Can Democrats Take Texas?

The left’s white whale is within reach.

Illustration by Peter Grabowski.

Twenty-nine million people, thirty-eight electoral votes, and one potential deathblow to the GOP’s re-election efforts if current polling holds. The Lone Star State last voted for a Democrat in a statewide race in 1994. Could that change next month?

Before we talk about 2020, let’s look at 2018.

Democrat Beto O’Rourke came within 2.6 points of knocking off Republican Ted Cruz. Even more impressive, voter turnout was a measly 53% (which is usual for a midterm election.) When turnout is low, Republicans generally are at an advantage. In 2016, for the presidential election, turnout was 59%. Had the 2018 midterm election with O’Rourke and Cruz seen turnout normally reserved for presidential elections, it is possible O’Rourke could have unseated Cruz.

O’Rourke, it should be noted, did not run as a “Blue Dog Democrat,” which is usually the blueprint for a Democrat in a conservative state. Such campaigns normally boast moderate credentials and even some socially conservative views. O’Rourke, however, held positions to the left of the Democratic base. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” he once declared.

Let that sink in — a gun-confiscating Democrat came within inches of winning a Senate seat in Texas.

Perhaps no other state has an urban/rural political divide as Texas does. Almost half of the entire vote in Texas comes from five counties: Harris (Houston), Dallas, Tarrant (Fort Worth), Bexar (San Antonio), and Travis (Austin). In 2016, Hillary Clinton won these five counties with 54.9% of the vote share. In 2018, O’Rourke increased that lead to 60.6%.

This is where population growth comes into play.

Let’s compare the O’Rourke midterm race with the previous midterm election from 2014. In 2018, half a million more people voted in Harris County (Houston) than 2014. In Dallas County, it was 300,000 more votes, and the other three counties (Tarrant, Bexar, and Travis) it was about 200,000 more votes.

The rural parts of the state, as Kirk Goldsberry of FiveThirtyEight notes, are “staunchly red, but they’re also staunchly stagnant, too” (in terms of population growth). He adds that if Democrats can just keep this math, and those five cities continue to grow, then “that might be all they need to turn Texas blue.”

It’s a three-jab gut punch to the GOP. First, the Democrats are increasing their margins in the cities. Second, the cities are increasing in population. Third, the reliably red areas of the state aren’t seeing an increase in population (and therefore political power.)

Beyond population, there is also a racial demographic change as well. For every single white person that moves to Texas, about nine Hispanics relocate there. Texas is the fastest growing state, with over 1,000 additional people being added to the state’s population every single day, and Hispanics are set to be a larger voting bloc than whites in Texas within the next two voting cycles. The share of the vote that is white is 12% lower today than it was two decades ago.

In 2016, Trump mustered just 28% of the Latino vote.

Given these trends, it’s no wonder Trump is flailing in Texas. Two polls this week have Biden beating Trump in Texas, and another two have the race as tied. Trump seems worried too, tweeting, “Biden is against Oil, Guns, and Religion, a very bad combination to be fighting in the Great State of Texas. We are Winning Big, in the Real Polls, all over the Country!!! NOVEMBER 3rd. VOTE!!!”

Imagine being an incumbent Republican that is worried about Texas? (Also, Biden is for fracking, against gun confiscation, and unlike Trump, a practicing Christian.)

The Biden team has seen an opening in Texas. Last week, the Biden campaign purchased a $3.6 million ad buy in Texas. Dr. Jill Biden is scheduled to make a few appearances in Texas next week.

The GOP woes may extend beyond the top of the ticket. John Cornyn, the senator up for re-election, is in a closer-than-expected battle as well. Texas Democrats flipped 12 statehouse seats in the lower chamber last election cycle. If they flip an additional eight seats, Democrats will control half of the state legislature.

Texas Republicans aren’t going down without a fight. The Republican governor limited drop off boxes for ballots to one per county. Harris County, which includes Houston, is geographically larger than Rhode Island. Its almost five million citizens are majority-minority. Rockwell County has roughly 2% of Harris County’s population, and is 90% white.

Both will have a single drop off location for ballots.

The controversial move is in court. A federal judge blocked the move to limit drop off locations, but the Republicans have appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Regardless of the court’s decision, one thing is for sure — with demographic change and emerging voting trends, this isn’t your father’s Texas.

political science researcher. former valedictorian. reader/writer. host of “Politics Mostly” podcast.

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