One of the major themes of the 2018 midterm election was that Democrats tended to perform better in suburban counties and districts than they have in the past. However, there was one suburban Texas county that bucked that trend and proved to be a significant outlier: Montgomery County.
How Montgomery County became such an outlier and alone delivered nearly half Sen. Ted Cruz’s statewide margin of victory, and how activists were able to revive the decaying local Republican party to accomplish this provides an interesting case study of how the GOP can be successful in the suburbs.
Just to the north of Houston, Montgomery County has been a reliable Republican stronghold for decades, much like the state’s other major suburban counties. Over the last few election cycles though, Republicans have seen their dominance in the major urban and suburban counties slipping. This trend has been mirrored across the country, leading to the GOP’s loss of the U.S. House in the most recent election.
In 2014, Republicans were propelled into all the statewide offices in Texas with large margins by high Republican turnout in the major suburban counties. In his race for governor, Greg Abbott received 66% of the vote in Collin County, 65% in Denton County, 57% in Tarrant County, 59% in Williamson County, 56% in Fort Bend County.
However, in 2016 the Republican margins in all these counties began to slip. Donald Trump received 56% in Collin County, 57% in Denton County, 52% in Tarrant County, and 51% in Williamson County. Fort Bend County turned slightly blue, with Republican turnout dipping to 45%.
In 2018, given the fact that midterms are historically unfavorable to the party that holds the presidency, and the Democrat base was motivated, the margins in the major suburbs became notably close. Cruz received 52.7% in Collin County, and 53.7% in Denton County. Tarrant County, long known as the largest reliably Republican county in Texas, went blue, with Cruz receiving 49.3%, while Fort Bend turned a deeper shade of blue, with Democrats picking up county offices down ballot. Hays County, a suburb of Austin, turned blue as well.
From 2014 to 2016, it looked as if Montgomery County was following a similar trend. Abbott received 80%, then Trump received 73% the next cycle. However, unlike most other suburban counties, the Montgomery County saw essentially no slipping in its Republican margin between 2016 and 2018, with Cruz still winning 72% of the vote.
Cruz beat Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) by a whopping 86,000 vote margin in Montgomery County, which was almost half of his 219,427 overall margin of victory statewide.
Montgomery County’s status as a suburban outlier is significant. Collin, Denton, Tarrant, Williamson, and Fort Bend are all very similar counties, with comparable demographics, income levels, and growth. Four years ago, they were politically homogeneous as well, yet Montgomery County was the only one where Republicans raked up massive margins in 2018.
In fact, Montgomery County was the only major suburban county where Cruz received over 60%.
If Republicans are going to keep Texas red and continue winning races statewide, they absolutely must hold the suburbs. If the suburbs are lost, then so is the state. And if Texas goes blue, Republicans’ electoral path to the White House would be lost as well.
Given how high the stakes are, it would be constructive for conservatives everywhere to analyze what happened in Montgomery County, and consider following suit in some areas.
What Happened in Montgomery County?
In 2017, conservative Republicans in Montgomery County had much to be concerned about. Corruption among county officials, all of whom were Republicans, was rampant, and risked tarnishing the GOP brand. The Montgomery County Republican Party itself had atrophied significantly over the years. It was dysfunctional and hadn’t run a serious “get out the vote” campaign in several cycles. People on the “reform” side of the local political divide, who represent the majority of Republicans in the county, were shut out of party leadership and discouraged from participating in GOP activities.
With a slate of county elected officials known for corruption dragging the MCRP down, and an atrophied party structure, Democrats saw a chance to make inroads, and for the first time in decades fielded a full slate of candidates for most county offices. Privately, Montgomery County Democrats admitted that they knew they were not going to win in the 2018 cycle- it was all about making gains and laying the groundwork for success in future cycles. If they could get the margin close enough, they would be able to attract outside funding and be competitive in 2020 or more likely 2024.
Liberal money was already flowing in from California and New York, with Steve Toth’s opponent for the State House District 15 seat raising over $100,000 and Democrats placing expensive 4X8 signs around the county.
MCRP leadership seemed paralyzed to respond to the threat, content instead to bask in the glories of past victories.
The reverse to this concerning trajectory came in two steps:
First, Republican voters in the 2018 primary cleaned house, tossing out the corrupt county judge and treasurer and ushering in a fresh slate of reform-minded candidates for local office. This took away the Democrats’ ability to tie the Republican Party to the malfeasance in county government, and allowed the “new” Republican slate to brand themselves as the party of reform.
Second, the MCRP itself went through a major restructuring early in 2018, with a complete rewrite of the bylaws and a revitalizing infusion of grassroots activism.
Frustrated with being shut out of the MCRP, grassroots activists began organizing in earnest to fill vacant precinct chair positions and recruit challengers to chairs loyal to the status quo. In the 2018 primary, they swept the contested precinct chair races, winning all but two and gaining a majority on the executive committee for the first time in the history of the party.
