Republicans have long idealized Texas as a deep-red frontier state, home to rural conservatives who love President Trump. But political turbulence in the sprawling suburbs and fast-growing cities are turning the Lone Star State into a possible 2020 battleground.
For a state that once elevated the Bush family and was forged into a Republican stronghold by Karl Rove, it is an increasingly uncertain time. Changing demographics and a wave of liberal activism have given new hope to Democrats, who have not won a statewide elective office since 1994 or Texas’s presidential vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Recent Republican congressional retirements have stoked party concerns, particularly the surprising Thursday announcement by a rising star, Rep. Will Hurd, that he would not seek reelection in his highly competitive district, which stretches east from El Paso along the Mexican border.
Days earlier, Rep. K. Michael Conaway, a powerful former committee chairman from West Texas, announced that he would not run again, as did Rep. Pete Olson, who narrowly won his seat in 2018. Two years earlier, Olson carried his suburban, Houston-area district by 19 percentage points.
Hurd, the lone black Republican in the House, said Trump’s incendiary rhetoric on immigration amid a humanitarian crisis at the border has left him and other Texas Republicans unsettled about the GOP’s future with minority voters.
“When you look at trends, the two largest growing groups of voters are Latinos and young people,” Hurd, 41, said in an interview. “We know what the broader trends are happening there.”
The number of Latinos in Texas has grown by 1.9 million since the 2000 Census, accounting for more than half of the state’s growth. In Hurd’s district, 70 percent of residents are Latinos.
Hurd’s exit is part of a wider GOP problem — dwindling diversity in the party’s congressional ranks. The House has a record number of women, but 89 of those 102 seats are held by female Democrats. Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) announced last week that she would not seek reelection, making her the second of the House GOP’s 13 women in six weeks to retire ahead of 2020.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who lost last year’s Senate race against Cruz by a razor-thin margin, argued at Tuesday’s presidential debate that Democrats “have a chance to beat Donald Trump in Texas” by “traveling to every county, not writing anybody off.”
A Quinnipiac poll released in June found that 48 percent of Texans approved of Trump’s job performance while 49 percent said they disapproved. That poll also found that Trump is effectively tied in Texas with several of the top contenders in the Democratic race.
Beyond the strong turnout for O’Rourke last year, Democrats point to other 2018 contests as evidence of an upswing, including two U.S. House seats that flipped from red to blue and more than a dozen state legislative gains.
“The demographics are moving in our favor, the numbers are moving in our favor,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat. “We’ve said that for many years, but I believe we’re getting close.”
According to the Texas Tribune, nearly 9 million Texans showed up to the polls in 2016, when Trump won the state by nine percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton. It was a notably smaller margin than in 2012, when Mitt Romney defeated President Barack Obama by nearly 16 percentage points.
And in 2018, turnout was nearly at presidential-cycle levels at 8 million, compared with 4.6 million in 2014, the previous midterm election year.
Cruz said those figures should alarm Republicans nationally about Democratic turnout in 2020 — and make donors and party leaders recommit to investing in statewide and congressional races in Texas rather than assuming that Trump’s political brand and a few rallies will be enough.
The suburbs are where Texas Republicans are most vulnerable, Cruz said, noting that O’Rourke made inroads in 2018 in the highly populated suburbs outside Dallas and Austin, and in other urban areas.
U.S. census data show Texas is home to the nation’s fastest-growing cities, and an analysis last month by two University of Houston professors predicted that “metropolitan growth in Texas will certainly continue, along with its ever-growing share of the vote — 68 percent of the vote in 2016.”
“Historically, the cities have been bright blue and surrounded by bright red doughnuts of Republican suburban voters,” Cruz said. “What happened in 2018 is that those bright red doughnuts went purple — not blue, but purple. We’ve got to do a more effective job of carrying the message to the suburbs.”
The retirements in Texas have sparked a broader resurgence of Democratic optimism about the party’s outlook across the South and Sun Belt states. Democrat Doug Jones’s 2017 special-election Senate victory in Alabama is cited as an example of how the party can defy the odds in traditionally red states.
“If you can lose states like Alabama, you can lose states like Texas, so you can’t take any state for granted,” said veteran GOP Senate strategist Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “Any time you see attrition down-ballot, you have to take steps to bolster your party. But the fundamentals in Texas remain favorable to Republicans.” He cited Cornyn, Cruz and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) as formidable figures who are engaged in generating enthusiasm.
