‘Our Votes Matter Again.’ Democratic Voters Surge in Texas, Fueling Republican Fears

March 6, 2020by Michael Wilner and Alex Roarty, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
Democratic presidential primary candidate Joe Biden speaks during a rally held at Gilley's on March 2, 2020 in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Texas still runs red.

But in the first test of the state’s changing demographics this election year, turnout in the Democratic presidential primary surged on Super Tuesday, fueling Republican fears that their greatest electoral stronghold is no longer absolutely safe.

More than 1.85 million voters participated in the competitive primary contest Joe Biden won this week. That represented a greater than 30% increase from the Democratic contest four years earlier, when roughly 1.4 million people voted in a contest won by Hillary Clinton.

All of the votes from Tuesday have yet to be counted, and data gurus from both parties still need to dive deeper into the numbers to know exactly what happened and where the turnout increased the most. But on the Democratic side, strategists saw the kind of bottom-line turnout increase they were hoping for this year.

“That’s massive,” said Tom Bonier, who runs a Democratic data firm. “When you look at trends over the last two or three years, the two states where the registration trends have been the most favorable in terms of youth and voters of color have been Georgia and Texas.”

For Texas Democrats, Tuesday’s vote was the result of an ideal confluence of events.

Texans have come to expect presidential nominating contests that are largely settled in earlier primaries and caucuses by the time they get a chance to vote, said Harold Cook, former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.

“Because the primary race actually made it to Texas, and because general elections matter again in Texas, Democrats in Texas are freshly convinced that our votes matter again and will count for something instead of being a pointless exercise,” Cook said.

Tuesday’s returns weren’t uniformly positive for Democrats, however: With more than 95% of precincts reporting, President Donald Trump had won about as many votes as all the Democratic candidates combined despite not facing a seriously contested primary. It was a sign that, for however far Democrats have come in the state, they might still have a ways to go before catching the GOP.

Erin Perrine, principal deputy communications director for the Trump campaign, responded to the Democratic surge with an expression of confidence.

In Texas, “President Trump has more votes than any other presidential primary candidate in the last forty years,” Perrine said in an emailed comment. “Texas is Trump Country. Plain and simple.”

Ray Sullivan, former chief of staff and communications director to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, also pointed to the higher Republican turnout, but he acknowledged that state party leaders remain “significantly alarmed by the 2018 election results and want to make sure they take nothing for granted” this year.

“2018 was a significant wake-up call for Republican voters, operatives and officeholders,” Sullivan said, praising Republican organizers in the state for “getting back to the basics of voter registration and voter turnout.”

The Democratic surge is fueling debate within Republican circles over the manner in which their candidates — and the Trump campaign — is appealing to the state’s fastest-growing demographic: Hispanic voters.

Some of the country’s most contested congressional races are in Texas, and state representative seats — whose district lines were drawn by Republicans — have grown increasingly competitive each election cycle.

“The mix of voters in Texas is going exactly the way that demographic trends have predicted, and as long as Republicans continue to perform poorly with nonwhite voters, it appears it will continue,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran pollster and analyst for Republican candidates across Florida and the South. “I think we’re still a cycle or two away from Texas flipping — but it does reinforce the imperative of Republicans to do a better job reaching out to nonwhite voters.”

The shift has not only come from an increase in the Hispanic population. Asian Americans, the fastest growing minority group in the country, represent more than 5% of Texas voters. And in the state’s major cities and their suburbs, an influx of new inhabitants from the West Coast continue to influence Texas’ political environment.

“I don’t think it comes anywhere close to explaining the whole of the shift, but particularly among college-age professionals, California has contributed to the bluing of Texas,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “Austin is California with humidity.”

Bonier said that when he analyzed the early vote data from Texas, which included more than a million people, he found that 13% of them were voters who didn’t participate in the 2016 election — an indication, he believes, of a growth of new Democratic voters concentrated among young people and voters of color.

The high Democratic turnout Tuesday could spell a competitive general election race to come in one of the nation’s largest states worth 38 electoral votes on Nov. 3 — second only to California.

A serious competition in Texas would amount to a pricey endeavor for both parties, siphoning critical resources away from a conventional battleground map that has already expanded in recent cycles across the nation, from Arizona in the West to North Carolina in the East, and up through the Midwestern rust belt.

Republicans are acknowledging the realities of the threat to the must-win state.

“We’ve had staff on the ground in Texas for multiple cycles — we know what it takes to keep states in the Republican column in November,” said Rick Gorka, communications director for the Republican National Committee. He said that the party would highlight Democratic plans to eliminate private health insurance and the fossil fuel industry in its statewide campaign.

Gorka said that internal RNC polling found that Hispanic voters in Texas are “twice as likely” to consider themselves better off than they were four years ago, at the end of the Obama administration.

“We’re not going to take any state for granted like the Democrats did in 2016 in Michigan and Wisconsin,” he said.

Turning Texas blue has been a concerted Democratic Party goal in the last two election cycles.

At least one Democrat with seemingly bottomless pockets — former Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York City — is prepared to force the Republicans to spend in the state on a large scale with continued ad buys, a Bloomberg campaign official told McClatchy on the eve of his departure from the race.

“I look at it, and I understand what they’re trying to do, but they should really be focusing on states that have been traditionally in their column rather than wasting precious resources on a pipe dream,” said Gorka. “Texas is expensive, it’s a hard state to organize and it’s not essential to them.”

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©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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