by Ronald Brownstein, CNN
For years, the Southwest shimmered like a mirage to Democrats thirsting for a political breakthrough in the desert.
Since 2004, steady gains have allowed them to establish a clear upper hand in New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. But, until recently, they had been frustrated by their inability to extend those gains to the region’s two biggest electoral prizes: Arizona and especially Texas.
The Republican hold on even those states, though, demonstrably loosened in 2018, and now Democrats appear poised for a potentially historic breakthrough across all of the region’s battlefields next month.
Former Vice President Joe Biden holds commanding leads in Colorado and New Mexico, two states President Donald Trump hoped to flip from blue to red, and a smaller but apparently stable advantage in Nevada, another state Trump has contested. In Arizona, a state Democrats have carried just once in presidential elections since 1948, polls consistently show Biden maintaining a small but steady advantage as well.
And though Trump remains favored in Texas, which no Democratic presidential nominee has carried since 1976, Biden is running close enough to sustain the party’s dreams of an upset — and to fuel its hopes of winning several US House seats and regaining control of the Texas State House of Representatives for the first time in 20 years.
New Mexico has shifted so far toward the Democrats that neither side even considers it truly competitive anymore in the presidential race.
Simultaneously, Democrats are also strongly favored to oust Republican senators in Colorado and Arizona, which would give them control of all eight Senate seats from those states plus New Mexico and Nevada for the first time since 1941. In Texas, Republican Sen. John Cornyn still holds a solid lead over Democrat M.J. Hegar in surveys, but she has raised enough money, and remained competitive enough in polls, to keep open the slim possibility of an upset.
“The West is not the Deep South anymore,” says Robert Lang, executive director of the Brookings Mountain West center at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “At this stage, it can’t be relied on by the Republican Party into some distant future.”
Two common factors are rewriting the region’s political equation. One is steady growth across almost all of these states in the non-White population, particularly among the younger generations aging into the electorate every four years: In Texas, for instance, two-thirds of the citizens who have turned 18 since the 2016 election are people of color. In Texas, Arizona and Nevada alike, voters of color will likely compose about two-fifths of all voters in 2020, according to projections from the nonpartisan States of Change project shared exclusively with CNN. (States of Change is a research collaborative of three liberal-leaning groups — the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution and the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group — and the centrist Bipartisan Policy Center that studies the changing composition of the American electorate and its implications for policy and politics.)
But given the continuing difficulty Democrats have faced organizing and mobilizing those voters — at least outside of Nevada, where they have built a more potent political machine — the second factor may be even more important in the party’s resurgence: Democrats are finally establishing significant beachheads in the big metropolitan areas across the Southwest, including their white-collar suburbs (just as they are in the Southeast).
Changes were hastened by Trump
All of these dynamics predate Trump, at least to some extent. But there’s no question he has accelerated them, particularly the geographic reconfiguration that has seen Republicans consolidate their hold on small-town and rural places that are generally stagnant or shrinking in population at the cost of greater resistance in the urban centers and inner suburbs that are exploding in numbers.
“Trump has helped it along,” says Lang. “He takes processes that might have taken another two cycles and puts them squarely into this one.”
Denver and Las Vegas were the first metro areas to fall to Democrats during the first decade of this century. But now similar movement is evident in suburbs around Houston, Dallas and Phoenix, as well-educated voters of all races there recoil from the belligerent racial nationalism Trump deploys to stir his core vote of non-college, evangelical and rural Whites.
“Sinema was the canary in the mine shaft, and it should have told us something, but it didn’t; they misread the canary. They doubled down on the right. … How does that make any sense? The Republican Party did not make an adjustment.”
Across all of the Southwest (and, for that matter, Southeast) states, the changing political equation is being driven above all by “this extraordinary change in these suburban places: Maricopa, Harris, Dallas … the fast-growing, rapidly diversifying suburbs, high education, high median income, high information,” says Charlie Kelly, the senior political adviser to Everytown for Gun Safety, a pro-gun-control group funded by Michael Bloomberg that is organizing heavily in Sun Belt suburbs.
Two or three decades ago, Kelly says, those suburbs might have identified more closely with the values and priorities of rural communities than those of their urban neighbors. Now it’s the opposite. “These suburbs are just so much more similar to urban core communities today than to the rural counterparts that they [more resembled] 30 years ago,” he says.
