Competition of Elections in the Texas House of Representatives

By Christopher Piel

Elections are an integral part of democracy in the United States. Free, fair, and competitive elections determine who will represent the people all the way from federal offices to state and local officials. However, a recent increase in political polarization has raised concerns about how competitive many important elections really are[1]. While high profile elections for federal races such as the President of the United States are typically hotly contested and relatively unpredictable, the same cannot be said for many state elections. The Texas House of Representatives is composed of 150 members, each representing a different district in the state. Members of the Texas House are elected every two years and are responsible for making the laws of the state. When examining data from the last four presidential election cycles (2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020), there is evidence to support an argument that the elections that determine Texas’ legislators in the House are extremely predictable and simply not very competitive[2].

The majority of races in the Texas House of Representatives are not very close. The winner of the general election in 2008, 2012, 2016, or 2020 of a race that featured more than one candidate, on average, won over 68% of the vote. That is a margin of victory of 36%. This number changes each year, but, in each of the last four presidential election cycles, the margin of victory in the Texas House has been no lower than 28%. This margin is usually very similar for victories of either party. For example, in 2020, Democrats won contested general elections with an average of 64% of the vote while Republicans won with 63% of the vote. This data, which can be seen in Figure 1, helps to explain how difficult it is for a significant change in party composition to occur in the Texas Legislature.

Leading up to the 2020 general election, some reputable media outlets and political analysts were speculating that for a number of reasons, the Texas House could see a Democratic majority[3]. However, in the general election, Republicans once again took a majority with 83 victories, giving the party control of the exact same number of seats they won in 2018[4].

A significant portion of races in the Texas House are not even contested in the general election each cycle. In fact, in 2016, 81 of the 150 races (54%) were decided in the primary, leaving only one candidate on the ballot in November to receive 100% of the vote. As the data shows in Figure 2, at least one quarter of the races in the general election were also uncontested in 2008, 2012, and 2020.

Uncontested races are typically more common in the Texas House than in the US House. For example, in 2016, the general election for the U.S. House of Representatives saw only 13 uncontested races, only accounting for just over 3% of the races[5]. That marks a staggering difference, as that same year in the Texas House, over half the races were uncontested. Each Texas House district represents over 150,000 citizens, yet the contest often becomes a one candidate race before the general election even begins. This is not the only factor that signals a lack of overall competition in these elections.

Incumbents are very rarely defeated in the Texas House of Representatives. The incumbency advantage is not a new phenomenon, but the data suggests the advantage is stronger in the Texas legislature than in the U.S. Congress. In the general election for the last four presidential cycles, an average of 20 incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives are defeated, meaning about 5% of the incumbents seeking re-election were defeated[6]. However, in the Texas House during that same period, an average of just over 2% of incumbents were defeated. As shown in Figure 3, only 3 incumbents were defeated in the 2016 and 2020 general elections combined.

Additionally, the vast majority of incumbents choose to seek re-election in the Texas House. On average, about 118 members, just under 80% of the legislative body, ran as an incumbent in each of the last four presidential election cycles. It is extremely rare for incumbents to be defeated despite the fact that the vast majority of elections in the Texas House contain one member seeking re-election. However, this advantage does not just apply to individual candidates.

Most of the districts in the state of Texas elect the same party into power every election cycle. Once again, this is not groundbreaking news, but the extent to which this is true in the Texas House is remarkable. In 120 of the 150 races, the same party won the election in each of the last four presidential cycles. That means in 80% of the districts, the same political party, whether Democrat or Republican, has consistently been in power since at least 2008. Figure 4 shows how the party composition of the Texas House has changed during each of the last four presidential election cycles.

That level of continuity makes the political makeup of the Texas House extremely easy to predict each election. Regardless of who the candidates are, the majority of districts in Texas will continue to elect a member of whichever political party already holds that seat. This data further supports the claim that the race for these seats are simply not very contested.

A study performed by the Pew Research Center in 2014 suggested that political polarization in the United States has increased significantly over the last twenty years or so[7]. In fact it found that “the overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades”. Polarization is not inherently a bad thing, but it can have negative effects on various political processes. The Pew study also showed that over a quarter of Democrats and a third of Republicans see the opposing party as a threat to the nation’s well-being. According to many political scientists, polarization can pose a challenge to the democratic process. While it is certainly not the only cause, there is a case to be made that polarization contributes to a lack of competition in many important elections such as the Texas House of Representatives.

[1] Heltzel, Gordon, and Kristin Laurin. “Polarization in America: Two Possible Futures.” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Elsevier Ltd., Aug. 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7201237/. ; Kimball, Jill. “U.S. Is Polarizing Faster than Other Democracies, Study Finds.” Brown University, www.brown.edu/news/2020-01-21/polarization. ; Lupu, Noam. “Party Polarization and Mass Partisanship: A Comparative Perspective.” Political Behavior, vol. 37, no. 2, 2015, pp. 331–356., www.jstor.org/stable/43653227. ; Newport, Frank. “The Impact of Increased Political Polarization.” Gallup.com, Gallup, 23 Nov. 2020, news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/268982/impact-increased-political-polarization.aspx.

[2] Texas Secretary of State. Election Results Archive, www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/historical/elections-results-archive.shtml.

[3] Pollock, Cassandra, and Patrick Svitek. “Democrats Could Gain Control of the Texas House for the First Time since 2001. Here Are the Seats in Play in 2020.” The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune, 13 Dec. 2019, www.texastribune.org/2019/12/13/will-texas-house-turn-blue-after-2020-elections/. ; Moser, Bob. “Texas Is Bracing for a Blue Wave in 2020. Yes, Texas.” The New Republic, 12 Aug. 2019, newrepublic.com/article/154723/texas-bracing-blue-wave-2020-yes-texas.

[4] “Texas House of Representatives.” Ballotpedia, ballotpedia.org/Texas_House_of_Representatives.

[5] Graves, Leslie. “United States Congress Elections, 2016.” Ballotpedia, ballotpedia.org/United_States_Congress_elections,_2016#U.S._House_overview.

[6] “United States House of Representatives Elections, 2020.” Ballotpedia, ballotpedia.org/United_States_House_of_Representatives_elections,_2020.

[7] “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Pew Research Center — U.S. Politics & Policy, Pew Research Center, 28 Aug. 2020, www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/.