The first thing the precinct chairs proceeded to do was overhaul the MCRP bylaws in June to decentralize power in the party and allow for decisions to be made by the entire executive committee, in stark contrast to the autocratic way the party had been run before. The new bylaws created a nine member steering committee, allowed for increased collaboration, and opened up the party to all those who wanted to get involved, revitalizing it like never before and giving it a much needed infusion of new blood.
Although the county chairman and some of the old guard decided to cease their involvement with the MCRP and formed their own splinter group, the precinct chairs continued to go about the business of the party, organizing a GOTV campaign for the 2018 midterms and working furiously to rebuild the party’s atrophied structure in time for the election.
A 2018 Victory Committee was formed, and under the leadership of Dale Inman, Kelli Cook, and Jonna Johnson, it soon became a well oiled machine, driving GOP turnout and assisting candidates. Record numbers of doors were knocked on, and the latest technology was utilized.
The revitalized party saw a surge in fundraising as well. During the 2016 election cycle, campaign finance report from August- November show that while the party raised $16,022, only $6,478, or 40%, was actually spent on campaign expenses. The rest was spent on overhead and the salary of the party’s “executive assistant” Melinda Fredricks.
Even worse, the county chair refused to turn over to the steering committee the tens of thousands of dollars sitting in the MCRP bank account leftover from past fundraisers, as required by the new bylaws. The latest finance reports showed him sitting on $40,703 on the eve of the 2018 election: money that could have gone to help Republican candidates.
In contrast, the 2018 Victory Committee PAC raised $34,697 during the 2018 cycle, and spent $33,065 on the GOTV campaign, or 95%. As of the election they had $18.58 cash on hand.
Another noteworthy contrast was where the money came from. In past cycles, the vast majority of donations to the GOP actually came from the candidates who they were supposed to be helping, and was then spent on salary and overhead. The 2018 Victory Committee raised almost all its funding from activists and donors, and spent that money helping the candidates.
As several candidates have noted: whereas in the past the candidates had to support the MCRP, now, the MCRP actually supports the candidates.
The Montgomery County Model
While there were many factors that caused the 2018 elections to go the way they did, and political enthusiasts and “experts” will be analyzing the results for weeks to come to get a fuller picture, three reasons for Montgomery County’s success and outlier status immediately emerge:
(1) The decentralized structure of the MCRP under the new bylaws and the way they infused the party with new volunteers gave it a huge advantage in mobilizing to meet the challenges it faced. The new MCRP developed a hyper-localized structure, depending on the precinct chairs to carry most of the weight. This allowed new people who recently moved to the county to be welcomed personally into the local GOP fold in a way that perhaps is absent from some of the other rapidly growing suburban counties. Chairs in different regions of the county were able to adapt to the unique conditions of their area.
The decentralized, hyper-localization of the party structure definitely gave the MCRP an edge, and similar bylaws should be considered by other counties. It should be noted that the suburban county where Cruz got the second highest percent behind Montgomery County was Galveston County, which has bylaws that structure its party very similarly.
(2) Montgomery County has a very large, vibrant grassroots movement that is extremely well networked and entrenched in the community. The large activist population provided the myriad of “shock troops” needed to run the party’s aggressive GOTV operation. The county’s two tea party groups were instrumental in sending mailers to turn out the base and working the parking lots with voter guides. Additionally, the sheer number of GOP groups in the county, including seven Republican women’s groups and a Pachyderm Club, ensure that the Republican party is engrained in the social fabric of the county.
(3) Finally, local Republicans had a cohesive, compelling message and a specific local governing philosophy regarding why they would be a better choice than the local Democrat slate. County judge candidate Mark Keough campaigned on a “Contract with Montgomery County” which outlined specific local policy goals he pledged to enact. “Republicans are the party of reform” was the slogan the party ran with, and it became ubiquitous, appearing on every GOP push-card, mailer, and sign.
Rather than depend on the national political climate by talking about national issues, the local candidates campaigned on local issues that directly impacted the lives of voters. Issues such as property tax/ appraisal reform, ending conflicts of interest, opposing toll roads, and cutting the rampant waste in county government dominated the political conversation and resonated with the community.
Local Republicans in some other counties seemed to lack a cohesive message or local governing philosophy, reverting instead to talking points about why the Democrats were worse. Many ended up being swept away indiscriminately due to straight ticket voting. Montgomery County’s local candidates had a more compelling message than “we’re better than the Democrats”. As a result, Montgomery County’s local Republican candidates typically ran 4-6 percentage points higher than the top of the ticket.
That’s not to say that other counties were not doing some of these things, or that some of these factors don’t already exist in other counties. However, they all came together in Montgomery County to create a recipe for success. The MCRP made its fair share of mistakes in the process, but the results from Election Day are worth heeding and emulating what was done right, especially for counties that are very similar to Montgomery.
Republicans need to perform well in the suburbs. The “Montgomery County Model” can provide a blueprint for how to do so.