U.S. Rep. Bill Flores woke up Wednesday morning to the prospect of a fifth term and a new political landscape in Washington, D.C.
His Republican Party lost the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in a vote that some saw as a referendum against President Donald J. Trump’s leadership, while tightening control of the U.S. Senate.
But Flores on Wednesday wrote off the House loss as a normal election cycle, not so much a revolt against Trump. And he said he believes his party can work with Democrats to get things done.
“There are a variety of issues that played out, but mainly it was just history,” Flores said. “If you look at first-term presidents in their first midterm elections, they typically lose just under 40 seats in the House and lose seats in the Senate. So history was never on our side in terms of midterm elections for new presidents.”
Traditionally, the president’s party has lost House and Senate seats in the president’s first midterms, and 2002 was the only midterm election in the past three decades when the party holding the White House gained Senate seats.
“Second, there were a lot of Republican retirements and we had more seats to try to defend,” Flores said. “Third, there was a massive amount of left-wing money that came in to aggressively target Republican seats.”
Flores won a fifth term handily against two opponents, political newcomer Rick Kennedy, an Austin Democrat, and Peter Churchman, a Libertarian from Austin.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, named two major factors in the surge that led to Democratic inroads on state and national levels — Trump and Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke’s energizing campaign and historic fundraising efforts.
“There were a lot of things going on,” Jillson said. “I think one of them is Donald Trump. That is the broad background in which this election was contested and the doubt Trump causes in a lot of people’s minds about the direction of the country. He has his intense supporters, about 40 percent of the country, but the other 60 percent have their doubts, and that created an unstable election cycle.”
While O’Rourke fell short against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, he raised impressive amounts of money and created excitement among Democrats, sparking a larger voter turnout and creating longer coattails for other Democratic candidates to ride, Jillson said.
Jillson credited the O’Rourke factor with the defeats of longtime Republican Congressmen Pete Sessions in Dallas and John Culberson in Houston.
Sessions, a Waco native and son of former federal judge and FBI director William Sessions, has served in Congress since 1997. He was defeated for the 32nd Congressional District seat by Colin Allred, a former Baylor University and NFL football player.
Culberson, who was elected in 2000, lost to Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, marking the first time a Democrat won the District 7 seat in 50 years, according to reports.
Jillson said it remains to be seen if Republicans and Democrats can work together in Congress, especially on hot-button issues like immigration reform, border security and health care. He said Trump and Democratic leaders agreed Wednesday that the nation’s infrastructure needs serious remediation, but they disagree on how to pay for it.
Flores spoke to retirees at the Texas Farm Bureau in Waco on Wednesday and asked how many think Congress and Washington is dysfunctional. Most held up their hands, Flores said.
“Congress passed 278 bills last session that the president signed and 98.9 percent of those were bipartisan,” Flores said. “But nobody ever hears about that. You only hear about the 1.1 percent where there is conflict.
“As long as the Democrats are willing to continue to operate that way, we should be OK. Now, if they are going to do what they talked about in the middle of the political season about trying to impeach the president, investigate the president, investigate (Supreme Court Justice Brett) Kavanaugh or things like that, then that certainly could cause problems. But if they are willing to move forward to address the big challenges, border security, immigration and the deficit, I think we can continue to do big things.”
Flores said he expects to retain his seats on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Veterans Affairs Committee.
“The big change for me personally is we don’t have the gavels anymore. We don’t control the agenda that comes through the committees,” Flores said. “The Energy and Commerce Committee and the Veterans Affairs Committee have a long track record of having bipartisan bills.”
Flores said he doesn’t think the Republicans would have fared better in the midterms if they had expressed more opposition to Trump’s unconventional governing style.
“My job is not to respond to every one of the president’s tweets or every one of his comments,” Flores said. “My job under the Constitution is to write the law. I have no need to bash him. Nothing good or constructive comes from that. I am not going to swing at every ball that passes by or every tweet. That is not my job, and for someone to suggest I am complicit for not doing so is absolute bulls---. Just because I don’t criticize everything doesn’t mean I agree with it.”
Flores said he has publicly disagreed with the president on occasion, including when he and 38 other Texas lawmakers contacted Trump when the president was threatening to “blow up” the North American Free Trade Agreement.
McLennan Community College history professor Ashley Cruseturner, like Flores, said lawmakers can work together well enough to keep the government running, fund the military and pass routine legislation. It’s when they debate the so-called “hot-button” issues, such as immigration and health care and border security, that things get bogged down.
“They can actually work together on basic stuff,” Cruseturner said. “It’s like the Supreme Court. Seventy-five percent of their decisions are 9-0, but we focus on the 5-4s.”