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The price — and big potential payoff — of turning Texas blue

Democrats are starting to take Texas seriously as a battleground state.

Joe Biden campaigns with the support of Beto O’Rourke in Dallas on March 2.
Richard W. Rodriguez/AP

When Democrat Beto O’Rourke lost a Senate race to incumbent Republican Ted Cruz in 2018, it was a blow not just to his political prospects but to the long-held Democratic dream of turning Texas blue.

O’Rourke, fueled by a record-breaking $80 million in individual donations, lost to Cruz by less than 3 points. Now he’s arguing that in 2020, presidential nominee Joe Biden could achieve what he failed to do — but only if Democrats are willing to pour resources into the state.

“I don’t see any signs that the national party is taking Texas as seriously as they should,” O’Rourke said in an interview in mid-August. “I don’t know that they realize the huge victory that Texas could give the national Democratic Party.”

There are now some signs Democrats are taking Texas more seriously, with the Biden campaign running TV ads and hiring staff on the ground over the past six weeks. A Democratic super PAC focused on Texas launched a month ago with an aim to augment Biden’s paid-media presence.

A drive-in Democratic National Convention watch event in Houston on August 20.
Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Political analysts have said it’s only a matter of time before Texas becomes a battleground state. The state last backed a Democrat for president in 1976, and Republicans have held state legislative chambers and the governorship since 2003. But its demographics are quickly changing. Texas is becoming increasingly urban, and Hispanics are on track to become its largest population group by mid-2021, two trends that generally favor Democrats.

The long-promised transformation has been slow to arrive, however, even if the state is clearly shifting leftward: Trump won the presidential election by 9 percentage points in 2016, a much smaller margin of victory than Mitt Romney’s 16 points in 2012.

This year, the polls show former Vice President Joe Biden nipping at Trump’s heels in Texas, and Republicans are worried about their down-ballot candidates. Biden’s campaign in the state says they believe they can win in November and remake the Electoral College map for good.

“Texas is a true battleground state,” Rebecca Acuna, the Biden campaign’s Texas state director, said in a statement to Vox, “with an increasingly young, diverse, and fast-growing population and the potential to change the map for future election cycles.”

But money and effort spent in Texas are money and effort not spent in other places. There is an opportunity cost to investing in a state that is unlikely to be the tipping point to a Biden victory. He can beat Trump and win the presidency by flipping Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania away from Republicans, and Arizona and Florida look like more favorable territory.

Still, Democrats who want the party to compete in Texas argue a strong Biden showing could help down-ballot House and state legislative races and accelerate the state’s transition to a true battleground.

A victory in Texas, O’Rourke said, would drive home the magnitude of a Biden victory and give him an unquestionable mandate: “The country would be forced to accept it in Texas,” he said, “because, even beyond the size of the Electoral College windfall, it’s psychologically so important to the national political landscape.”

Local Democrats want Biden to take Texas seriously as a battleground state

Every presidential campaign, there is speculation about one side or the other “expanding the map,” campaigning in states that would have once seemed like a long shot.

And the playing field for the Electoral College is always changing. States are considered unconquerable strongholds until, suddenly, they’re not. California voted just once for a Democrat for president between 1952 through 1988, and hasn’t voted for a Republican since; Ohio has been trending away from Democrats and toward Republicans. Trump won Pennsylvania and Michigan, which were supposed to be bedrocks in Hillary Clinton’s foolproof blue wall in the Midwest.

Barack Obama pushed his campaign into North Carolina, Missouri, and Montana in 2008. Mitt Romney made a last-minute stop in Pennsylvania in 2012. Trump campaigned in Minnesota a few days before the 2016 election.

“Expanding the map serves two purposes. The first is to keep your options open to make a move late, if the numbers move from possible to promising,” David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime political adviser, told Vox. “The second is to force the other campaign to spend to defend a must-have state for them.”

But focusing on “reach” states does come with some risks. Hillary Clinton’s campaign famously dabbled in Arizona and Texas while the candidate herself did not visit Wisconsin, a state considered a sure thing for Democrats. Losing it helped doom her White House dreams.

And big states like Texas can be a serious drain on a campaign’s money and time. Buying TV ads in the biggest markets and trying to scale up a voter turnout operation costs more in Texas than it does in Minnesota.

Joe Biden supporters take photos during the drive-in DNC event in Houston on August 20.
Go Nakamura/Getty Images

“No campaign should spend money in any state that it doesn’t think it has a reasonably good chance of winning,” Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report, says. “That is even more important when looking at a state like Texas, which is just a huge money suck.”

So one line of thinking is: Don’t waste too much money or energy on Texas, when your winning Electoral College map should be built with the Midwest and maybe Arizona, Florida, or North Carolina.

