by Susan Crabtree
In a week when Republican anger over President Trump’s foreign policy managed to supplant the Democrats’ impeachment push in top news headlines, Trump sought refuge in a state that looks and feels just about as different as can be from Washington, D.C.
Trump made the 12th visit to Texas of his presidency, basking Thursday night in the adulation of sign-waving supporters who formed a sea of red “Make America Great Again” hats sprinkled with white “Trump 2020” ten-gallons.
“I’m thrilled to be here deep in the heart of Texas,” the president told the roaring, 20,000-strong crowd at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. “There has never been a better time to be a proud Texan.”
He was likely referring to the Lone Star State’s strong economy, which has grown even more robust during his presidency with the creation of close to 800,000 new jobs, including 70,000 in the manufacturing sector since the end of 2016.
“That compares to 55,000 manufacturing jobs lost under President Obama,” said Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale. “And with his dedication to supporting and expanding the energy industry, President Trump will help grow the Texas economy even more after he’s reelected.”
But Trump’s “no better time” assertion rings a little hollow when it comes to Texas Republicans. The once crimson state is tinging purple as its Hispanic population grows and new residents pour in from California and other more liberal-leaning states.
In 2018, the same year Beto O’Rourke came close to defeating Sen. Ted Cruz, Democrats made big gains across the board, flipping two House seats, two Texas state Senate seats and 12 Texas House seats, even in some traditionally conservative bastions.
The GOP leader of the Texas House of Representatives is now engulfed in his own scandal for a caught-on-tape moment saying Trump is “killing us” in suburban districts. The same recording had Speaker Dennis Bonnen granting a longtime request from the head of a conservative group to gain media credentials in exchange for the leader’s help in defeating 10 moderate House Republican incumbents.
Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee started branding Texas a battleground state, and several recent polls have shown Democratic presidential candidates defeating Trump there. A Quinnipiac poll released last month found 48% of Texas voters said they definitely wouldn’t vote for his reelection.
After the 2016 polling disasters, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions from any such surveys, and Republican operatives are quick to call 2018 a flash in the pan that follows the historic pattern of the incumbent president’s party losing big in the midterms, even for those presidents who went on to soundly win second terms.
“Donald Trump isn’t going to lose Texas,” the president said to thunderous applause at the Dallas rally.
Moreover, Republicans point out, Texas Democrats made those gains before national Democrats and the 2020 presidential contenders make a hard-left turn, leading an impeachment investigation against Trump and making “Medicare for All” the new party orthodoxy, along with expansive Green New Deal programs banning fossil fuels.
While Joe Biden could move back toward the center in a general election matchup against the president — if he stops his campaign’s steady slide — Elizabeth Warren, the new Democratic front-runner, is leaving no room to do so.
It’s a dynamic Trump drove home in his Dallas rally remarks.
“The more America achieves, the more hateful and enraged these crazy Democrats become,” he said to boos from the crowd.
“At stake is the survival of American democracy,” he added. “They are destroying this country, but we will never let that happen.”
Trump laced into O’Rourke, who was holding a nearby rally of his own, as a prime example. The former congressman has pledged to “go after” Americans’ guns and this week proposed a mandatory buy-back of assault rifles and also promised to try to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches and other religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage.
“Beto, in a few short weeks, got rid of guns and got rid of religion,” Trump said. “Those are not two good things in Texas to get rid of.”
Still, the Republican Party and the Trump campaign are leaving nothing to chance. Trump’s repeat visits to Texas – Thursday marked his third rally there this year — obviously means less time he can spend in the true battlegrounds of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump, however, is trying to avoid the stigma of being the first Republican to lose Texas in a presidential contest since the state went for Jimmy Carter in 1976.
GOP officials say Democrats, especially after going through a bruising and expensive primary process, won’t be able to compete with their party’s hard-wired ground game. It’s the third straight election cycle in which the Republican National Committee has had paid staff in Texas, and the current staff covers all 254 counties in the state, RNC officials said.
“As Democrats in 2016 can attest, we’ve seen what happens when a party takes states, and its voters, for granted,” RNC Press Secretary Blair Ellis told RealClearPolitics. “That’s exactly why the president and the RNC have been investing in states like Texas for several cycles and we continue to place such an emphasis on growing our infrastructure, organizing in communities and training.”
Democrats have played up Trump’s tough stance on immigration and divisive rhetoric as a reason he’s turning off the growing Hispanic vote in Texas and promise to drive that message home throughout the state.
O’Rourke on Thursday once again tried to tie one of Trump’s earlier Texas rallies to the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso.
“We know that in those communities that have hosted a rally by Donald Trump, we’ve seen hate crimes on the rise more than 200%,” O’Rourke said. “In fact, in El Paso, Texas, preceding that massacre and that act of terror in Texas, there was a Donald Trump rally in February.”
O’Rourke also criticized the administration’s family separation and other immigration policies, which he said have created fear. “We cannot sit idly by and in our silence be complicit in the violence and the terror and racism that exists in this country at unprecedented levels in our lifetime,” O’Rourke said. “So we stand together and we stand against fear.”
Republicans, however, argue that Hispanics, who largely oppose abortion, value their faith and hold other traditional values, are not monolithic in their voting.
RNC data shows there are roughly 1 million Hispanics in the state that are more open to voting for Trump than there were in 2016.
It also doesn’t hurt, GOP officials argue, that Hispanic unemployment has reached historic lows under Trump and Hispanic-owned businesses across the country are growing rapidly — more than twice the rate of all businesses since 2016.
At the end of Trump’s Thursday’s rally, Sen. John Cornyn, who is in the campaign fight of his lifetime, urged the president and fellow Republicans to remain vigilant about stemming any blue tide rising in Texas.
Before Trump spoke, Cornyn told the audience that Texas Democrats are preparing a strong ground game of their own.
“If they take Texas, they will take the White House,” he warned the crowd.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.