Texas Democrats are making health care the heart of their final pitch as they look to flip the state House, which Republicans have held since 2002.
In a “contract with Texas” that Democrats are rolling out Thursday and which was shared first with The Hill, the party is touting policies it would try to enact should it flip the net nine seats it needs to gain control of the chamber. The central pillar of the plan is expanding Medicaid in Texas, which has the highest number and rate of uninsured people in the nation, as well as boosting coverage for children and making care for women more equal.
The party is betting that voters in the state who normally rank health care as a top issue will be even more receptive to messages around expanding coverage in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the Lone Star State particularly hard. And after Democrats across the country won in a “blue wave” in 2018 fueled by promises to improve coverage, Texas Democrats are confident their strategy will work.
“I think we have seen for a while now, before the pandemic, before any of us heard of coronavirus, that health care was a top-ranked issue, really across the country. Certainly in the 2018 elections, health care was a key issue that year,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic caucus. “But this year, with this pandemic, with the health care crisis that is affecting everyone, it’s just through the roof right now. People expect policymakers to address health care access.”
The heart of the Democrats’ “Affordable Health Care for Every Texan” plan is providing coverage for 2.2 million more residents by expanding Medicaid, which the party says would also lower premiums and prescription drug prices for all Texans. Estimates from the party gauge that Texas would receive $110 billion in federal money over a decade if Medicaid is expanded.
The plan also calls for expanding coverage for children by extending children’s Medicaid “through 12 months of continuous eligibility to align with [the Children’s Health Insurance Program].”
Lastly, Democrats look to bolster women’s health care by ensuring access to abortion – including by ensuring clinics that offer the procedure receive proper funding – and reducing maternal mortality rates, including bringing down the disproportionate rate at which Black mothers die during childbirth.
The party is also eyeing other health care-related legislation, including bills to strengthen protections for people with preexisting conditions if ObamaCare is repealed and ending surprise medical billing.
Texas Democrats have long lamented Republicans’ policies on health care in the state, including their refusal to expand Medicaid and work to curb abortion access, but indicate those efforts would face reenergized resistance if they win back the state House.
“Without the gavel, we haven’t been able to dictate the tone and tenor of what happens on the floor, so this time around we will be able to keep divisive and hurtful legislation off the floor and we’ll be able to prioritize things like Medicaid expansion which have overwhelming support from the electorate,” said state Rep. Celia Israel.
But Democrats’ ability to enact any of the reforms they want is contingent on actually winning control of the state House and earning a seat at the legislative table.
Republicans are expected to fiercely defend their slim majority in a state that has historically been home turf and note that Democrats still face headwinds in a state they have been boasting about for several cycles.
Texas GOP strategist Corbin Casteel said he “won’t be surprised either way with the results” but told The Hill Democrats must run historic races in a presidential year in order to make significant gains.
“This is a turnout election. Very few undecideds. When that is the case, the best-run campaign typically wins. And that affects state and local races greatly,” he said. “The margin of victory at the top of the ticket is vital for both parties in Texas. [Former Vice President Joe] Biden doesn’t have to carry Texas to flip the majority in the Texas House. But he does have to have a turnout that makes recent history for a Democratic presidential candidate in Texas.”
Democrats are currently targeting 25 GOP-held districts across urban, suburban and rural areas, but its top nine targets are ones currently represented by Republicans at the legislative level that were won by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) in his 2018 Senate bid.
Democrats have been hopeful they can make further headway this cycle after flipping 12 state House seats on the backs of swiftly changing demographics, including a growing Hispanic population and an influx of new residents from liberal states.
“It’s looking very good,” Ed Espinoza, who runs the advocacy group Progress Texas, told The Hill. “The districts look different than they did previously. They’re the same lines, but Texas has just grown so much that you have a whole new set of voters who live in many of these places, and that has changed the makeup of these districts dramatically.”
And the party is confident voters will be fired up heading into the general election given the historic circumstances surrounding the election and virulent anti-Trump sentiment among its base.
“The common phrase I’ve been using is crushed glass, because people have been telling me they’d crawl over crushed glass in order to vote. So we’re excited for the election, it’s going to be a historic election,” Israel said. “We’re going to flip the House and recalibrate the issues that we’ve been working on and pass legislation.”