Democratic super PACs are pumping millions of dollars into the state during the final days of campaigning, which Republicans say they probably will not be able to match. On Wednesday, Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign launched a three-day “Soul of the Nation” bus tour that will stop in Amarillo, Lubbock, Abilene, Fort Worth and Dallas.
His running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), plans to campaign Friday in McAllen, Fort Worth and Houston — a rare move for a vice-presidential candidate of any party so close to Election Day.
The political evolution in Texas has been sped up not just by demographic changes that have been underway for years, but also by the repelling power of President Trump and the burst of liberal activism he has inspired.
In the four years since the last presidential election, at least 2 million people have moved to Texas, many of them Democrats from places like California, Florida, New York and Illinois. An estimated 800,000 young Latino Americans have turned 18, and a wave of immigrants became naturalized citizens. More than 3 million Texans have newly registered to vote.
Trump’s polarizing presidency has motivated many Democrats into action and pushed some independents and Republicans — especially those living in urban and suburban areas — to protest the president’s divisive rhetoric and actions, including his treatment of migrants, perceived lack of concern about police brutality and handling of the pandemic that has killed nearly 17,700 Texans.
Texas has long had one of the lowest levels of voter participation in the nation, which makes its lead in early voting all the more remarkable. Unlike other states, however, Texas does not track the political party of those casting early votes, making it more difficult to predict which side is benefiting more.
This burst of enthusiasm at the polls, which follows a dramatic expansion of Democratic organizing across the state, has put increased pressure on Biden to invest in Texas. Polls have put him and Trump in near lockstep, and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report on Wednesday declared the state’s presidential contest a “toss up.”
Kirsten Iyare, 21, is part of the vanguard for Democrats, voting for the first time Thursday at San Antonio’s AT&T Center at the urging of a college classmate at Trinity University and after seeing so many friends post Snapchat videos of their voting stickers. A Black woman who grew up in a low-income Houston neighborhood, she said Trump has hurt marginalized communities of color like her own. She didn’t feel enthusiastic about voting for Biden. But at the urging of her classmate, she voted for him anyway.
“We’re all becoming agents of change,” Iyare said. “We are the people who have to carry the torch now.”
The same dynamic making Texas more competitive in the presidential contest and buoying the Democratic nominee in a U.S. Senate race is playing out in Arizona and Georgia, states long dominated by Republicans. North Carolina and even South Carolina have seen Democrats grow more competitive for the same reasons. It follows a similar Democratic rebirth in Virginia and Colorado that predated Trump; both are predictably blue now as newcomers have altered the states’ demographic makeup.
“What you’re watching in our state is the metamorphosis,” said Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and housing secretary who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. “We have an opportunity to remake the electoral map.”
In all of the changing states, the impact is larger than the presidential race. Several Texas Republican strategists say they are increasingly worried about keeping control of the Texas House — where Democrats are nine seats away from taking over just as that body prepares to take up redistricting, which could lock in power for another 10 years. They also fear losing at least four congressional seats the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has aggressively targeted. Last week, a Democratic super PAC began spending millions of dollars on advertising to support Biden and the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, MJ Hegar, which Republicans say will be nearly impossible for them to match in the final days of the campaign.
Texas GOP Chairman Allen B. West said early-voting turnout for Republicans has been strong, and despite recent polling, he expects his party to gain seats in the Texas House and the U.S. House. “We’ll be fine,” he said.
Democrats have less chance of flipping statehouse chambers in Arizona and Georgia, although they hope to pick up more seats and have more say during redistricting. Biden is narrowly leading in polls in both states, and Democrats are hopeful of flipping Senate seats there.
The Trump campaign scoffed at the suggestion that states like Texas are competitive, although the president took care to mention the state twice in the final debate Thursday.
“Joe Biden’s campaign is left to fabricate narratives and waste money on states he can’t win, like Texas,” said Samantha Zager, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign. She mocked other Democrats who wrongly thought they might ride new Texas voters to victory: “While Biden and the Democrats are welcome to spend as much money as they’d like in Texas, they may want to check with Gov. Wendy Davis, Sen. Beto O’Rourke and President Hillary Clinton on how that worked out for them.”
Some Democratic strategists have urged Biden not to be distracted by Texas and to continue to focus on the states that narrowly decided the last presidential election: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida. So far, he is listening: He has not been to Texas since just before the Democratic primary there, which he won, greatly easing his path to the nomination.
But the campaign has sent high-profile surrogates: In early October, Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, visited South Texas and San Antonio, both areas Democrats are worried about. Jill Biden visited El Paso, Dallas and Houston on the first day of early voting.
The pleas from many Texas Democrats for more attention have intensified as recent polls have shown Trump leading Biden by an average of only three percentage points in a state that he won by nine points four years ago.
“They’ve invested close to zero dollars in the state of Texas, and they’re doing this well already,” O’Rourke said of Biden’s campaign. O’Rourke, who nearly beat Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in 2018, unsuccessfully ran for president and started the group Powered by People, which has made 6 million calls and sent more than 40 million text messages to registered voters. “Imagine if they invested some real dollars.”
The Biden campaign notes that it has more than 60 staffers working in the state — a massive increase from Clinton’s campaign in 2016 — and has opened 18 campaign supply centers, in addition to spending millions on advertising.
