SAN ANTONIO (CN) — On the last day to register to vote in Texas for next month’s elections, not far from where former Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro announced his 2020 bid on San Antonio’s south side, an old bank-turned-law firm became the latest indicator that the country’s largest red state may be on the verge of becoming competitive for Democrats for the first time in the modern era.
Billed as a “2020 drive-thru” where supporters could scoop up yard signs and other campaign swag being offered by the Bexar County Democratic Party, the rare in-person campaign event in a year upended by the Covid-19 pandemic brought out a few hundred vehicles, masked candidates and an appearance by lawyer Doug Emhoff, the husband of Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris.
“He made a surprise guest appearance,” said Robert Vargas III, a senior adviser to the Bexar County Victory 2020 Campaign who helped organize the event. “Democrats see Texas as a battleground state and they have decided to invest quite a bit of money in media buys within Texas and so the soon-to-be second gentleman of the United States made his way into Bexar County and it was a pleasant surprise.”
It’s a long shot scenario in an unconventional year, but the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump and a surge of new voter registrations in Texas has left open the real possibility that the once-reliable reddest of red states could also be the unlikeliest of battlegrounds.
Such a scenario would spell consequences beyond the high-stakes battle for the White House, potentially disrupting political norms for congressional candidates in the roughly dozen races across the state targeted by both Democrats and Republicans, and could affect which party gains control of the Texas House of Representatives.
Democrats are just nine seats away from winning a majority of the 150-seat Texas House after having picked up 12 seats in 2018 when enthusiasm for former Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s blockbuster Senate run fueled higher than normal turnout.
O’Rourke’s showing on Election Day, he came within 2.5 percentage points of defeating Senator Ted Cruz, set Texas Democrats on a two-year crusade to convince voters and national party leaders that they can close the curtain on the GOP’s statewide winning streak dating back to 1996.
Mark. P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy, said this year’s election is the first since 2002 where a real doubt exists about who would be winning statewide, “in large part due to Donald Trump.”
“Absent Donald Trump’s presence in the Oval Office, Texas would not be competitive this cycle,” Jones said. “But the reality is Donald Trump is president of the United States and his presence at the top of the ticket is pulling almost all of the Republicans in Texas down, from John Cornyn in the Senate, to the two dozen Republican Texas House candidates in competitive races.”
Democrats were encouraged this week by a Public Policy Polling survey that put Biden ahead of Trump by one percentage point for the first time this year, 49% to 48%. The poll was a contrast to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released Friday that showed Trump leading Biden by five points in the state.
“Texas has added at least 1.5 million new voters to the voting rolls since 2016,” said Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Manny Garcia. “Texas is changing right before our very own eyes, becoming younger and more diverse, and Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the rest of the Texas Democratic ticket are responding to the needs and demands of all Texans.”
Massive voter registration drives by both parties brought the total of registered Texan voters to 16.6 million as of September, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. That number will rise once officials release numbers through the Oct. 5 voter registration cutoff, a spokesman said.
But Republicans won’t let the Lone Star State go without a fight, nor will they concede the idea that the state and its 38 electoral votes are in play. GOP party officials say they’re seeing successes with their biggest voter outreach effort in decades and expressed confidence that Trump would at least maintain his 9-point lead he achieved in 2016.
Trump on Thursday evening used Twitter to predict a victory in Texas.
“Biden is against Oil, Guns and Religion, a very bad combination to be fighting in the Great State of Texas,” Trump tweeted. “We are Winning Big in the Real Polls, all over the Country!!! November 3rd. VOTE!!!”
The political divide in Texas is no more evident than the battle brewing between Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones and Republican Tony Gonzales in the open district being vacated by Congressman Will Hurd, one of six congressional Republicans to opt out of reelection in 2020.
“My opponent is a liberal, left Democrat,” Gonzales said during a debate on Thursday. “Her first vote in office is going to be to elect Nancy Pelosi as the next Speaker of the House, that’s her first vote.”
Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer, and Gonzales, a Navy veteran and career cryptologist, are both products of San Antonio who spent the better part of their careers serving in the military before landing government positions. But that’s about all they have in common in a race shaped by border security, health care and coronavirus.
“You want to talk about being out of touch with the district, people need quality affordable healthcare,” Jones said. “My opponent supports eliminating the ACA and its protections for people with pre-existing conditions like Covid-19.”