Texas Democrats are struggling to recruit marquee names. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) tried to get O’Rourke to run against Cornyn in 2020, but he declined. Other party stars, such as Rep. Joaquin Castro, have also passed.
Cornyn, a low-key former judge and former majority whip seeking a fourth term, instead will probably face whoever emerges from a crowded Democratic primary. He announced last month that he raised $2.5 million in the second quarter of this year and has more than $9 million on hand.
MJ Hegar, a former Air Force helicopter pilot and recipient of the Purple Heart, is Cornyn’s leading Democratic rival. She announced a fundraising haul of more than $1 million since launching her bid in April, with $595,000 on hand. Hegar lost her race in a conservative congressional district in Austin’s northern suburbs last year by three percentage points but gained national notice.
Others in the race include Chris Bell, a former congressman, and Royce West, a seasoned state senator from Dallas.
“We’re assuming it’s going to be very competitive,” Cornyn said of his race. His strategy: casting the drift of the Democratic Party as far too liberal for Texas and reminding moderate voters that even if they don’t love everything the president does, they don’t want a “radical lurch to the left.”
“Texas is still a pretty conservative state. Democrats are kind of disqualifying themselves,” Cornyn said, referring to this week’s Democratic presidential debates, in which some candidates embraced liberal ideas such as Medicare-for-all and decriminalizing border crossings.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who won a difficult red-state campaign last year, said whoever emerges as Cornyn’s opponent will have to be careful and focus on “issues that people care about, like health care, college affordability and infrastructure” — rather than Trump’s potential impeachment — if they want to court the rural and suburban voters who might be souring on Trump.
But Alabama’s Jones said Democrats running in Texas and elsewhere next year should not shy away from confronting Trump’s visceral style of politics if they want to win, because Trump will make it impossible to ignore.
“You take immigration and the race issue head-on,” Jones said. “You make it clear that people aren’t for open borders, that you’re for a plan that’s humane and secures our border.”
Several House races are also on Democrats’ radar. Former Texas state senator Wendy Davis (D) last month announced a challenge to freshman congressman Chip Roy (R), who has established himself as a brash conservative after squeaking into office last year. Davis garnered national attention in 2013 for a 13-hour filibuster on Texas legislation that included restrictive abortion regulations. The district includes territory north of San Antonio and parts of Austin.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has opened four field offices in Texas, more than in any other state, as it targets up to six GOP-held seats. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairman of the committee, called it “ground zero” in a recent interview.
Democrats could face an uphill climb as they work to match Republican turnout statewide. Latinos have long voted at lower rates than whites and African Americans.
Texas also makes registration difficult: There is no way to register online, and the state requires those who register potential voters to be certified in the county where the registrants live — making it challenging to register people at events that draw Texans from numerous counties.
For Republicans, it’s not only Trump’s conduct that has spiked anxiety in Texas — it’s also the president’s trade war.
Among all states, Texas would be hit the hardest by far by an across-the-board tariff on Mexican goods, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — with a 5 percent levy threatening roughly $5.35 billion worth of imports to the state. In June, Trump pulled back on his tariff threat amid a deal with Mexico aimed at stemming the surge of unauthorized immigrants. It remains to be seen whether Mexico will hit the benchmarks to satisfy Trump.
“As a Texan who believes in free trade, obviously tariffs are not my first choice of action,” Roy said recently.
Trump also has not backed away from his hard line on immigration, despite GOP unease. “Dangerous people are coming here, and the good people are dying,” Trump told donors in San Antonio in April. At a raucous February rally in El Paso, Trump pledged to build a “big beautiful wall right on the Rio Grande.”
Trump’s raw and searing words, be it at rallies or in his racist tweets last month about four minority Democratic congresswomen, left Hurd disappointed in the president and in the muted Republican response.
“When you imply that because someone doesn’t look like you, in telling them to go back to Africa or wherever, you’re implying that they’re not an American and you’re implying that they have less worth than you,” Hurd said in the interview.
Moore reported from El Paso. John Wagner, Jenna Johnson, Seung Min Kim and Paul Kane contributed to this report.