Democrats once wrote off Texas as a guaranteed victory for Republican presidential candidates, but in 2020, Democratic party activists sense an opportunity to snatch victory from the GOP for the first time in more than four decades.
With 38 Electoral College votes at stake – the second-highest number in the country – Democratic success in Texas would all but eliminate a path to victory for President Donald Trump.
“The only thing Republicans have to do, typically, to win an election in Texas is to win their primary and avoid getting hit by a bus by election day,” said Harold Cook, a political analyst and a veteran of Democratic Party campaigns in Texas. “But Trump has damaged the Republican brand such that it has made it competitive in a general election.”
Jimmy Carter was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win Texas, in 1976. In 1994, Bob Bullock was re-elected Lieutenant Governor, the last year Democrats won in state-wide elections.
Over years of Republican dominance, Democrats largely avoided pouring resources into the state and the party’s power continued to shrink. For Democrats, Texas became something of a forgotten state, much like California for Republicans.
But as the population of Texas began to change in the 2000s, Democrats started to see glimmers of hope for a turnaround. Dreams of a “Blue Texas” swelled in 2018, when voters in the state flipped two US House seats from Republican to Democrat. That year, Democratic Senate challenger Beto O’Rourke came within just 2.6 percentage points of defeating the Republican incumbent, Senator Ted Cruz.
O’Rourke drew voters from increasingly Democratic metropolitan centres like Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and even Houston, where Cruz lives. O’Rourke’s momentum drew attention – and fundraising dollars – from Democrats nationwide, and despite his narrow loss, the close race provided Democrats with a roadmap for how they could turn the state blue by boosting voter turnout in those cities and the surrounding suburbs.
“What Beto’s campaign showed us is that when people show up to vote and have hope that their vote will matter, then it is in play,” said Andy Brown, who served as finance director on O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign. “There’s no longer a defeatist attitude that there’s no possible way to win in Texas. In fact, it is very possible.”
The Real Clear Politics polling average shows Trump pulling slightly ahead late in the race, leading by 2.6 percentage points. Although during the summer, the two were neck and neck, which signalled to Biden’s campaign that this reliably red state could be obtainable.
Biden’s campaign went on the offensive in July with an advertisement addressing the novel coronavirus pandemic that addressed Texas by name.
Democrats took another swing in October, spending $6 million on Texas ads while Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, attended events in three major Texas cities. Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, is scheduled to campaign in the state on Friday, notable for a member of the Democratic ticket to be in Texas so close to election day.
Just four years ago, the thought of Democrats pouring precious campaign resources into a state like Texas would have seemed ludicrous. Trump walloped Hillary Clinton by nine percentage points.
Trump’s win, however, was by the smallest margin of victory for Republicans in Texas since 1996, a possible sign that more Texans could be open to hearing a Democratic pitch. This year the Republican National Committee sent the Texas state party $1.3 million in support funds for the election, a sign that Republicans in the state could need extra help.
Texas Republicans, however, are sceptical Democrats can bring in enough votes to overcome years of support for the GOP. Rick Perry, Texas’s longest-serving governor and Trump’s former Secretary of Energy, pointed to the lack of Democratic victories in recent elections as evidence that Democratic hopes for success in the state are overblown.
“It’s the same old story,” Perry told Fox News in an August interview. “I hope the Democrats come and spend a tonne of money here, because they will get their hat handed to them again in Texas.”
While the Senate race was close in 2018, the gubernatorial contest was anything but. The incumbent, Republican Greg Abbott, dominated the race with 55 percent of the votes. Four years earlier, nearly 60 percent of Texans supported him.
But the Texas population is changing quickly. Between 2018 and 2019, more people moved to Texas from other regions than any other state. The population grew by 367,215 during this time, swelling to 29 million people. Most migrants arrived from California, according to estimates from the Texas Realtors’ Association.
As the number of Texans grows and the demographic makeup becomes increasingly younger and less white, the Lone Star State is looking within reach for Democrats, whose success has depended on high turnout from a diverse coalition of ages and ethnic backgrounds.
While Trump has worked to fire up his base, he has done little to bring in new voters, particularly minorities and women, groups that are gaining in political power in rapidly changing Texas.
“It’s the combination of the Biden-Harris ticket, the demographic changes, but above all: Donald John Trump. He’s a terrible fit for Texas Republicans, and they were slow to realise that,” said Richard Murray, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “Texas doesn’t have many older whites that didn’t go to college. Our working force here is now largely minorities, particularly Hispanic. What worked elsewhere – just blowing off Latinos, immigrants – is a disaster in Texas.”
Like battleground states around the country, the presidential race in Texas will likely be won or lost in the suburbs of the state’s largest cities. These areas have seen massive growth in numbers of non-white voters, as well as a population boom from people moving from other states.
Latino voters, in particular, could help swing the vote this year, experts said.
A poll conducted in September by the University of Houston and Univision found that 66 percent of Texas Latino voters planned or were inclined to vote for Biden, compared to 25 percent for Trump. Perhaps more consequentially, the survey measured an incredibly high level of enthusiasm from these voters, with nine out of 10 responders saying they “are certain” to vote in 2020.
“We have not seen numbers that high for several election cycles. Those are impressive and possibly historic numbers. This is definitely a year where the Latino vote in Texas will be significant in potentially shaping the state politically,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist and host of a podcast centred around Texas called Party Politics. “Latino voters are not a monolith. But what we’re finding is the slow trend is towards them supporting Democrats.”
Texas is already shaping up to see record voting turnout. By the end of the first day of early voting, more than 900,000 Texans cast ballots either in person or by mail, a record. By the end of the first week, more than four million people had voted, according to the Texas secretary of state. As of this writing, nearly 17 million Texans are registered to vote, an increase of 1.85 million from four years ago. The state does not register voters by party, so it can be difficult to decipher how many of those registered are likely to swing either way.
But Texas Democrats are heading into the final stretch of the election feeling more bullish about a presidential election than they have in years.
“I think we are right on the cusp,” said Cook of a Democratic turnaround. “I don’t know if we’ll get over the finish line two years from now or four years from now. But Texas doesn’t just get to be a Republican freebie anymore. They have to work for it or it’s not going to happen.”