A first-generation Filipina-American who served as an intelligence analyst in the Obama administration, Jones came just 926 votes short of defeating Hurd in the 2018 midterms. It was a true-to-form battle in a congressional district that has remained one of the state’s few swing districts since its lines were drawn in 2006.
With the district already trending Democratic, The Cook Political Report rates it as “lean Democratic.” Jones has outraised Gonzales in each fundraising cycle, making her better-positioned to flip the sprawling district now than she was two years ago when facing a better-funded incumbent. She won endorsements from national progressive groups as well as Biden and former President Barack Obama.
But the Trump-backed Gonzales, who is also endorsed by leading Republicans in the state including Hurd, has blasted Jones as being “too liberal for Texas.” He has repeatedly accused her of being a Washington D.C. resident, a claim Jones has rejected as “baseless attacks and lies” that has also been roundly discredited by multiple independent reports as untrue.
“My opponent has been lying about this and it’s unfortunate because I know that there is somebody at home right now that’s lost somebody to Covid-19,” Jones said, adding that she lives in her childhood home on the city’s west side.
Freshman Congressman Chip Roy is also locked in a close race for Texas’ 21st Congressional District with former state Senator Wendy Davis, the Democratic Party’s 2014 nominee for governor who rose to prominence when she famously spent 11 straight hours filibustering against a Republican-led anti-abortion bill in the Texas Senate. Roy’s district has been in Democratic crosshairs since he narrowly won re-election by about 2.5 points two years ago.
The race is one of about a dozen congressional districts targeted by the Democratic National Campaign Committee as a seat they hope to pick up from Republicans.
Polls also show Democratic Senate nominee MJ Hegar catching up to Cornyn, a former state Supreme Court justice who is seeking a fourth term. A recent Daily Kos/Civiqs poll Wednesday found Hegar, who served three tours in Afghanistan as a helicopter pilot, trailing by one point.
While the race hasn’t attracted as much national attention as the Cruz/O’Rourke match-up of 2018, Cornyn is still facing what political watchers are calling his toughest reelection match since winning the seat in 2002 when Republican Senator Phil Gramm retired.
“I don’t believe we need to make Texas like Chuck Schumer’s New York or Nancy Pelosi’s California, which is the policies embraced by my opponent. We need to make the rest of the country more like Texas,” Cornyn said Friday at their first and only scheduled debate.
“Hi, I’m MJ Hegar,” she said quickly, turning to face Cornyn directly at one of the more testier exchanges of the night. “I’m a Purple Heart combat veteran and working mom of two and I am your opponent. I’m the person you’re running against as inconvenient as that is for you.”
Over a dozen legal challenges in Texas surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on the 2020 elections have been filed since March, according to an analysis of cases in Texas courts covered by Courthouse News.
Late Friday, a federal judge blocked Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s Oct. 1 executive order limiting absentee ballot drop-off sites to just one per county, a widely criticized move that ignited immediate furor and litigation from voting rights advocates as a last-minute voter suppression tactic.
“By limiting to one location per county where tens of thousands of ballots would need to be dropped off, an unreasonable burden would be created especially in large metropolitan areas like Harris County,” said Luis Roberto Vera Jr, general counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens which brought the lawsuit. “The judge agreed with us and the injunction he issued prevents Governor Abbott from doing so.”
Abbott appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which issued a stay of the order.
Other lawsuits include a challenge that forced Texas to abide by the federal “motor voter” law by making online voter registration available to residents renewing or applying for a driver’s license or change-of-address, while others continue to work their way through the courts.
As the three-week early voting period opens Tuesday in Texas, and polls show closer-than-usual races from the presidential match-up, to state house and congressional races, Democratic campaigns and outside organizations are continuing to make major investments at levels not seen in over two decades.
The latest came in the form of a Biden campaign $6 million ad buy earlier this week, a major increase from the spending Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign made in Texas, the second most expensive state in the country to campaign in with 20 media markets.
But on Monday, Texas Democrats will receive an assist from some of the biggest stars in the Democratic Party. Oprah Winfrey, Willie Nelson, Senator Bernie Sanders and Castro are set to join O’Rourke and his political action committee, Powered By People, to help run a massive phone bank operation being touted as the “largest single-day voter contact effort in Texas history.”
It is, perhaps, yet another sign that all eyes are on Texas.