The GOP erosion in the Southwest suburbs is especially ominous for the party because they are among the country’s fastest-growing communities. Census data show that from April 2010 through July 2019, the latest period for which figures are available, Maricopa (Phoenix) added more people than any other US county, with Harris (Houston) ranking second, Clark (Las Vegas) fourth, and five other Texas counties — Tarrant (Fort Worth), Bexar (San Antonio), Dallas, Collin (outside of Dallas) and Travis (Austin) — all finishing in the top 10.
The result has been that even as these states rank among the nation’s fastest-growing — with Texas leading in population growth from 2010 to 2019 — economic opportunity and population growth within them are further concentrating in their largest metro areas.
The Las Vegas and Phoenix metro areas account for nearly three-fourths of all of their states’ jobs, and the Denver metro more than half, according to calculations by Lang and two co-authors in their recent book, “Blue Metros, Red States: The Shifting Urban-Rural Divide in America’s Swing States.” The so-called “Texas Triangle,” which extends from the metro areas of Houston and San Antonio in the south toward Austin and Dallas further north, provides about 7-in-10 of the state’s jobs and generates more than three-fourths of its economic output, Lang and his colleagues calculated.
These communities are not interchangeable. Las Vegas, centered on low-wage service work, has many fewer information-age white-collar jobs than the others, and the young professionals flocking to such jobs in Denver remain much more liberal than their counterparts in, say, Dallas. But, at differing speeds, they are all proceeding on the same moving walkway: As the GOP has more overtly defined itself, especially in the Trump era, as hostile to demographic and cultural change, the party has lost ground in all of these growing, well-educated and diverse communities.
The process has unfolded most clearly in Colorado. In many ways, Colorado is to the Southwest what Virginia is to the Southeast: a cautionary tale to Republicans of how shifting demographics and political allegiances can move a state from red to purple to solidly blue. Democrats now control Colorado’s governorship and both chambers of the state Legislature; this year, Biden is on track to perhaps double Hillary Clinton’s 4.9 percentage point margin of victory in 2016 and former Gov. John Hickenlooper appears virtually certain to oust first-term Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who has closely tied himself to Trump.
This possible Democratic rout culminates the state’s recent political evolution. Colorado has transitioned through several distinct phases over the past half century. Republicans mostly dominated the state during the 1960s, before the backlash to the Watergate scandal opened the door for a generation of brainy, centrist Democrats who defined the state during the 1970s and 1980s: Sens. Gary Hart and Tim Wirth, Rep. Pat Schroeder and Govs. Richard Lamm and Roy Romer.
Lamm, now co-director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University of Denver, recalled in an interview that during those years Republicans still usually controlled the state Legislature largely because they remained highly competitive in the Denver area, including its suburbs.
Republicans had long held the advantage in Colorado presidential elections: Bill Clinton, in the three-way contest of 1992, was the only Democrat to carry it between 1968 and 2008. Then from the late 1980s through the early 2000s, the centrist Democrats lost ground and the state’s balance tipped clearly toward conservative Republicans, such as Sen. William Armstrong and Gov. Bill Owens.
The fulcrum in the state’s political history was the GOP’s retreat after 2000 in the suburbs, as the party redefined itself around a bristling cultural conservatism popular in rural regions. “The Republican Party, I think, woke up to its moderate self in those years and decided that’s not what they wanted,” Lamm says.
As late as 2004, President George W. Bush won Jefferson and Arapahoe, the heavily white-collar suburban counties outside of Denver, and held down his deficit in the overall region (which includes Denver County itself and nearby Adams County) to a little over 75,000 votes. But in 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democratic nominee since Lyndon Johnson (and only the second since Harry Truman) to capture Arapahoe and Jefferson, and he swelled his margin in the overall Denver area to 227,000 votes. Democrats haven’t looked back since.
“We have been struggling ever since, really struggling,” says Dick Wadhams, the former Colorado Republican Party chair and campaign manager for Owens.
Democrats have controlled the governorship since 2007 and carried the state in each of the past three presidential elections. Gardner, running as a moderate who would act independently of his party, stanched this tide in his 2014 victory largely by holding down his margin of defeat in the four-county Denver area to about 115,000 votes. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton won those same four counties against Trump by almost 265,000 votes, and in 2018 Democrat Jared Polis expanded the advantage to nearly 290,000 in his resounding gubernatorial win. Now both sides are expecting substantially greater margins in these places against both Trump and Gardner, who allied himself closely with the President.
