TEXAS — With a week to go before the election on Nov. 3, the political tea leaves in Texas are murky as ever, particularly at the top of the ballot. Supporters of Democratic challenger Joe Biden point to a recent Dallas Morning News poll that shows the former vice president edging out Republican President Donald Trump.
On the other hand, a New York Times poll shows Trump topping Biden. Though the difference between the two in that poll is beyond the margin of error, it’s hardly a comfortable lead.
Top Democrats believe Biden’s impact on voter turnout — or some would say the dissatisfaction with Trump — could have a significant effect on down-ballot races. Voters are showing up to cast their ballots early in record-breaking numbers across the state, and Democratic operatives believe that augurs well for their party, which is just nine seats away from flipping the Texas state House.
Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said his party’s top strategic imperative is to flip the state House. He said that the “failed” leadership of Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott would have a considerable effect on the state legislature races.
“I think that people know that we need change in this state and that and in this country,” he said. “I think that you're going to see a massive Democratic wave, not only at the top of the ballot, but in the Senate and congressional races — and then the state House races as well.”
Republicans, who planted their flag atop Texas’ political summit 20 years ago and haven’t budged since, simply shrug at the left-wing happy talk. Allen West, the chairman of the state Republican Party, doesn’t believe Texas is a battleground state.
“Maybe there was a possibility before I became chairman on the 20th of July, but it's not now,” he said. “In comparison with the Democrats overall, we have a 6.3 to 6.4% advantage statewide.”
This election cycle, more is at stake in the state races. Whichever party wins the House also gains invaluable seats at the table when it’s time to redraw the state’s congressional districts next session. Democrats say they are excited by the prospect of playing political topographers for the first time in two decades, and hope to undo the many gerrymandered districts drawn by the GOP.
As West pointed out, the Dems have been threatening a blue wave for more than a decade now, and it’s amounted to little more than a few bumper stickers.
“The important thing from my perspective is that you have to really inform and educate the voters on the entire ballot and get them to realize the importance of keeping the house,” he said. “It’s critical with the redistricting coming up in Texas and the state is picking up two new congressional districts. We want people to understand the importance of those races, and I think that you'll see a good response.”
The Times poll also highlighted a trend that could have a wide-ranging impact in the state and local races in Texas: Large Democratic gains among white suburbanites suggest that Republicans face catastrophic risks down-ballot, even if Trump wins.
“Biden leads him by five percentage points, 48% to 43%, across the 12 predominantly suburban congressional districts that the Cook Political Report has rated as competitive,” the New York Times writes. “These districts voted for the president by eight points in 2016.”
The Republican grip on Texas has deteriorated rapidly during the Trump era, as a Democratic breakthrough in the suburbs has endangered more than one-third of the state’s Republican congressional delegation and Republican control of the state House.
The Biden campaign has been receptive to expanding its presence in Texas. It launched a $6 million ad campaign in the state, building on ads that have been airing for months as part of a national advertising campaign. The campaign also touted on Tuesday that there are now more than 60 paid staffers in the state. Though that number seems paltry compared to states like Florida, it's a clear sign that Biden understands what is at stake — not just for him personally, but his party.
The presence of Biden and Trump at the top of the ticket might drive voters to the polls, but some Dems believe it’s the down-ballot candidates that could help Biden, not the other way around.
The fate of Texas in November could rest on the backs of dozens of mostly obscure Democratic candidates who are competing for legislative and congressional seats in the suburbs that have been strongly Republican.
Though the purported blue wave has been more of a trickle in recent years, Democrats have been hopeful since 2016. While Dems around the country were shocked by Trump’s election, state party officials quietly celebrated gains in key races.
Within weeks, it became clear that while Trump won the state, the Republicans lost ground in several suburban areas. Those margins gave Texas Democrats a playbook for the next four years: a greater focus on candidates for state legislative races, municipal campaigns, community college, and school board contests. In 2018, they made inroads with gains in the state legislature, though nothing quite as flashy as a statewide victory.
The breakout star of 2018 for the Dems was Beto O’Rourke, who shocked many when he lost to popular Republican incumbent Ted Cruz by only 2.5 points. Despite that moral victory, Texas remained the country’s largest red state in 2018. Republicans have won every statewide race in Texas since 1998, and a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won Texas since Jimmy Carter in 1976. But for 18 months, statewide polls showed 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has been outperforming past nominees' margins in Texas.
That strategy has continued in 2020, where Democrats have a chance of flipping the state House and winning more congressional seats. A slew of candidates is running in and around all of Texas' big cities, in seats that were never intended to be competitive when the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature redrew congressional and legislative districts in 2012.
But in those eight years, millions of people moved to Texas; and Republicans have witnessed a collapse among college-educated voters and increasingly diversifying suburbs.
“I think really what you're seeing here is that people are sick of Republican leadership,” Rahman said. “Republicans have spent the last 20 years in power benefiting themselves, enriching themselves. They haven't been looking out for the needs of our communities.”
Rahman used the issue of healthcare as an example of the disconnect between the establishment G.O.P. and what voters are looking for from their elected officials.
“Affordable healthcare is something that should be a right for everybody,” he said. Republicans are right now in court — being led by Texas — to appeal [the Affordable Care Act] in the middle of the biggest pandemic in our history.”
West said he’s not buying the suburban slide to the left statewide. He said that gun sales in the ’burbs could be a key indicator as the priorities of suburban voters.
“I will tell you that one of the polls that a lot of people don't talk about is firearm sales,” he said. “The No. 1 demographic that is purchasing handguns right now is suburban white women. They're also the No. 1 demographic taking concealed-carry license classes. They are very concerned when they hear about defunding the police much the same as we see in Austin, where they are now experiencing a 63% increase in violent crime. These suburban women and the people in the suburbs are very concerned about their safety and security.”
West said that the out-of-state money pouring into Texas in support of Democrats did not work for Beto O’Rourke, and it won’t serve the Dems well in this cycle either.
“The people in Texas are not going to allow themselves to be influenced by outside money like that,” he said. “You go back two years ago, and I think Robert Francis O'Rourke had $60 to $70 million come from out of state. They got close, but I think that that was a wake-up call for a lot of conservatives and Republicans here in Texas. So that outside money is not going to bode well for them.”