Is Texas, long a Republican stronghold, really in play for the Democrats in 2020?

Lauren Gambino in Houston
Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

At a party after the Democratic presidential debate in Houston on Thursday, Texas Democrats reveled in their state’s new status as a “battleground”.

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There was little effort to conceal their pride in native sons Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke, who are competing alongside top contenders Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Animated post-debate analysis unfolded in Spanish, English and Spanglish, their conversations strained over the pulse of Selena’s Baila Esta Cumbia and Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello singing Señorita. There were women in cowboy boots and men in bolo ties. As if there was any doubt, posters papered the walls: “We’re Texas Democrats, y’all.”

The Lone Star State has long eluded Democrats. But significant gains in the 2018 midterms and a series of Republican congressional retirements – a phenomenon Democrats have gleefully branded a “Texodus” – have raised hopes that 2020 will be a year of sweeping political change.

“In my 35 years or 40 years of working for the Democratic party, this has never happened in the state of Texas,” Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the state party, boomed over the music. “Texas is now the biggest battleground state in the country.”

Beto O’ Rourke lost by 200,000 votes. There were 3.5 million voters last year, Latinos, who did not vote

Tom Perez

It was John Steinbeck who said: “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.” More recently, Nthe ew Yorker writer and Austin resident Lawrence Wright, author of God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State, wrote: “Texans see themselves as a distillation of the best qualities of America: friendly, confident, hardworking, patriotic, neurosis-free.”

Though Texas as a Republican stronghold is fixed in the popular imagination, significant demographic and cultural shifts – a growing Hispanic population and an influx of newcomers to the cities – are loosening the GOP’s grip. Given the importance of the state in the election of president, accounting for 38 electoral votes and 7% of the electoral college in 2016, this has huge national significance.

Suddenly, everyone from the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to Republican senator Ted Cruz believes Texas is up for grabs. It was O’Rourke’s spirited Senate run last year, against Cruz, that led many here to believe that the political sands may be shifting.

“Texas is going to be hotly contested in 2020,” Cruz said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last week. He was confident that Trump would win, but said the result “will be closer than last time”.

Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chair, said his organization chose Houston for the third debate because the state is “in play up and down the ballot”. He said there are millions of Latinos eligible to vote in Texas but who sat out in 2018 and could make a difference in 2020.

“Beto O’Rourke lost by 200,000 votes,” he said at a “Cafecito con Politics” event in Houston on Friday. “There were 3.5 million voters last year – Latinos – who did not vote and could have voted.”

Texas has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1976. Donald Trump continued the streak in 2016, but by a far slimmer margin than past nominees.

Democrats believe Trump’s unpopularity with suburban women and Hispanic voters could accelerate the political upheaval.

‘1,000 new Texans a day’

Texas is often portrayed in popular culture as emblematic of the frontier spirit, populated by God-fearing, gun-loving, rock-ribbed conservatives. The reality is more nuanced.

As Wright pointed out, “Texans are hardly monolithic. The state is as politically divided as the rest of the nation. One can drive across it and be in two different states at the same time: FM Texas and AM Texas. FM Texas is the silky voice of city dwellers, the kingdom of National Public Radio. It is progressive, reasonable, secular – almost like California. AM Texas speaks to the suburbs and the rural areas: Trumpland.”

Since 2010, 3.5 million new residents have moved to the state. Jobs and affordable housing continue to lure young, college-educated workers to Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, said Lila Valencia, a senior demographer at the Texas Demographic Center.

These newcomers, many of them diverse and liberal, are reshaping the political landscape in once-reliably conservative suburban districts. In recent weeks, five Texas Republicans have announced their retirement from Congress, including three who won in 2018 by less than 5%.

Among them is Will Hurd, the only black Republican in the House, who beat Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones by less than 1% in 2018. Ortiz Jones is running again. If she wins, and barring any incumbent losses, the entire 2,000-mile US-Mexico border will be represented by Democrats.

After flipping two districts in 2018, Democrats are targeting half a dozen Republican seats in 2020. For their part, Republicans will aim to win back both seats next year.

We have magic in the air right now, so much excitement from all communities but especially the Latino community

Lina Hidalgo

“We have magic in the air right now, so much excitement from all communities but especially the Latino community,” Lina Hidalgo, a 28-year-old Colombian immigrant who beat an incumbent Republican for judge in Harris county, said at an event in Houston.

During a later panel, Latina ​organizers and activists ​warned that politicians ​cannot sweep into their communities, “say a few words in Spanish” and expect their vote. The outreach must be sincere - and nuanced. As several speakers stressed, the Hispanic electorate in Texas is not a monolith and immigration is not their only priority.

“Every cycle ​[pundits] will start to say ‘Latinos are not going to turn out,’” said Michelle Tremillo, the executive director of the Texas Organizing Project. “It’s infuriating because we know that​ if they have a reason to turn out, they will turn out.”

Yet demographic changes​ ​– or anger at Trump – will not transform Texas politics, said Monica Gomez, the political director of Annie’s List, a progressive group dedicated to electing Democratic women in Texas. She said Democrats must invest heavily in voter registration and mobilization efforts to turn out these new, eligible voters.

“We’re going to turn out more Texans than ever in 2020,” she said. “We gain 1,000 new Texans a day. By 2022 there will be more people who are Hispanic than white in the state, so we are really seeing trends that are younger and more diverse.”

Despite growing political clout in Texas and around the country, many Hispanic voters say Trump’s nativist, anti-immigrant rhetoric makes them feel unsafe.

In August, a mass shooting in El Paso left 22 people, many of them Latino, dead. The deadliest attack on Latinos in modern US history, it forced a conversation on immigration, guns and white nationalism.

In a Univision Poll released last week, 71% of Texas Latinos said they believed the gunman was a “racist who was influenced by anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican statements made by President Trump”.

‘Keep Texas red’

Ahead of the debate, the Texas Democratic party launched an initiative to register 2.6 million new voters, with an emphasis on Hispanics and people under 35. In contrast, Republicans increasingly rely on white, rural voters. The state GOP has duly launched its own effort to “keep Texas red”.

In Houston on Thursday, a plane flew above the debate venue trailing a banner that read: “Socialism will kill Houston’s economy! Vote Trump 2020!”

Amid all the Democratic optimism, some observers say it should be remembered that it has been 25 years since Texas last elected a Democrat to statewide office. And though the state’s electoral votes are a tempting prize, some warn that chasing them will be a waste of time. The party, such critics believe, should focus on winning back traditionally Democratic states in the rust belt, such as Wisconsin and Michigan.

In the state itself, Democrats believe the party should absolutely mess with Texas.

“Republicans in Texas want us to believe that there was some kind of ‘Beto miracle’ in 2018, that it was a one-time thing and that Democrats are never going to get that close again,” said Tara Pohlmeyer of the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas.

“But from everything we’re seeing on the ground it’s clear his campaign was not an outlier. It was just the beginning.”