by Richard Parker
When she left the increasingly bustling downtown of Big D, Marie Combs, a single, white petroleum geologist, chose a suburb just outside the loop, drawn by big lots, peace and green spaces.
At first, she felt like an outsider in suburban Donald Trump country, and a dejected Democrat after her party’s losses in 2016. In four short years, all that changed.
“Now, there’s a mix of people who’ve come from downtown,” she said, describing Latino and African American neighbors. “I like that my street is a mix of people. I like that my street looks like America.”
Now in 2020, the battle for political power in the nation and Texas is being waged in suburbs just like hers which are increasingly less white and less conservative. Trump’s race baiting over these semi-urban hinterlands, his tweets quaintly beckoning “suburban housewives” isn’t just bigoted or misogynist; it’s just ill-informed. He is right to focus on women voters — they are at the heart of the struggle over keeping Texas red or turning it blue because they are the rare demographic of Trump voter whose support has actually frayed.
Recent polls put Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden just one to two points apart, but truth is, Trump has been dragging down Texas Republicans for a year. In a state usually ignored by Democratic presidential nominees, Biden is airing advertising in Texas. Democrats know that a Biden victory in the land of 38 electoral votes is their best hope of winning by a large enough margin to blunt Trump’s expected claims of a rigged election should he lose.
The usual chorus of “It Can’t Happen Here” is already cranking up its conventional wisdom sound machine.
“Texas will never be blue,” says Jeff Roe, who ran U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2018 squeaker against Beto O’Rourke. “It is highly likely that in the next four or eight years that it will be purple and competitive.”
But the suburban shifts are so fundamental that the nay-saying chorus is very well singing a swan song. Claims of Texas’ stasis are greatly exaggerated. The Lone Star State is going to the Democrats in 2020. Need proof? Look first beyond Republicans themselves. Behold the great blue yonder.
Geography is destiny
“As I get older I guess I get a lot more conservative in my predictions,” James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin told me recently. “I’m not seeing a bunch of Republicans defecting from Trump right now.”
“Look, there are a hell of a lot of Republicans in Texas. But the composition of these districts has changed. The lines the Republicans drew in 2011 have decayed.” he went on. “They’re just very different. They’re white liberals priced out of the cities. They’re people of color. That shift is something the Republicans have missed and everybody has missed.”
Out yonder in Albuquerque lives Sally Davis, who left Highland Park years ago but still considers the wealthy Dallas enclave her hometown; she grew up a childhood friend of rich and powerful people such as Jim Moroney, whose family owns A. H. Belo Co. But she became a teacher, a Democrat, a grandmother. She believes in the healing power of bone marrow broth, buys from an organic farm, and in 2018 set out to do the impossible: turn a sprawling red New Mexico congressional district safe within the confines of what’s known as Republican “Little Texas” blue.
A handful of phone bankers transformed that year into a busload of door-knockers, convincing timid Democrats to vote and flip the seat. They did, electing Xochitl Torres Small.
“We were ecstatic. We could not believe it! We just flipped it!” Davis says. “…that was some of the hardest door-knocking in the country.”
Though the Democrats’ hold is tenuous and pandemic politics seem to have put the district in play once again, Davis is trying to employ her winning strategy to flip Republican-held legislative seats in Texas.
Working as part of a seven-woman team, backed by a national fundraising and grassroots organizing group, her target this time is the seemingly obscure Texas House District 96, which contains about 160,000 voters in the suburbs of Fort Worth and Arlington.
Established after Trump’s election, Swing Left is a national, progressive fundraising and organizing machine which helped Democrats take the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington in 2018. Founded by Ethan Todras-Whitehill, a writer and teacher, marketing expert Miriam Stone, and technologist Joshua Krafchin who bills himself on LinkedIn as “a radical growth agent.”
The group identified Texas as a “super state” with multiple opportunities from the presidential race to the legislature, which will soon redraw congressional districts. Democratic lawyer Joe Drago is trying to win the District 96 seat still rated as leaning Republican by the Baker Institute in Houston.
“It’s all about the numbers,” says Davis. Her group organizes weekly on Zoom and can call 1,000 people a day and send personal letters to voters; in the last cycle Swing Left produced 10 million letters across the nation. In Tarrant County, they will focus just on getting Democrats out to vote. “Pretty soon we’ll have the seven of us and access to 70 phone bankers,” Davis says.
