How Texas Turned Purple

Whatever happens Tuesday, Democrats have put the Lone Star State in play.

by Adam Serwer

No one knows what is going to happen in Texas on Election Day.

And it’s been decades since anyone could say that.

“The raw numbers in Texas, and the year-to-year or the election-to-election increase [in voter turnout] is really, you know, fairly stunning,” James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project, told me. “Texas is competitive this year, and it’s much more competitive than we’ve seen for 20 years.”

Texas’s electoral votes haven’t gone to a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter won the state in 1976. No Democrat has won a statewide election since 1994, the same year Governor Ann Richards lost to George W. Bush. The state, and its political identity, has seemed synonymous with a certain kind of conservatism since Star Trek: The Next Generation aired its final episode. But today Democrats are hoping to gain control of the state House for the first time in 17 years, and maybe even hand Texas’s 38 electoral votes to Joe Biden.

“For the longest time, when you think about parties in Texas—for instance, under the Obama era, it was the Tea Party versus the more mainstream conservatives—Democrats just simply didn’t have the numbers to really make much of an impact,” Emily Farris, a professor at Texas Christian University, told me. “It’s just such a huge shift.”

More than 9 million Texans voted early this year, more than the total number who voted in 2016, and the Election Day numbers are yet to come. According to data collected by The Texas Tribune, the state will likely reach a turnout rate of more than 60 percent, a level unseen since the 1990s.

For a state that has long had one of the lowest turnout rates in the country, the change is remarkable, and it makes the outcome of this year’s elections impossible to foresee with any confidence. Turnout is up in metropolitan areas where Democrats hope to draw most of their votes from, but turnout is up in Republican areas too. Even if Biden doesn’t flip the state at the presidential level, Democrats might take the state House, giving them much more of a say in the upcoming redistricting process, which helped lock them out of power the last time it took place.

“I think it’s much harder to predict, because there are so many people who haven’t participated in a primary before,” Sylvia Manzano, a principal at Latino Decisions, a polling firm that specializes in Hispanic-public-opinion surveys, told me. (Voters need not sign up with a party, but analysts often determine party affiliation by looking to see in which primary voters last participated.) “The suburbs have grown, and so it’s harder to say, ‘Oh, well, you know, it’s up in Collin County, or it’s up in Fort Bend County; that must mean more Trump votes. Not necessarily, because those counties are diversifying. There’s also more young people participating. So that does make it tricky.”

What happened to Texas? Democrats’ victories in 2018 shifted control of a number of local offices, which allowed them to make voting in those jurisdictions easier. Years of work from the Democratic Party and local activists, aiming to turn out left-leaning voters, have started to pay off. Texas Governor Greg Abbott also expanded the early-voting period from one week to two weeks (much to the frustration of his own party, which sued him over it), although he later tried to suppress votes in populous counties by allowing them to have only one ballot dropbox each. As Texas Monthly’s Christopher Hooks writes, Abbott is facing criticism from the left for being ineffective in suppressing the coronavirus pandemic, and from the right for undertaking any restrictive public-health measures at all.

The national trends at work during the Trump era are also changing Texas. The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the state, killing almost 20,000 people and slowing the economy. Black and Latino voters in Texas, as elsewhere in the country, have suffered disproportionately from the effects of the pandemic. College-educated white voters, meanwhile, have shifted away from the Republican Party. And looming over it all is Donald Trump, who inspires tremendous intensity of feeling among both his supporters and his detractors.

“Donald Trump is a turnout and motivation machine for both Republicans and Democrats,” Henson said. “I think we saw that in 2018, and we’re seeing that now.”

Democrats have been hoping for Texas to become purple for decades—the state’s demographics are similar to California’s, but its white population is much more conservative, and its voting population less diverse than the state at large. Statewide, Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of the population but accounted for only about 30 percent of the electorate in 2018, while non-Hispanic white voters made up 56 percent of the 2018 electorate even though they make up only about 40 percent of the population. With the surge in turnout however, it’s anyone’s guess what the Texas electorate actually looks like this year.

The short version of the story of Texas’s and California’s divergent fates goes something like this: Unlike in California, where Republicans embraced an anti-immigrant politics that compelled Latino residents to organize politically to defeat them, in Texas, the Republican Party was dominated until relatively recently by George W. Bush–style immigration moderates instead of Trump-style nativists. And whether because of Trumpism alienating young and college-educated white voters, or because of an influx of white liberals from other states, white voters in Texas appear to have become, on average, more moderate.

Also in the past decade, both Democrats and activist groups have made a concerted effort to shift the state’s politics to the left and help underrepresented groups turn out.

“It’s not coming from D.C. consultants swooping in, bringing people that they worked with in a national campaign, and saying, ‘We’ll fix you,’” Manzano said. “It’s people who know the state, who know their particular piece of the state and their communities.”

These efforts showed real results in the 2018 midterms, when Democrat Beto O’Rourke came within three points of unseating incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Texas’s senior senator, John Cornyn, admitted a few weeks later that “Texas is no longer a reliably red state.”

Texas’s reliable redness, however, is a product of design more than ideology. Texas Republicans have worked hard to raise economic barriers to voting, passing strict voter-ID laws, refusing to allow voters to register online, making it extremely difficult for third parties to register voters, and gerrymandering the state so effectively as to lock Democrats out of power. A study from Northern Illinois University recently found that Texas had the most restrictive voting processes in the country.

“The Republican Party in the last 20 years has been very effective at using the levers of part of government … to their advantage, particularly in the drawing of districts and in the management of voting rules,” Henson said.

That worked for a while. But human beings don’t stay within the lines that have been gerrymandered around them, and the diversification of the suburbs has made once reliably Republican districts more competitive. The Cruz-O’Rourke race was the main event for the national media in 2018, but the undercard was more important than national observers might have guessed. Democrats’ gains in state-level offices have had tangible results. In populous Harris County, where Houston is located, Democratic officials led by County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who was elected in 2018, invested millions of dollars in helping voters cast ballots by setting up 24-hour early voting, introducing drive-through voting, and opening additional polling places—all over the objections of Republicans.

“We have now consistently been talking to voters in all of these major counties and geographies over multiple cycles. And we know that that’s important, building that relationship with voters and showing people that there are groups like ours and other groups and labor organizations that are not just going to talk to you one cycle or wait before Election Day. We’re talking to you all the time,” Crystal Zermeño, the strategic director of the Texas Organizing Project, told me. “It’s been less about the Democratic and Republican piece, and just more like, ‘Here’s a person that looks like me, or looks like my sister, looks like my cousin. I helped get that person elected. And here’s the change that they’re making.’”

Texas would be a nice feather in Biden’s cap, but he’s unlikely to need a win there to become president. Flipping the state House, however, would mean that millions of left-leaning Texans who have been shut out of state politics for years would finally have a say in how the state is governed.

In other states, “we really see the presidential race driving turnout and driving a lot of campaigns,” Farris said. “In a lot of the discussion in Texas, that seems to flip. Biden is benefiting from local and statewide races. That’s a really interesting phenomenon that’s a little bit unique here.”

None of this is to say that Biden will win Texas, or that the Democratic Senate candidate MJ Hegar will unseat Cornyn, or that Democrats are a lock to flip the state House. Blue Texas may not be a reality yet, but the days of state politics being just a battle between the right and the center-right could be over.


Adam Serwer  is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.

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