AUSTIN — With 38 electoral votes powered by the growing influence of Latino and younger voters just now plugging in to the political process, Texas looks like sweet fruit ripe for the picking by Democrats who’ve not tasted presidential victory in the Lone Star State since 1976.
For battle-tested campaign veterans, it’s a story that’s been told and retold. And it’s one that has so far always ended the same way: By the time November in an election year comes around, the majority of Texas voters cast their votes for Republicans.
But as the 2020 campaign cycle heats up, changing demographics and stubborn unease about Donald Trump’s stewardship of the presidency have brought Democrats to believe there is a realistic path to to flipping Texas — and Republicans are mobilizing early in an effort to capture every conservative vote they can get their hands on.
“Texas is much more competitive today than it was in 2012 and even more competitive than it was in 2016,” said Texas Republican operative Jason Johnson, who managed U.S. Ted Cruz’s White House bid in 2016. “Republicans in Texas cannot take the state for granted, and I don’t think President Trump can take the state for granted.”
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Texas Democrats, meanwhile, are laying groundwork to make the nation’s second-largest state at least competitive. They are delighted that the national party scheduled Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate in Houston, which they hope will raise the state party’s visibility and showcase the state party’s enthusiasm.
“Texas is the biggest battleground state,” said Cliff Walker, the state party’s deputy executive director. “The entire country realizes this and that’s why this week’s Democratic debate is in Houston.”
Party leaders point to several polls since spring, aggregated by Real Clear Politics, showing former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic frontrunner, ahead of Trump in Texas. And a poll in July by the University of Texas at Tyler showed several Democratic candidates beating the president in a hypothetical 2020 matchup.
No Democrat has won Texas since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Barack Obama lost by 12 points in 2008 and by 16 points four years later. Hillary Clinton’s 9-point deficit in 2016 was the best showing for a Democrats in a generation.
And with Beto O’Rourke’s narrow loss loss to heavily favored Republican U.S. Sen, Ted Cruz last year, Texas Democratic Party leaders have begun systematically making the case to would-be donors and influence-shapers that Texas is as much in play in next year’s election as some of the traditional battleground states in the industrial Midwest.
The Texas party on Monday released its plan to put the state in play in 2020. It calls for targeting people who recently relocated to Texas, in addition training as many as 1,000 campaign volunteers to knock on doors and make calls on behalf of down-ballot candidates across the state.
Earlier, the party prepared an internal presentation showing that Clinton’s 9-point deficit was about the same margin that carried Trump to victory in Ohio.
However, the presentation says that while Ohio’s overwhelming Anglo population skews older and remains stagnant, the median age of Texans is under 35 years old and Hispanic people are the state’s fastest-growing voting bloc.
And Texas has more than twice the electoral votes of Ohio.
Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, said nearly all of the trends are in place to put Texas on the table in 2020. But because Republicans have been in power so long in the state, they have the political infrastructure and access to campaign cash in place to drive their message and get their voters to the polls, she added.
And Texas Republicans are simply more reliable voters than Democrats, Bitecofer said.
“Texas is involved in a realignment in demographics to flip but (the Democratic Party) doesn’t have the resources or strategy,” said Bitecofer, who developed a forecast model in 2018 that accurately predicted Democrats would pick up 40-plus seats in the U.S. House.
Heading into 2020, Bitecofer’s model puts Texas in the “likely Republican” category. But it also suggests that Democrats could flip as many as nine GOP-held congressional districts next year.
The key, she said, is building on the disaffection with Trump among younger suburban voters and maximizing turnout among Latino people, who make of about 39 percent of the state’s overall population. However, Latino people who are eligible to vote account for only 28 percent of the population, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
“When you look at why are the suburbs in Dallas and Houston moving away from the Republicans, well it’s because they are populated by more liberal young millennial families,” Bitecofer said. “They are not college students any more, and they are turned off by the GOP brand.”
Trends show Latino turnout in Texas is on the rise. According to the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and William C. Velasquez Institute in San Antonio, Latino turnout in the 2018 midterms in Texas reached about 1.87 million, nearly double that of 2014.
