Donald Trump and Joe Biden | Texas Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images
For Republicans, the ultimate nightmare in presidential races would be Democrats flipping Texas and turning it into a blue state. Texas, with its 38 electoral votes, has been reliably Republican for decades — and a Democrat hasn’t carried Texas in a presidential race since Jimmy Carter in 1976. But journalists Nicole Narea and Dylan Scott, in an article published in Vox this week, report that more Democratic strategists are now taking Texas seriously when it comes to presidential races.
Recent polls have shown former Vice President Joe Biden to be surprisingly competitive in Texas, which is a big change from the 1990s and 2000s — when Democratic strategists assumed that Republicans would automatically win the state’s electoral votes and that their time and energy would be better spent in Florida, Pennsylvania and other swing states they had a better chance of winning. But that was before Democrat Beto O’Rourke narrowly lost to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.
O’Rourke’s loss was a major disappointment for Democrats, but as O’Rourke sees it, the fact that he lost to Cruz by only 2% shows that Democratic strategists shouldn’t give up on Texas. In an interview in August, O’Rourke complained, “I don’t see any signs that the national party is taking Texas as seriously as they should. I don’t know that they realize the huge victory that Texas could give the national Democratic Party.”
Indeed, if Republican presidential candidates have to start working harder for Texas’ 38 electoral votes, that isn’t good news for the GOP at all. And according to Narea and Scott, more Democrats are seeing the wisdom of O’Rourke’s advice.
Gradually, the Vox journalists report, Democrats have been making progress in Texas.
“Trump won the presidential election by 9 percentage points in 2016 — a much smaller margin of victory than Mitt Romney’s 16 points in 2012,” Narea and Scott explain. “This year, the polls show former Vice President Joe Biden nipping at Trump’s heels in Texas, and Republicans are worried about their down-ballot candidates. Biden’s campaign in the state says they believe they can win in November and remake the Electoral College map for good.”
Rebecca Acuna, director of Biden’s campaign in Texas, told Vox, “Texas is a true battleground state, with an increasingly young, diverse, and fast-growing population and the potential to change the map for future election cycles.”
O’Rourke argues that if Biden could pull off a win in Texas, it would be “psychologically” brutal for the Republican Party. And Democratic strategist David Axelrod told Vox, “Expanding the map serves two purposes. The first is to keep your options open to make a move late, if the numbers move from possible to promising. The second is to force the other campaign to spend to defend a must-have state for them.”
In 2018, O’Rourke forced a prominent Republican to work extra-hard to avoid being voted out of office. GOP pundits were on Fox News pounding their chests after Cruz defeated O’Rourke, declaring that Texas will never be a blue state. But the fact that O’Rourke only lost by 2% is a warning sign that Republicans cannot take Texas for granted.
However, Narea and Scott point out that some Democratic strategists fear that paying too much attention to Texas takes Biden away from important battleground states he has a better chance of winning such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Although Texas’ demographics are enticing to Democrats — only 41% of its residents are non-Latino whites, according to the U.S. Census — Narea and Scott stress that Democrats have a lot of obstacles to overcome in the state, from voter to suppression to gerrymandering to low voter turnout. Officials in Harris County (which includes Houston) recently tried to send mail-in ballots to everyone on its voter rolls, but Republicans challenged them with a lawsuit — and the Texas Supreme Court agreed with Republicans.
“That sh*t is not accidental,” O’Rourke warned. “Republicans have been really good at shrouding this racist voter suppression by saying, ‘That’s just the way shit happens in Texas,’ and (that) it isn’t the way that they designed it to happen.”