“You don’t need the Texas icing to bake this cake,” Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who has advised George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Mitch McConnell in his career, says. “The main trade-off is in money. It costs a ton to play seriously in Texas. ... It’s an expensive stretch when there are other, cheaper, and more likely options on the board.”

But the 2020 election is not occurring under normal circumstances. In-person campaigning is severely limited by the Covid-19 pandemic. Biden just raised a record-breaking $365 million in August, which was $150 million more than Trump’s haul. Spending more of that money on TV ads in Florida or Michigan or Wisconsin might not make much of a difference, given that some political science research indicates diminishing returns on television once a certain level of saturation is reached.

So, the counterargument goes, why not make a play for Texas? Trump can’t win the White House without it, but more important, every dollar and minute spent there is one his campaign can’t dedicate to shoring up the Midwestern states that flipped in 2016 or trying to expand the map in its own way in Minnesota.

“Given the August numbers from at least the Biden campaign, they have plenty to spend and can afford to attempt to expand the map,” Josh Putnam, a political scientist who runs the website Frontloading HQ, says. “But that speaks to financial resources and not the candidate’s time nor attempts to mobilize voters on the ground in the more traditional ways.”

Texas Democrats think the state should be given meaningful attention.

“I think what we saw in 2018 is that it requires serious investment to make Texas competitive,” Zack Malitz, co-founder of the progressive Real Justice PAC and a former adviser on O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, said. “But if you spend seriously here, Texas is a competitive state.”

Abhi Rahman, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, said the party sees a clear path to victory in the state that involves holding on to their advantage in major cities and their suburbs, chipping away at Republicans’ margins in rural areas, and targeting the South Texas borderlands, where a little investment can go a long way.

Texas voter rolls have grown by 2.1 million people since 2016, 89 percent of whom the party estimates to be Democrats. Texas Democrats have shattered fundraising records and attracted a recent $6.2 million investment from the Democratic super PAC Forward Majority across 18 statehouse races, prompting the Republican State Leadership Committee to vow to exceed that investment and make Texas its “biggest spend” this election cycle.

“We’re getting the money we need, just not from traditional sources,” Rahman said.

Joe Biden campaigns at Texas Southern University in Houston on March 2.
Michael Wyke/AP

But O’Rourke worries the Biden campaign isn’t doing enough in Texas. He said that the national Democratic Party has historically only seen Texas as a “piggy bank” from which to draw funds to spend in traditional battleground states. In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton raised more than $13 million in Texas, but spent only $1.5 million on ad buys in the state.

Last month’s Democratic National Convention didn’t give much airtime to Texans, despite the protests of Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. Biden has recently bought TV ads in Texas, but isn’t putting too much money behind them, making a mere $65,000 buy initially, according to the Texas Tribune.

O’Rourke and other Texas Democrats want to see more investment because they believe that — win or lose — investing time, money, and attention in Texas can pay off for Democrats in other ways too.

Where Democrats could gain ground in Texas

Democrats expect to compete in a lot of Texas races in 2020, and they hope a strong performance at the top of the ticket could trickle down. Five House races are rated toss-ups or Lean Democratic by the Cook Political Report, meaning election forecasters think Democrats have an even better chance to flip those districts than Biden does to flip the state (which they categorize as Lean Republican). Another two House elections fall into the Lean Republican category, setting up a potential blue wave across Texas if Democrats overperform overall.

If momentum for Democrats gets big enough, they could even have an outside shot at winning the state’s US Senate seat; Democrat M.J. Hegar has trailed Republican Sen. John Cornyn by single digits in some August polls. Cook has slotted the race in the somewhat competitive Likely Republican category. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is investing heavily with a seven-figure investment in the state, a record.

But Texas Democrats’ biggest priority this election cycle is winning a majority in the state House of Representatives, a goal that could be within reach with a strong performance on Election Day: Democrats need to pick up nine additional seats, all of which are Republican-held districts that O’Rourke carried in 2018.

“I think that people are going to be very surprised on election night at the number of Democrats who pull out big wins in Texas,” Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said.

O’Rourke said those pickup opportunities could give Democratic voters a reason to show up at the polls and draw them back into democracy — and give Democrats more power over the 2021 redistricting process.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified 10 US House districts in Texas as targets this year. Republican Reps. Kenny Marchant in the 24th District and Pete Olson in the 22nd District are both retiring. Democrat Candace Valenzuela, a former school board member who is running to replace Marchant, could become the first Afro-Latina in Congress. And Sri Preston Kulkarni, who is vying for Olson’s seat in a district that is rapidly diversifying, has a 10-to-1 cash advantage over the Republican candidate, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls.

Republican Rep. Will Hurd, who has often spoken out against Trump’s rhetoric, is also retiring, and the race to replace him in the 23rd District between Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones and Republican Tony Gonzales will likely be close (though it appears to be tipping blue.)