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But while Democrats in Texas were able to flip more than a dozen Republican seats in the Legislature and two seats in Congress, that surge was not strong enough to power Democrat Beto O’Rourke past Republican U.S. Ted Cruz, and the party continued its 24-year losing streak in statewide elections.
“Until they do (maximize Latino turnout), they are going to come up a little bit short,” Bitecofer said. “That was true in 2018.”
Terrysa Guerra, who was deputy campaign manager for Democrat Wendy Davis’ ill-fated run for Texas governor in 2014, said last year’s uptick in Latino turnout was fueled by Trump’s hard-line immigration policies and his strident rhetoric directed toward migrants and asylum seekers.
And, Guerra added, as much as the immigration debate motivates Hispanic voters, so do bread and butter issues. Like working-class Texans in other demographic categories, many Hispanic families continue to struggle with everyday expenses and they don’t see Trump and the Republicans as allies, she said.
“We’re upset when people call us rapists, we’re upset when they try to vilify us,” she said. “But it’s not just one issue that’s going to drive us to vote. Immigration, economics — it all intersects. We want to put food on the table, make sure our light bill is paid.”
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Republicans are mindful of both the issues that motivate Democrats, and of the changing face of Texas.
In June, Republicans launched a super PAC financed by well-connected energy industry and real estate executives to scour Texas for conservatives who might not yet be plugged into politics. Before the month ended, the group calling itself Engage Texas had raised nearly $10 million for the voter registration effort.
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for the PAC, declined to say how many potential voters it has added to the rolls so far.
“Engage Texas is focused on its work to register and educate Texas voters, and those results will be clear on Election Day,” she said.
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Robert E. Jones, a longtime Texas Democratic operative at the grassroots level, said the silver lining to the Republicans spending money in Texas is those dollars won’t be spent in the more traditional battleground states.
And, he added, it should motivate Democrats to make a similar investment in Texas and break their habit of writing off the state even before a campaign cycle got off the ground.
“I spent the better part of my 20-year political career working on building toward turning Texas blue,” said Jones, who also teaches political science at St. Edward’s University in Austin. “And every year, we would get turned into a cash register where our donors would get tapped to send their money out of state. And all of our grassroots resources would get tapped to drive turnout in other states.”
Bitecofer sees the exodus of Republican incumbents abandoning what are becoming battleground congressional district as a golden opportunity not only to capture those seats but to drive up turnout that will accrue to Democrats’ benefit statewide.
Three of the soon-to-open GOP seats — one in a Dallas suburb, another in in suburban Houston and the third in a heavily Latino border district stretching from San Antonio to El Paso — are high on the Democrats’ wish list. Three others in the Austin area held by Republicans are also being targeted by Democrats.
“The secret sauce to flipping Texas statewide is these congressional districts,” Bitecofer said.
Abhi Rahman, the spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, said the national party is finally noticing that Texas could be in play. The upcoming debate in Houston is proof of that, he added.
“We are seeing unprecedented investment in Texas,” said Rahman. “We’re working closely with the DNC (and other national Democratic groups) because they realize that Texas is the biggest batlteground state in the country.”
The plan released Monday, called Path to Victory, was longer on where the party wants to be and shorter on where the resources are coming from to get them there.
It focuses on engaging the 1.8 million voters added to the the state’s rolls during the 2018 cycle and adding as many a 2.6 million more. Most would come from Democrat-friendly black and Hispanic communities.
Johnson, the GOP operative who has worked on numbers statewide and local campaigns in Texas, called such breathless enthusiasm hyperbole and wishful thinking.
And if trouble signs emerge in Texas once the campaign roars into high gear, Republicans have the resources and field operations to counter any Democratic threat, he said.
“I do not believe that Texas is a battleground state,” said Johnson. “But I think that anyone who is objective about it has to put Texas in the ‘lean R’ category, not the ‘solid R’ category. It’s been notoriously hyped every cycle, typically by out of state media, out of state Hollywood liberals and northeastern liberals.
“And who can blame them,” he added, “because if Texas turns blue, Republicans will never win the White House again.”
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.