As Trump’s support in Texas seems to have slipped, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), whom Hegar is challenging, has distanced himself from the president. Recent polls have shown Cornyn leading by an average of seven percentage points, suggesting he is doing better in the state than Trump.
The complicated dynamics of the Democratic outreach played out in a virtual news conference last week that Texas Democrats and the Biden campaign held to spotlight a handful of Republicans who planned to vote for Biden because of their disdain for Trump. But when a question about Cornyn arose, former congressman Steve Bartlett said he’s still a Republican, even if he’s voting for Biden.
“We support the down-ballot Republicans, particularly John Cornyn. I can tell you that he has been a source of quiet strength in the Senate and in the Republican Party and quiet strength toward Donald Trump,” Bartlett said, as several Democrats on the call awkwardly shifted in their Zoom windows. “I think John Cornyn . . . will be a voice of reason and a voice of coming together and a voice of rebuilding the traditional Republican Party.”
Mike Collier, a senior adviser to Biden in Texas, jumped in to say he hoped Cornyn’s Democratic challenger wins.
Over the past few months, Democratic organizers have targeted residents who recently moved to Texas and might not be registered, young voters who have not voted before, immigrant communities that have long been overlooked by both parties and Republicans who crossed party lines in 2018.
One of their targets is the 22nd Congressional District in the Houston suburbs, one of the fastest-growing districts in the country and one that has long been represented by Republicans. The incumbent, Rep. Pete Olson (R), is retiring after nearly losing in 2018 to Sri Preston Kulkarni, a Democrat and former Foreign Service officer who is running again this year.
Although national Democrats didn’t think the district could flip in 2018, Kulkarni was optimistic because about 60 percent of those who live in the district are people of color and about a quarter are immigrants.
“I said, ‘Why aren’t we talking to these immigrants who are here?’ And I was told: ‘Well, don’t bother with them because immigrants don’t vote. Especially don’t bother with the Asian community because the easiest way to lose an election is to talk to people who don’t vote,’ ” said Kulkarni, whose campaign reached out to voters in more than two dozen languages, six of which he speaks himself.
After his loss, Kulkarni traveled to the Atlanta suburbs to learn from the New Georgia Project’s voter registration efforts.
“Those parallels between Georgia and Texas — we’re both moving in the same direction. The only difference is that Texas is bigger,” he said.
Kulkarni has also been connecting with suburban residents who used to vote for Republicans but have been turned off by, among other things, the response to the pandemic. More than half of those living in the district have college degrees, he said, and it has the highest number of doctors of any district in the state. His Republican opponent, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, has said mask mandates are “unprecedented overreach which looks more like a communist dictatorship than a free Republic.”
“People understand science here,” Kulkarni said.
In places where there are competitive congressional and statehouse races — especially in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas — record numbers of voters have cast early ballots this year. But Democrats are worried about the Rio Grande Valley along the border in Southern Texas, a heavily Hispanic and Democratic region where early-voting rates are slightly higher than in 2016 but not by much. For months, the state party has been targeting the valley.
The Rio Grande Valley has seen a burst of Republican enthusiasm under Trump. His supporters have regularly gathered in border towns for what they call a “Trump Train,” a procession of hundreds of vehicles, many of them decorated with Trump flags and signs.
A recent caravan in Laredo passed near members of the No Border Wall Coalition, who were freshening the bright-yellow painting spelling out “Defund the wall” on a street. The Trump supporters honked and expressed their support for the president, and the tension spilled over onto social media, where neighbors snapped at one another.
Police officers are now assigned to a Laredo early-voting site after reports of harassment and an incident last week in which a group of Trump supporters blasting loud music surrounded Democratic Party volunteers in a parking lot near a polling place.
“They were there to intimidate and scare,” said Sylvia Bruni, Webb County’s Democratic Party chair. “We are a Democrat community, but there is a small percentage of Republicans that was always quiet, concentrated mainly in the wealthy neighborhoods of north Laredo. But now those neighborhoods are awash with Trump signs. You’d never see that before.”
Democrats have been staging their own pro-Biden caravans and leaving information about Biden on doors in some of the low-income communities that run along the river where Trump is building his infamous wall.
Aron Peña — a former Democrat and precinct chair for the Hidalgo County Republican Party further down the Rio Grande — said Trump’s message resonates with many border residents, including some of the region’s highest wage earners: federal law enforcement.The federal government is one of the largest employers in the region.
“The children of Border Patrol, the wives of federal officers and their families are watching their loved ones being demonized. At some point, they are going to push back,” Peña said.“These are locals, and they are vocal on social media.”
The tension with Laredo’s newly vocal right wing has inspired dormant Democratic voters to exercise their rights, Bruni said. After the Trump caravans began in September, about 3,000 residents showed up at the Democratic Party headquarters looking to re-register or check their voting status. Registrations had been sporadic before then, she said.
“It shocked people into action,” said Bruni, describing a wide range of ages and circumstances among the arrivals. One man was so adamant about ensuring he would not be turned away at the polls that he had Bruni call the elections office even though he had his voter registration card in hand.
“Chequele,” Bruni recalled the man insisting in Spanglish that she double-check. “I need to be sure.”
Johnson reported from Washington. Emily Guskin, Chelsea Janes and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.