TEXAS — Jon Cocks first realized the political winds were changing in Collin County during his campaign for county commissioner in 2018.
A lifetime Republican who had served as treasurer of the county’s GOP, Cocks had become disillusioned with his party. So, he was running as an independent and canvassing door-to-door for signatures to get himself on the ballot.
“What I kept hearing from Republicans was ‘Thank God you’re running. Thank God we have an alternative,’” he said.
“I was really surprised,” Cocks said. “I don't think the Republican party as a whole realizes that there's a lot of people now who just don't like what's going on.”
Cocks’ sense that there was a significant shift happening in Collin County politics tracks a national trend in which former suburban Republican strongholds are increasingly turning out more Democrats both at the polls and on the ballots in local elections.
Fueled by aversion to Pres. Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric and disappointment in his response to the coronavirus pandemic and the protests against police brutality, Texas suburban voters are heavy hitters this election year, as Democrats see their best chance in decades to gain more ground statewide.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to get Democrats in Congress, opened an office in Austin in the spring and set its sights on flipping at least six Texas seats in November.
Pres. Donald Trump narrowly won U.S. suburbs in 2016, helping propel him to the White House. But three years later, early polls show registered suburban voters backing Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, by as much as 15 points in several national surveys.
So, what does it mean for Texas? Could the Lone Star State become a battleground state?
Not likely in this election cycle, according to most political analysts. But as the state’s population growth continues to drive change both politically and demographically in urban and suburban areas, Texas could become a battleground state in the near future.
Trump is losing Texas voters’ confidence at a steady pace because of what they say is his ineffectual response to the coronavirus pandemic at a time when Texas’ rising infection rates made it a hotspot, said Cal Jilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.
A July 22 poll by Quinnipiac University showed Biden leading Trump by one percentage point among likely voters in Texas.
Trump most likely will win Texas in 2020, but it won’t be like 2016, when he beat Hillary Clinton by 9 percentage points.
Texas isn’t in play yet in presidential elections, but Trump is slowly bleeding voter support, Jilson said. “If Trump keeps that slow bleed, he could be down five points two months from now. If he continues to bleed, he could lose Texas.”
The Trump effect is certainly influencing Collin County voters. But Cocks, a certified public accountant from Fairview, said he thinks the shift in politics in the mostly affluent Dallas suburb is influenced by more than just voters turning away from Trump.
Cocks said after years as a moderate Republican in Collin County, he became turned off by what he saw as the party’s stagnant mindset. The party leaders were focused on social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, where they should have been focused on progress in the county, he said.
“You had to be pro-gun, you had to be a pro-strict constitutionalist...there was a list of things, and there was very little room for tolerance, for people who had different ideas,” he said.
So, Cocks left the party and ran for public office first as an independent. In February, he ran as a Democrat for Texas House District 89. He lost in the primary but learned a lot about what voters want in the process, he said.
Calculating the number of Republicans who have flipped parties like Cocks did in Collin County is difficult, said Mike Rawlin, the chairman of the county’s Democratic Party. But anecdotally, Rawlins said he’s heard more of it happening in the last 15 years.
It is certainly a reflection of the changing demographics of Dallas’ suburbs. Twenty years ago, Collin County was about 85 percent white. Today, it’s about 55 percent white, with African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians making up 41 percent of the population.
Collin County is seeing more young families move in to work for big employers like Toyota and Texas Instruments. In 2010, there were 780,000 people living in Collin County, which includes Plano, McKinney, Allen and Fairview. Today there are just over 1 million in the county.
“The Republican hold on Texas by definition is in flux because the traditional Republican voter is older and white,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican political strategist at Steinhauser Strategists in Austin.
Immigration and population growth are driving diversity, and both parties need to adapt to that.
“The Republican party hasn’t been doing a great job of that,” he said.
The bulk of voters in Collin County are families who, at the end of the day, want to have jobs and job security, Cocks said. They want shorter commute times. They want to have safe parks and schools for their children to go to, and they want to have health insurance, Cocks said.