Inside Texas, the Lone Star Project, led by longtime Democratic activist and consultant Matt Angle of Arlington, is arming selected candidates, including Drago, with opposition research on Republicans, staff training, prepping candidates for interviews, providing data and more.
Who else is helping Drago?
Beto O’Rourke, arguably the most popular Democrat in Texas, who has dedicated his new organization to targeting 17 state House districts and flipping at least eight seats that could be pivotal in influencing the redrawing of political boundaries that will be in place for a decade.
Of course, all this Democratic enthusiasm would be nothing more than fantasy if not for another unintended ally: Trump himself.
“I call it the ‘Trump Turmoil,’” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “There’s a ripple effect of him doing something in Washington that roils the state almost constantly.”
Trump has privately been the bane of Republican politicians since last year, as revealed in a private recording of state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen.
“With all due respect to Trump — who I love, by the way — he’s killing us in urban-suburban districts,” Bonnen said, adding he’d seen polling showing Trump down 15 percentage points in one battleground state House district, while the GOP incumbent was “even.”
Six Republican members of Congress suddenly retired last fall, a stampede known as Texodus. Trump’s border wall has been divisive. His cruel immigration policies have upset many Texans, where these policies have, in fact, been carried out in places such as El Paso, Tornillo and Brownsville. His interruptions of border bridge traffic and trade with Mexico royally pissed off business.
Way back in November, a University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll reported that just half of voters would vote for Trump in 2020. The other half wanted him out.
A flip is also more plausible if you consider history. Texas is in the long process of realigning — again. It did so from the 1960s through the 1980s, culminating in 1994 with George W. Bush winning the governor’s mansion, much of it the result of Midwestern Republicans moving to the Texas suburbs. The same process is happening again but in reverse, from the early 2000s to today, from Republican to Democrat.
Texas has been purple a long time, with Democrats controlling the big cities but Republicans controlling the big state offices. The rest you know: In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by only 9 points, the smallest Republican margin in modern history. In 2018, not only did O’Rourke nearly upset Cruz, but he created a bow-wave of new Democrats swamping Republican congressional districts and elected judgeships.
Of course, the Democrats can blow this and relegating Texas and Latino speakers to the margins at their convention proves it. But Democrats remember how vital it is to deliver Texas for Biden each time they hear Trump falsely warn of the “the most corrupt election in history”: Eking out a victory in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania may not drive him from office. A blizzard of lawsuits could ensue. Imagine the Supreme Court having to pick a president weeks later, just like it did in 2000.
“The best electoral response is Texas,” O’Rourke told me one morning in his home in El Paso. It’s an interesting place, where Pancho Villa in 1915 met very publicly with leaders of the U.S. Army to plot revolution. O’Rourke reminds me of a bruised but determined revolutionary himself.
“You have to defeat Trump and put him away in the electoral college. It forever changes the electoral map in this country.” It would also flip the state House and bring down Republican Sen. John Cornyn, he continued. “It’s a sea change.”
So far overlooked is the influence O’Rourke still has on the presidential race he bowed out of. His campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, helped him forge his Texas-first idea. Now she is managing Biden’s campaign. And she just announced the $280 million advertising buy that includes Texas along with 14 other states.
It didn’t have to be like this for the Republican Party. In North Dallas, Luisa del Rosal, running for the state legislature, is precisely the kind of ideal, new Republican candidate that the party is trying to recruit. A millennial, the executive director of the Tower Center at SMU in Dallas, del Rosal is brilliant, friendly and good with people. (Full disclosure: I spoke at the center.) Now she is the Republican nominee for the state House’s 114th district in north Dallas, captured by Democrat John Turner in 2018 after 30 years of Republican control.
“I’m an immigrant from Mexico but I’ve always been a proud Republican,” del Rosal, 33, explains.
“We’ve got ideas,” she insisted. “We’ve got free market ideas.”
Unfortunately, decades of one-party monopoly in this state have made too many Republican Party leaders comfortable and their vision increasingly narrow.
To me, 2020 is a reminder of another year everybody has forgotten: 1980. For the first time, Texas voted for a Republican for president, Ronald Reagan, even as Democrats and Republicans continued to fight it out for power in Austin and split the two U.S. Senate seats. This year could bear a striking resemblance, with Biden winning the state, changing the course of presidential politics in Texas as the fight over power continues for years until the state is solidly blue.
Parker is the author of “Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America.”