And in the 21st District, Wendy Davis — a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate who attracted national attention as a state senator when she held a 13-hour filibuster over restrictive new regulations on abortions — is looking to unseat Rep. Chip Roy.

Democrats are also aiming to flip the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 10th, 25th, and 31st districts.

Flipping Texas requires Democrats to overcome long-term turnout challenges

Texas has historically low turnout, especially among Hispanic voters. That’s been a major obstacle to Democratic hopes of flipping the state.

O’Rourke has often said that Texas isn’t a red state, but rather a “nonvoting state.” Turnout among eligible voters jumped significantly in 2018, spurred largely by enthusiasm for O’Rourke’s campaign to unseat Cruz, but it was still almost 4 points behind the national average, putting Texas ahead of just 10 states. In 2014, under a third of eligible voters cast a ballot.

History shows that this dismal turnout is by design.

As soon as post-Civil War Reconstruction began, the Texas state government, like many other former Confederate states, sought to disenfranchise Black and Mexican American voters in the form of a poll tax and Jim Crow laws imposing racial segregation, which persisted through the 1950s.

In 1923, the legislature instituted “white primaries” for the Democratic Party, the controlling party at the time, that excluded Black voters — a practice that the US Supreme Court finally struck down more than two decades later. And in yet another attempt to keep Black voters off the rolls, the legislature enacted a law in 1966 requiring voters to register to vote annually, which remained in effect until 1971.

Modern voter suppression in Texas has taken the form of racial gerrymandering (at times by both Democrats and Republicans). Most recently, Republicans were accused of diluting the power of nonwhite voters with their plans to redraw congressional districts in 2003 and 2011, spurring protracted legal battles. The redistricting process next year, which will begin after the results of the 2020 census comes in, will likely be similarly contentious.

Texas has also adopted the nation’s strictest voter ID law and began closing polling sites in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. That decision vacated a key provision in the Voting Rights Act that had required that jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices, including Texas, get the federal government’s approval before changing their election rules.

Within hours of the decision, Texas implemented a law substantially restricting the kind of identification documents voters were required to present at the polls in order to cast a ballot. Some 600,000 registered voters in the state were estimated to lack acceptable ID under the law, which lower courts had previously prevented from going into effect on the grounds that it could discriminate against African American and Latino voters.

The state also started closing polling sites in a way that disadvantaged minority voters. Texas has closed about 750 polling sites since 2012, including 542 sites in 50 counties where African American and Latino populations have significantly grown in recent years. That led to long wait times at some polling sites in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods during the Democratic primaries earlier this year.

The situation isn’t likely to improve this fall, especially given that Texas has banned counties from sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters to make it easier and safer to vote this November amid the pandemic. Harris County tried to send applications for mail-in ballots to all 2.4 million people on its voter rolls, but the Texas Supreme Court recently ruled against the move in a lawsuit filed by state Republicans.

“That shit is not accidental,” O’Rourke said. “Republicans have been really good at shrouding this racist voter suppression by saying, ‘That’s just the way shit happens in Texas,’ and it isn’t the way that they designed it to happen.”

Democrats also can’t rely on a physical presence in communities to get out the vote during the pandemic. That makes it harder to beat incumbents, who have the advantage of name recognition. (Americans for Prosperity, a super PAC with ties to the libertarian billionaire Charles Koch, has nevertheless resumed door-knocking for Cornyn.)

“I think not canvassing is absolutely the right decision, but it’s definitely a disadvantage,” Malitz said.

Castro said he was still encouraged by Biden’s investment in the state so far in 2020, the largest any other Democratic presidential candidate has made in decades.

“The Texas Democratic Party right now is in a stronger position than it’s ever been this close to the election,” he said. “At the same time, there’s a lot of work to do with places like the Rio Grande Valley in voter registration and voter outreach and mobilization.”

Visitors shop at Don Caple’s roadside Trump-themed trailer in Amarillo, Texas, on July 31. Don, a staunch Trump supporter, sells T-shirts, hats, and masks while helping register people to vote.
Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images

To increase voter turnout and have a better chance of turning the state blue, Biden’s campaign needed to invest early in building a serious voter contact program and hiring and training staff to recruit volunteers, Malitz said. O’Rourke’s campaign, which drew 20,000 volunteers, excelled at that.

It’s expensive and requires year-round engagement, but the size of the prize in Texas means that it deserves serious attention over future election cycles, he added.

“If Biden does win Texas, it’ll be in spite of his campaign and the national party,” he said. “I’m sure that they’ll do a victory lap. But the foundation was laid by Texans. ... And I hope that if it does happen, it shakes up the dynamics a bit in terms of who formulates national strategy and what we think of as being the key components of that strategy.”

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