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.”