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Texas has been one of the pivotal states in the current Democratic presidential primary. Joe Biden’s surprise win over Bernie Sanders in the Lone Star State was a key element in a Super Tuesday surge that has made him the front-runner for the nomination.
For all of its importance to Democrats in the primary, Texas has been more or less been written off in the general election for a generation. Republicans have carried the state in every presidential contest since 1980, often by substantial margins. Texas hasn’t had a Democratic governor or senator since the early 1990s. Both houses of the state legislature have been red for nearly 20 years.
Despite all this, Democrats have eyed Texas as a possible game changer for a long time. As the second most populous state, Texas carries an Electoral College payload that could fundamentally shift the balance of presidential power. “If Texas turns back to a Democratic state, which it used to be, then we’ll never elect another Republican [president] in my lifetime,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. The state’s other senator, Ted Cruz, put it more bluntly: “If we lose Texas, it’s game over.”
Why there’s debate
Any hope Democrats have of flipping Texas starts with the state’s changing demographics. Its population is getting younger, more diverse and more concentrated in big cities — all indicators of a shift to the left. Optimists in the party believe Donald Trump’s adversarial politics may cause a combination of a surge in Latino turnout and a shift in support among center-right suburban voters that could give Democrats the numbers they need to win the state.
Recent history has given Democrats reason for optimism. Trump won Texas by 9 points in 2016, the smallest margin since Bob Dole’s 4-point edge in 1996. Cruz, who had won his previous election by 16 points, narrowly edged out Beto O’Rourke to hold onto his seat in 2018. Two of Texas’s congressional districts flipped blue in 2018. Four sitting GOP House members are retiring, leaving open seats that may be within reach for Democrats in 2020.
Skeptics of a blue wave in Texas say recent gains by Democrats have only made a small dent in what is still a substantial advantage for the GOP in the state. Some also make the case that O’Rourke’s near-win was more of a one-off driven by general dislike for Cruz, rather than a harbinger for future races. The power that Republicans have in state government also gives them the power to entrench election rules that work to their advantage. Others say the trends are heading in the Democrats’ direction, but 2020 is far too soon to expect the state to flip.
Other than the presidential election, the highest profile race in Texas will be Cornyn’s bid to win reelection to the U.S. Senate. His Democratic opponent in the race will be decided by a runoff election in May.
Trump could be fueling strong shifts in key voting groups
“There are signs that the great gettin’ up morning for Texas Democrats could be approaching, at least as long as Donald Trump continues to alienate suburban voters while energizing Latinos to vote against his party.” — Ed Kilgore, New York
Democrats could set themselves up for future victories by flipping the state legislature
“Democrats in what has been the reliably Republican stronghold of Texas believe they have a shot at taking control of the state House in November and, in the process, potentially reshaping Texas politics for years. … Whichever party prevails this fall will win an additional prize: a seat at the table, along with the Republican-controlled state Senate, when it comes time to draw new congressional district boundaries after the 2020 census.” — Mike Hixenbaugh, NBC News
The blue shift in Texas is already happening
“Democrats have taken control of every big city in the state over the past decade — a process that began in Dallas in 2006, when Democrats swept into power. More important, and more worrying for Republicans, that trend spilled over last year into the sprawling suburbs, long the bedrock of Texas Republicanism.” — Bob Moser, New Republic
The GOP’s shift to the right has created more space for Democrats
“A lack of competitive general elections has led to competitive primaries, with Republicans drifting further and further to the right. … This in turn has alienated moderate voters, including in suburbs that used to be conservative strongholds.” — Henry Gass, Christian Science Monitor
Texas should be a major long-term concern for Republicans
“The combination of sharply Democratic cities and suburban areas shading blue is a long run political disaster in the making for Republicans.” — Kristin Tate, The Hill
There are still more conservatives than liberals in Texas
“The conservative case for why the GOP will continue to run Texas comes down to this: the state is becoming increasingly competitive, but Democrats are foolish to think the parties have reached parity. Republicans will win in 2020 because they still have the numbers.” — R.G. Ratcliffe, Texas Monthly
The groups Democrats need don’t vote at a high enough rate
“Texas is more racially diverse and younger than the country at large. Non-whites lean heavily Democratic and young Americans are the most Democratic generation of all. Both groups are less likely to find their way to the polls, though, which is why Texas has so far been a lesson in why demography is not necessarily destiny.” — Economist
2020 is too soon to expect the state to flip
“Texas is becoming bluer, or more precisely less red, but talk of it being a genuine swing state is grossly premature.” — Matthew Yglesias, Vox
Bernie Sanders will scare off moderate voters if he’s the Democratic nominee
“Sanders as the Democratic presidential nominee will almost certainly halt the party’s progress in Texas.” — Ryan J. Rusak, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
The GOP has the power to suppress Democratic voters
“Texas Democrats face structural obstacles to victory that Biden alone cannot fix, including the closures of hundreds of polling places in counties with large or growing Black and Latino populations.” — Ja’han Jones, HuffPost
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP (2), Getty Images