“The Denver metro area is going to be an absolute bloodbath for Republicans,” predicts Andrew Baumann, a Democratic pollster based there.
Wadhams doesn’t disagree. “Eight hundred thousand people have moved to Colorado in the last eight years roughly, a huge increase,” he says. “These are younger voters and they really don’t register Democratic — there’s a huge surge of unaffiliated voters — but they are certainly more liberal on the social issues and they are leaning Democratic right now. They are totally repulsed by Donald Trump.”
Democrats have benefited from a growing minority population in Colorado, especially Hispanics. But the principal engine of the state’s realignment has been the growth — and shift toward Democrats — in the state’s population of college-educated White voters.
In Nevada, the equation is reversed. It is distinctive among the competitive Southwest states in that it has not seen a major influx of white-collar information age jobs in recent years; States of Change projects that Whites with college degrees will make up only 23% of Nevada’s voters next month, unchanged from their level in 2004. The boost in Democratic fortunes in the state has come from its population growth — and mobilization — of African Americans, Asian Americans and above all Hispanics: States of Change expects such voters of color to cast nearly 4-in-10 of the state’s ballots in November, almost double their level in 2004. It forecasts that non-college Whites will slip to 39% of voters, down from 57% in 2004.
Nevada has voted with the winner in every presidential election in modern times, which meant it landed reliably in the Republican column from 1968 to 1988, and again during George W. Bush’s two victories. The turning point in its modern political history came when Democratic then-Sen. Harry Reid decided to invest heavily in registering and mobilizing lower-income voters, particularly from minority communities, in Las Vegas before what he expected to be a tough reelection in 2004. Combined with dogged organizing from the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents casino workers, the “Reid machine” transformed the state’s politics.
In 2000, Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, gave a roughly 25,000-vote margin to Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore and a 22,000-vote advantage to Republican Sen. John Ensign. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry didn’t improve much on Gore’s margin, but Reid carried the county by nearly 180,000 votes. Four years later, Obama won it by nearly 125,000 votes. In 2016, Clinton slipped but still amassed an 82,170-vote margin in Clark County and Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, running to succeed Reid, managed a similar advantage; that was enough for Masto to win even though she didn’t carry any of the state’s other 16 counties.
The GOP still dominates the state’s rural counties, but the urban/suburban backlash from the Trump-era party has loosened its hold even on Washoe County (Reno), the state’s second largest (it casts about one-fifth of the statewide votes).
Nevada Democrats caution that the state isn’t likely to become as safe for the party as Colorado anytime soon — it remains competitive this fall, with polls consistently showing only a mid-single-digit lead for Biden — because it has so many fewer of the college-educated White voters who are boosting the party in the Trump era. But the GOP collapse in the state’s population centers still leaves Democrats with a steady, if modest, advantage.
The broad outline is similar in Arizona, though with the entire playing field tilted more toward Republicans. From the 1940s on, Arizona has been one of the nation’s most conservative states: Bill Clinton, who squeezed through in 1996’s three-way race, is the only Democratic presidential candidate to carry it since Truman in 1948.
Wes Gullett, a Phoenix-based Republican consultant and former state director for the late Sen. John McCain, notes that after World War II, an influx of military veterans who had trained there, retirees from the Midwest and workers flocking to aerospace jobs provided a solid core of right-leaning voters for the formidable political machine built by then-Sen. Barry Goldwater.
Goldwater became a conservative icon and Republicans dominated the state until the later 1970s, when centrist Democrats Dennis DeConcini and Bruce Babbitt won elections as senator and governor, respectively. But Democrats couldn’t sustain those breakthroughs: After DeConcini’s last win in 1988, they didn’t elect another US senator in the state until 2018, and Janet Napolitano, who won two terms earlier this century, is the only Democrat who has captured the governorship since Babbitt’s last election in 1982.
et the same twin rivers that have transformed the politics of so many other states have cut into the GOP’s seemingly rock-hard advantage in Arizona. The minority share of voters has steadily grown, from about 1-in-5 in 2004, according to the Census Bureau, to nearly double that now, according to the States of Change projections. The state’s youth population is especially diverse: Kids of color account for nearly three-fifths of all citizens who have turned 18 in Arizona since 2016, with Hispanics constituting the largest group at nearly 1-in-2, according to calculations by demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution.
Democrats haven’t organized these non-White Arizona Hispanics (especially younger ones) as well as in Nevada, but they substantially improved their efforts over the past decade, since state Republicans passed the harsh “show me your papers” anti-immigration law known as SB 1070 in 2010.
Many Democrats are concerned that Biden may underperform among Hispanics, especially younger men, who were already showing some signs of drifting away from the party before this campaign.
“There’s a broader dynamic that looking longer term we have to take the lessons from this cycle: The Hispanic young men problem is not going away,” says Stephanie Valencia, a Democratic pollster whose firm EquisLabs specializes in Hispanic attitudes. Yet Trump’s relentless belligerence on immigration issues — and the huge price the coronavirus outbreak has imposed on Hispanic families — limits his opportunities for inroads: Recent polling by Univision and The New York Times/Siena College alike showed Biden winning almost exactly two-thirds of Arizona Hispanics.
Even more problematic for the GOP is the other river reshaping Arizona’s political landscape: the steady movement of metro voters away from Trump’s definition of the party. Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and its suburbs, has long been arguably America’s most conservative large county. No Democratic presidential candidate has won it since Truman in 1948; no Democratic nominee reached even 45% of the vote there from Hubert Humphrey in 1968 through Obama in 2012; and it was the largest US county that Trump carried in 2016.
But Clinton pushed just past 45% of the vote there in 2016, and in 2018, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema shocked Republicans by carrying Maricopa by more than 60,000 votes in her US Senate victory over Martha McSally. (In an extraordinary showing for a Democrat in Arizona, exit polls showed Sinema winning statewide majorities of both seniors and college-educated Whites, each of which are heavily represented in Maricopa.)
No Republican in recent years has won statewide in Arizona without carrying Maricopa, except for one state superintendent of public instruction candidate who lost it by only about 1,000 votes in 2014. Trump might survive a narrow loss there, Republicans say, because he could generate a larger advantage out of the state’s rural areas (which cast just over one-fifth of the statewide vote) than Biden does in Tucson (which provides just under one-fifth).
But after the county was ravaged this summer by a fierce coronavirus outbreak, public and private polls consistently show Biden holding a lead of at least 5 percentage points in Maricopa, while Democratic Senate nominee Mark Kelly almost always leads by more than that; local strategists like Gullett say that’s too much for Trump, much less McSally, to offset elsewhere.
If Trump does become the first Republican since Thomas Dewey in 1948 to lose Maricopa, Gullett and others say, it will be because the party ignored the clear signs of discontent about its direction in 2018 across the county’s many sprawling suburbs. Those cries of discontent have only grown louder since, with the procession of prominent local Republicans, led by former Sen. Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain, John McCain’s widow, who have renounced Trump and endorsed Biden.
“Sinema was the canary in the mine shaft, and it should have told us something, but it didn’t; they misread the canary,” says Gullett, who has publicly endorsed Biden. “They doubled down on the right. … How does that make any sense? The Republican Party did not make an adjustment.”
With 38 Electoral College votes, Texas is the region’s biggest prize. It has also been the area’s most resolutely Republican state for the past quarter century.
That shift represents a jarring twist from the state’s long history. A member of the Confederacy, Texas joined the Deep South states in voting so reliably Democratic for more than the first century after the Civil War that it was said locals would back a “yellow dog” before a Republican. Even after Republicans made some initial inroads during the 1960s and 1970s, Democrats controlled most offices in the state through the mid-1980s.
Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic former US representative from El Paso who ran an unexpectedly competitive race as the Democratic Senate nominee against incumbent Ted Cruz in 2018, has watched this history unfold over his own lifetime. When he was a teenager in El Paso during the mid-1980s, Gov. Mark White once held a news conference in the living room of his house. At that point Texas still leaned more toward Democrats, like White, or O’Rourke’s father, an elected county judge.
“My earliest memories of politics are of Texas being a Democratic state,” O’Rourke told me.
“My earliest memories of politics are of Texas being a Democratic state,” O’Rourke told me.
Those state legislative majorities empowered the GOP to draw district lines that allowed it, for the first time since Reconstruction after the Civil War, to control a majority of the state’s congressional delegation; the GOP has likewise maintained that majority ever since. In the four presidential elections from 2000 through 2012, Obama in 2008 was the only Democrat to lose by fewer than 1.2 million votes, and even he was buried by a 950,000-vote deficit.
For years, dreams of a “blue Texas” have been fueled primarily by the unstinting growth in the state’s minority population; States of Change projects that voters of color, mostly Hispanic but also substantial populations of African Americans and Asian Americans, will compose fully two-fifths of Texas voters next month, up from about one-third in 2004. But while the number of Hispanic voters has steadily increased, Democrats have struggled enormously to register them and turn them out at anywhere near their full weight — in part because state Republicans have passed some of the nation’s most restrictive voting laws, on everything from registration to voter identification. Lydia Camarillo, president of the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, has described Texas as the state with “the most pronounced, overt, racist voter suppression tactics.”
Compounding that problem, Democrats have failed to sufficiently invest in organizing Hispanic voters, particularly in the lower-income Rio Grande Valley, which is so reliably Democratic that the key elections that spur turnout are primaries in the spring, not general elections in the fall, Camarillo notes. The result is that, despite the explosive population growth, Hispanic registration in the state remains at “more or less the same place,” she says, with about 2.8 million registered and a roughly equal number eligible but not signed up to vote.
One final factor has diminished the prospect of Hispanic voters tipping the state’s political balance: From Bush through current Gov. Greg Abbott, many GOP politicians have found a substantial audience among them, particularly socially conservative older voters.
Even with all these limitations, the sheer shift in the voting population has boosted Democrats. But the more powerful factor that has lifted Democrats’ prospects is that the nationwide movement away from the GOP in big metro areas is finally arriving in Texas. In 2018, O’Rourke became the first Democrat at the top of the ticket since Johnson in 1964 to carry all four of the state’s largest metropolitan areas — Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio and their surrounding counties — according to a study by University of Houston political scientists. As recently as 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney had won 55% of the vote in those same places.
Since 2018, the recoil from Trump and the GOP in the big metro areas has continued, creating expanding opportunities for Democrats. O’Rourke improved not only in core urban centers but also previously red-leaning suburban counties such as Collin, Fort Bend and Williamson, and Democrats are aggressively pushing at those openings. Texas suburbanites aren’t as liberal as their northern counterparts, in part because many are evangelical Christians. But enough have loosened from their GOP moorings (or arrived from elsewhere with more centrist views) that Democrats are now contesting almost all of the Republican-held US House seats inside the Texas Triangle, and enough state House seats in the same areas to give them a plausible path to a majority.
“Biden’s strength in suburban areas is playing out in a huge way in Texas,” says Democratic pollster Emily Goodman, who polls in the state. Biden is positioned to run much better in Texas than Hillary Clinton did, she says, largely because he’s gained substantial ground in “a lot of those suburban areas where we are also seeing competitive congressional and state House races as well.”
O’Rourke, whose political group Powered by People is working intently on the state contests, predicts that Biden will be lifted by “reverse coattails,” from state House candidates who are “exciting and expanding the electorate.”
Both sides agree that Trump’s enormous strength in Texas’ sprawling rural areas may allow him to win the state even if he slips further in the large metros. (While Biden has regained measurable ground among Whites without college degrees in the North, public polls in Texas still show Trump winning as much as 72% of them there.) But whether or not Trump holds on, a big Biden lead in the largest metropolitan areas could propel Democrats to substantial congressional and state House gains. And even as those metros drive the vast majority of the state’s propulsive population growth, Abbott and other state GOP leaders are pursuing an ever-more-adversarial posture toward them, moving to override the decisions of local Democratic officials on everything from mask-wearing to police funding.
“It’s hard to come to another conclusion but that the Texas Republican Party is at war with communities of color, with cities, with the suburbs now, and it’s reflected in the polling that you are seeing,” O’Rourke says.
The giant metro areas of the Southwest — from Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio to Phoenix, Las Vegas and Denver — appear poised to repudiate Trump next month in numbers that will reconfigure the region’s political landscape. Strength among rural and blue-collar Whites in Texas, maybe Arizona and conceivably (though much less likely) Nevada could allow the GOP to withstand that surge. But if Republicans can’t reverse their losses in these explosively growing Southwestern metros, the balance of political power in not just the region, but also the nation, could increasingly tilt away from them through the decade to come.
Ronald Brownstein is a CNN senior political analyst, regularly appearing across the network’s programming and special political coverage..