In his point of view and from what he saw campaigning for county commissioner and then for a Texas House seat, the Republican party isn’t keeping up with the changes in Collin County voters.
“More often than not, Democrats at least are having the dialogue about those things. I mean, you might not agree with their solutions, but they are putting those out there,” he said.
Meanwhile, Republicans are talking about border security and lowering taxes.
“At the federal level, those are very appropriate issues to talk about, but let's talk about what's at the local level, at the state level we need,” he said.
Dallas suburban voters are a major influence in the state’s shift from a red Republican state to a purple political player.
In fact, Democrats have been making grounds in Collin County for a decade or more. Each year, more Democrats are on the ballot in local races to challenge Republicans who have run unopposed for decades. Looking at past presidential election years, Collin County has gone from having eight Democrats in 23 local races in 2012 to 16 out of 35 races in 2016.
This year’s ballot will have Democratic challengers in every local and state-level race except for six, said Rawlins of the Collin County Democrats.
“What you've seen in the nationwide polls showing the Republican party losing suburban voters is especially true for us,” he said. “We are one of the more, if not the most, affluent counties in the state. Over half of the adults have college educations. So, it fits with the national demographics.
Republican party leaders in Collin County said they aren’t as worried about the polling numbers, which may not reflect what is really going on in voters’ minds, said Neal Katz, the executive director of the Collin County Republican Party.
There are more Trump supporters out there than the polls reflect, but they are scared to talk about it publicly given today’s divisive political climate, he said.
Party members have told him that they want to put a Trump sign in their yard or a bumper sticker on their car, but are worried that it will invite trouble.
“There’s concern that because of the country facing so many riots like we are seeing in Portland and elsewhere, that the signs will get vandalized or something,” he said. “People are scared to come out and say they are Trump supporters, but we are confident they will come out to the polls on Nov. 3.”
Katz said that he recognizes that some of this is an overreaction, but when it comes to Nov. 3, “voters’ fear right now is about liberty vs. potential socialism.”
Trump has tried to regain suburban voters’ support in recent weeks, warning that the Democrats want to “destroy our suburbs.”
Rebecca Dean, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, said Trump’s attempts to win potentially flippable, independent suburban voters may be too late.
“This pandemic has swirled voters who are conservative and moderate all together in a difficult to untangle theme,” she said. “Had he made different choices, he could have maybe reached those gettable voters. But he hasn’t done anything that made them feel he was worth supporting him again.”
Republican leaders disagree and said voters in Collin County would support Trump and other party candidates on Nov. 3 because they are worried that under a Biden administration, their guns will be taken away, there will be more government regulations, and the country will be anti-business, he said.
Collin County voters like what they have seen in the last three years under Trump as well as the Republican-led county government, Katz said. The county has the lowest tax rate in Texas, and voters want to keep that, so they will be coming out on election day, he said.
“Our voters see it as the simple difference of whether you believe the government is doing everything for you or you believe you are doing everything as an individual to make things better for yourself,” Katz said.
Democrats in Texas got a huge boost in 2018 when Beto O'Rourke came within an arm’s reach of unseating Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. O’Rouke did far better than expected, even taking Tarrant County, a Republican stronghold.
“His success across the state suggested that maybe the purple wave was manifesting itself,” said Dean of the University of Texas at Arlington.
That same year, Democrats flipped 12 seats in the Texas House.
So far this year, Democrats have surpassed Republicans in raising money to win U.S. House seats, according to the Texas Tribune. Republican candidates reported a total of $19.2 million in campaign funds to the Federal Elections Committee campaign finance filings. Democrats reported $26.7 million.
“Beto only lost here by 20,000 votes. So if, if we can pick up those 20,000 votes from newly registered voters or from people we don't normally vote, we win.” Rawlins said.
In July, the Biden campaign told Politico magazine that it “saw an opening” in Texas. The campaign bought television ads for the former vice president’s campaign that month across the state, which hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976.