Ask a millennial to name a state that exemplifies the typical Republican voter and there’s a strong likelihood they’ll tell you Texas. Now a recent spate of House Republican resignations and optimistic polling has the Democratic Party ready for an all-out electoral assault.
Last night’s Democratic debate in Houston is no coincidence. The decision to spotlight Texas marks a belated acknowledgement by party elites that Texas is not only competitive, but potentially winnable. For the first time in memory, the presidential debate stage featured not just one but two prominent Democrats who call Texas home.
How did we get here?
For millennial voters, Texas gained its ruby-red reputation after elevating native son and previous youth movement bête-noir George W Bush to the White House. Bush’s mannerisms and eccentricities became the running Texan stereotype: gun-toting, hyper-religious, contemptuous of the educated and unquestioningly conservative. The state hadn’t voted for a Democratic president since 1976 – before most millennials were born. Texas was a lost cause.
Rumors of Texas’s death as a purple state turned out to be greatly exaggerated. While predominantly white Democratic elites wrote off Texan congressional districts and Senate seats as wastes of party money, grassroots Latinx and LGBTQ coalitions sprang into action in cities like Austin, El Paso and San Antonio. Each electoral cycle narrowed the voter gap between complacent Republicans and upstart, progressive Democrats.
In 2013, freshman Congressman Joaquin Castro urged Democrats to rethink their Texas playbook. The voters were there, Castro insisted. Adapting the message wouldn’t be enough; Democrats would need better messengers. Six years later, Castro’s brother Julian took the presidential debate stage to introduce Blue Texas to a new generation of voters.
The most successful of these new political messengers shatter the gloomy stereotypes about Texas Democrats. Earlier this week, presidential contender Elizabeth Warren endorsed Jessica Cisneros in a Justice Democrats-backed primary of pro-NRA Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar. Cisneros is a strong voice for gun safety, the Green New Deal and a host of progressive ideas once considered nonstarters in Texas.
Warren’s endorsement comes with clout: a recent Texas Tribune poll shows Warren in second place there, ahead of Texan Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke nearly unseated Republican Senator Ted Cruz last cycle, a feat impressive enough to make O’Rourke a brief national celebrity.
Democrats aren’t just mobilizing for federal races. The Texas Democratic Party shocked election analysts by flipping a dozen seats in the state House of Representatives in 2018. That leaves Democrats only nine seats short of the majority – an unheard-of prospect even five years ago. Texas state legislative races have become so competitive for Democrats that national money, long a fantasy for the Texas Democrats, is finally flowing into party coffers.
Republicans are so rattled that Texans have coined a term for the flood of retirements and resignations: “Texodus.” Five Republican congressman have announced they will not seek re-election. Congressman Will Hurd, once considered a Republican rising star, bowed out of the race two weeks ago. Democrats are already fielding candidates that look more like Cisneros and O’Rourke than the Blue Dog Democrats of old.
The wilting of Republican prospects across Texas can be attributed in large part to the ideologically directionless chaos sown by President Donald Trump. Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy and family separation scandal have created a human rights disaster on America’s southern border, and many Texans are disgusted by the mounting human cost. Latinx communities that once aligned with Republicans on religious issues have now mobilized in defense of their loved ones and communities. These voters have seen the inhumanity of Donald Trump’s immigration disaster. They want it to end.
Trump’s racist words and otherizing of Hispanic Americans is only part of the equation. Republicans are also losing traditionally conservative, suburban whites. Many share the national disgust at Trump’s immigration policies, but a larger number are recent arrivals drawn from other states by Texas’s growing job market. These voters are shaking up the electoral math and driving suburban Republicans to retire instead of facing an uphill political fight.
Donald Trump is still solidly ahead of his Democratic competitors in Texas, but voters are poised to send a stinging rebuke to state Republicans and further reduce Republican hold on the US House of Representatives. The long-held dream of turning Texas into a Democratic stronghold still lingers in the future, but for the first time younger Democrats are optimistic enough to take to the field in force.
When Texas finally does flip, one thing is certain: the coalition that carries the day won’t look anything like the stereotypes. Democrats have the opportunity to write a new – and brighter – chapter.
Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics. He appears on Fox News, Fox Business, and Bloomberg Radio. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns