A political quake in West Virginia could shake things up in Texas.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s decision not to seek reelection next year will make it difficult for Democrats to hold that seat. Manchin, a centrist Democrat, was a critical component in his party’s effort to hold ground in the largely GOP-controlled state.
With Manchin departing and Republicans likely to pick up the seat, wrestling a Texas Senate post away from incumbent Republican Ted Cruz becomes more of a necessity than luxury.
“Losing Manchin makes holding the majority more difficult and increases the pressure on Democrats to hold all their own seats,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of campaigns. “Democrats might need to win a Republican seat or two to offset losses in other parts of the country.”
Cruz, who is seeking reelection to a third term, will face the winner of the March 5 Democratic primary that features U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, state Rep. Carl Sherman and others. The incumbent doesn’t have major opposition in his primary.
Even before Manchin dropped out of the West Virginia race, national Democrats had begun dropping resources in Texas and targeting Cruz, who they contend is vulnerable.
“Democrats have multiple pathways to protect and strengthen our Senate majority and are in a strong position to achieve this goal,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, after Manchin’s announcement.
“In addition to defending our battle-tested incumbents,” he said, “we’ve already expanded the battleground map to Texas and Florida, where formidable Democratic candidates are out-raising unpopular Republican incumbents and the DSCC is making investments to lay the groundwork for our campaigns’ victories.”
National Republicans are preparing for the DSCC to target Cruz.
“We fully expect Chuck Schumer’s allies in New York and California to spend millions of dollars trying to buy a Senate seat in Texas,” according to a statement from Philip Letsou, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “They want to elect a radical liberal who will vote to keep the border open, raise taxes, and destroy the energy industry.”
Democrats now hold an advantage in the Senate. Of the 100 members, 48 are Democrats and 49 are Republicans. But two independents — Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine — caucus with Democrats, while Arizona independent Kyrsten Sinema doesn’t caucus with either party. That gives Democrats a 50-49-1 advantage.
If Republicans gain two seats (one if they win the White House), they seize control of the Senate.
Texas could play a role in the outcome.
“They almost have to beat Cruz to hold on to the Senate, because they’ve got some tough Senate races for incumbents elsewhere,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa.
Texas Democrats have long complained their national siblings don’t invest enough money and resources in the Lone Star State, even as they funnel money out of it for contests across the country.
In recent history, Texas has been an ATM for national candidates from both parties, since Republicans have dominated the state since 2003, when they took control of the statehouse for the first time since Reconstruction.
In 2014, Republican Greg Abbott beat Democrat Wendy Davis by 20 percentage points to become governor, an outcome that became a highwater mark for the GOP’s recent dominance.
Since then, Democrats have been more competitive, including in 2018, when Cruz outlasted former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke by 2.6 percentage points.
Two years later, national Democrats opened offices in Texas to help with congressional races, though Joe Biden largely reneged on a promise to pour resources into the party’s Lone Star effort. Biden lost Texas to former President Donald Trump, and Republicans won with incumbent Republican Sen. John Cornyn and held control of the Texas Legislature.
Until now, national resources have been scarce.
Hinojosa said a national investment should be made to help candidates up and down the ballot. The leaders of that effort should include Biden, who is seeking reelection.
“We’re going to need money to bring out the base in order for us to be able to beat Cruz,” he said. “That requires all hands on deck in this state, not just for the Senate race but for everything.”
As good as Texas may look to some Democratic Party optimists, pouring huge resources into the state could be a losing proposition. Though Democrats have made the state more competitive since 2014, Republicans still win statewide elections with some comfort, and Cruz is skilled at turning out his conservative base.
Democrats may also want to use the bulk of available resources to hold critical seats elsewhere. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are vulnerable, according to most nonpartisan forecasts.
Still, Texas Democrats could see more national money than normal, especially against Cruz, whom they view as a key nemesis.
“If there is a silver lining to Manchin, it’s Democrats will be able to reallocate resources from defending an incumbent in West Virginia to other states, and that time and money could go to Texas,” Gonzales said.
“Texas is the only Republican seat that we have not graded as solid Republican,” Gonzales added. “Right now, we think Democrats have a better chance in Texas than they do in Florida, but both are still difficult races.”