to Donald Trump, and blamed Sheets for endangering children by not fixing the state’s troubled Child Protective Services agency.
The Lone Star Project has deployed similar attacks to bolster Democrats in other races in North Texas and elsewhere.
Elsewhere in the county, a few other Texas House races are being closely watched. In House District 105, which covers parts of Grand Prairie and Irving, Republican incumbent Rodney Anderson is facing a challenge from Democrat Terry Meza in a district that went red by just a fraction of a percent in 2012. In District 102, in the northern part of the county, nonprofit program director Laura Irvin is seeking to unseat Rep. Linda Koop, a Republican former Dallas City Council member who won the seat in 2014. On the eastern edge of Dallas County, incumbent Rep. Cindy Burkett and teacher Rhetta Andrews Bowers are squaring off in District 113.
SMU’s Jillson, the political scientist, says for the next few cycles, inner-ring suburbs will be up for grabs and fiercely fought over in Texas, “but if you go out a decade, let alone two decades, those are blue districts,” he said.
“Republican Party as they are currently constituted does not have a message for those more diverse inner-ring suburbs,” Jillson said. “And absent that new Republican message, they’re going to start performing like urban districts.
At Dallas County Republican Headquarters, Chairman Phillip Huffines says Republicans don’t need a new message -- they need to frame their message better.
“Our ideas ring true with everybody,” said Huffines, who is just two months into running the party. “When you hear what the Republican Party stands for and when other voters hear that, they say 'yeah, that’s what I believe.'”
Huffines says that starting with the next cycle, he plans to run a Republican in every local, state and federal race in Dallas County. In the long term, he wants to see Republicans in Dallas County focus on engagement with all communities in Dallas County, including the reliably Democratic ones.
“It’s being involved in other people's lives and helping them and letting them know that we’re here to help them as a party, and that our candidates and elected officials take very seriously their concerns.,” he said.
In the short term, Huffines thinks there are enough independents who like the Republican message that the GOP can keep control of Dallas County’s most competitive districts.
Note: An early version of this story incorrectly named Rep. Linda Koop as Laura Koop. Her name has since been corrected.