Heading into the home-stretch of the general election, Texas Democrats have multiple reasons to be upbeat, beginning with the latest polls showing Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a slight edge over President Donald Trump.
With races tightening across the state, Texas has shifted into battleground territory this year, national Democrats are taking notice and channeling money and resources to helping turn Texas blue. It’s been a long time coming for this state, which has gone 26 years without electing a Democrat to statewide office and holding the national record for the longest shutout of the party in the country.
But unlike previous years, when Democrats have enthusiastically rallied around popular candidates, this year is pivotal as Democrats are proving how serious they are by walking the walk when it comes to voting.
In the March primaries, Democratic turnout was slightly higher than Republican turnout. In the July 14 Democratic Party runoff, highlighted by the contest between retired Air Force pilot MJ Hegar of Round Rock and state Sen. Royce West of Dallas to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in November, 955,735 voters cast ballots, representing 5.8 percent of registered voters.
This was the highest number of votes cast in a Democratic primary election in Texas history. Republicans did not have a statewide contest in the primary runoff.
For Democratic Party leaders, an unprecedented turnout could deliver a Texas presidential victory in Texas for the first time since 1976 and flip some, if not many, of its targeted races.
“In the middle of a pandemic, Texas Democrats showed we are ready to win nearly a million Texans doing whatever it takes to have their voice heard, “ said party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa. “We broke the Texas Democratic record for turnout, more than doubling our 2018 runoff turnout.”
Texas has a reputation as a nonvoting state and a long history of tepid turnout.
And it has been especially true for Democrats, who endured years of double-digit losses in statewide races. In the 2014 general election marquee race, now-Gov. Greg Abbott defeated Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis, who catapulted into the national spotlight after her lengthy Senate filibuster over abortion rights, by 20 percent.
That was one of the more promising races for Democrats.
“There were years the Democratic Party didn’t field candidates for key races and relied on self-funded candidates to run without needing to raise money,” said Brandon J. Rottinghaus, professor and Pauline Yelderman Endowed Chair of political science at the University of Houston.
Becoming competitive again was a long, slow slog that required Democrats to “rebuild their bench” from the bottom up, focusing first on winning local, down-ballot races, Rottinghaus said.
As demographics shifted and national money began to flow into Texas through small donations, Democrats became more successful at turning out voters and winning competitive races, he said.
Democrats narrowed the gap to single digits in the presidential election in 2016, when Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 9 percent. In 2018, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, a formidable fund-raiser and campaigner, narrowed the gap to less than 3 percent in his unsuccessful challenge of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
Given the possibility that the gap could reverse in their favor, Texas and national Democrats have poured enormous amounts of money and resources into turnout efforts this cycle.
“This is our year,” said Abhi Rahman, director of strategic communication for the Texas Democratic Party, pointing to the party’s ambitious goals of winning the U.S. Senate seat and flipping multiple Congressional and state House seats in November.
With 38 electoral votes, Texas has the second most in the country, making the state an important prize for both sides in the presidential race.
Republicans have expressed worries about the tightening race in Texas and the possibility of having no path to victory. Both Cruz and Cornyn have issued dire warnings about the seriousness of the Democratic threat this year.
“Let me tell you right now, every one of those crazed leftists that showed up in 2018 are showing up in 2020,” Cruz said in a video message to the Republicans attending their state convention in July. “And they are even angrier. If the Democrats win Texas, it’s all over.”
With so much on the line, both sides have geared up behemoth voter registration and engagement efforts. Democrats have added 2.1 million new voters to the rolls, Rahman said. Both the Democratic Party and outside organizations such as O’Rourke’s Powered by People, set up as a PAC to register voters targeting young, first-time voters and newcomers to Texas as well as Black and Latinx people.
Due to the pandemic, Democrats’ registration push is being through a sophisticated digital operation, Rahman said.
Republicans, who did not respond to questions for this article, have developed their Texas Victory initiative to drive turnout.
Both parties and political observers agree that a large voter turnout is likely this year despite the fact that Texas has not expanded mail-in voting because of the pandemic.
“The total votes for Republicans and Democrats in a big turnout year will be nearly even for both parties,” Rottinghaus said. “If turnout is high, Texas will be competitive.”
Helping drive turnout will be a de facto referendum on the presidency of Trump, with both parties poised for battle.
“Democrats are determined to remove Trump and Republicans are determined to send him into a second term, said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “It’ll be close and could go either way.”