AUSTIN, Texas – Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential hopeful, hired a Texas campaign director and opened offices in at least five cities in the state. Ads for fellow candidate Michael Bloomberg, in English and Spanish, air endlessly on TVs across the state. College students across Texas campuses register to vote in surprising numbers, readying for a chance to choose the next president.
Texas – long a reliably Republican state and historically neglected by Democratic presidential candidates – suddenly finds itself in unfamiliar territory: a relevant and courted state in the middle of a heated Democratic presidential primary season.
During Super Tuesday on March 3, Texas’ 228 delegates will be up for grabs on a proportional basis – the third-largest delegate count of the primary season, behind California and New York. After the muddled results of the Iowa caucuses, in which technical glitches delayed announcing a winner for several days, some candidates, such as Bloomberg, bet that Texas will catapult them into the running, giving the Lone Star State increased significance.
Analysts and observers point to a surge in Democratic activity as a sign that Texas could be competitive in this year’s presidential election, something that hasn’t happened in more than two decades.
“Historically, all the action has been on the Republican side and the Republican primaries,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. “2020 is the year when all the action is on the Democratic side.”
There are still eight Democratic candidates vying for their party’s nomination, making the contest much less certain than in previous election years, Jones said. Candidates have turned their attention and campaign dollars toward Texas.
Last month, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg kicked off a three-day run through Texas with a Houston fundraiser and has visited Austin several times since announcing his run for president, including during last year’s SXSW Conference & Festivals. Other candidates, such as Warren, Julián Castro and John Hickenlooper, also spoke at the event.
The campaign for Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic primary front-runner, announced plans last month for a $2.5 million TV ad buy across Texas and California and is bolstering its Texas staff, according to the Texas Tribune. Former Vice President Joe Biden named a state director in Texas.
Warren began organizing in Texas in July 2019 and started hiring staff in August, opening campaign offices in Austin, Houston and San Antonio. A fourth office will soon open in Fort Worth, according to her campaign.
After dropping out in early January, Castro, a San Antonio native, threw his support behind Warren, but it’s unclear how much he could help. Warren struggled in the first two races in Iowa and New Hampshire, placing no higher than third and garnering just eight delegates.
Her campaign hopes to mine voters in parts of Texas historically overlooked by presidential candidates, such as Laredo and Brownsville in the south, said Natalie Montelongo, a senior strategist with the Warren campaign.
“Growing this grassroots support also means expanding the electorate,” she said.
No candidate is orchestrating a bigger push in Texas than Bloomberg, who opened 19 offices across the state, hired 158 full-time staffers and spends millions of dollars of his own fortune on ads in Texas. Bloomberg, who on Thursday made his fifth trip to Texas since announcing his run for president, skipped campaigning in the earlier states to focus resources on Texas and the other Super Tuesday states, said Elizabeth Lewis, a Texas spokeswoman for the campaign.
Texas’ vast, diverse areas – from the Rio Grande Valley to East and West Texas – mirror the country’s different regions, she said. The extensive groundwork the campaign is laying could be used in the November election to make Texas competitive, Lewis said.
“Texas is America,” she said. “We’re trying to activate every single voter here, so we can turn Texas blue.”
A difference this year from past presidential election cycles is that Democratic candidates are not just quietly fundraising in Texas, then leaving the state – they invest significant face time and campaign dollars, said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.
“That is dramatically different from what this state has experienced in modern history,” he said. “You’re seeing presidential campaigns looking at Texas in a very different way.”
Candidates try to tap into a surging Texas population that tends to be younger, more diverse and urban-dwelling – ideal targets for Democratic campaigns.
Texas added more than 2 million voters since 2014 – or more than the entire voting population of New Mexico, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. An analysis by the Texas Democratic Party showed that 60% of voters added last year were under the age of 35, and a majority were women and people of color, groups that tend to vote for Democrats in Texas, Garcia said.
“It’s a brand new, very young, very diverse electorate in Texas,” he said.
Democrats are trying to break a political hold Republicans have held on the state for a quarter-century. A Democrat hasn’t won a statewide office since 1994, and the last president to win Texas, which carries a hefty 38 Electoral College delegates, was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Republican presidential candidates have easily carried the state by double digits since 2000.
Lately, signs point to that gap closing. Donald Trump won Texas from rival Hillary Clinton by just 9 percentage points. Turnout for the state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary – a metric in measuring party activity – nearly doubled, from 560,000 in 2014 to more than 1 million in 2018, according to the Secretary of State’s office. In the same period, turnout in the Republican gubernatorial primary grew only slightly from 1.4 million to 1.5 million.
“Texas is now the biggest battleground state in the nation,” Garcia said.
Though talk of turning Texas from bright red to purple has been heard before – usually muted by dire results for Democrats – analysts and consultants said this year may prove different. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat and former presidential candidate, fell just 3 percentage points shy of upsetting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for the office in 2018. On the same ticket, Republicans held on to all statewide offices but lost two U.S. House seats and a dozen Texas House seats to Democrats, as well as a string of court of appeal posts and other local races.
“It was a wake-up call for us,” said Robert Stovall, former chairman of the Bexar County GOP and a Republican consultant. “Beto exposed Texas. We lost all the way down the ballot races that we never thought we would lose.”
Buoyed by a strong economy, Texas’s population surge, especially in big cities, is slowly loosening Republicans’ long-held grip on the state, Stovall said. If state Democrats harness those newcomer numbers and register them to vote, this could be the year that Texas is competitive in the presidential general election, he said.
Another sign of Texas’ growing national importance: Trump has visited the state more than a dozen times since taking office, more than any other president in recent memory, Stovall said.
“We cannot afford to lose Texas,” he said. “It’s a linchpin for everything.”
One group that has felt Texas’ Democratic buzz firsthand is MOVE Texas, a nonprofit voter registration group that focuses on young voters. MOVE Texas began in 2016 as a two-person operation registering students on San Antonio college campuses with a budget of $90,000 a year. Today, it operates on 55 campuses in seven cities across Texas, with a staff of 23 full-time employees and an annual budget of $3.8 million.
In January, MOVE Texas registered 7,000 students, ages 18 to 30 – more than double what it expected – and plans to sign up an additional 75,000 voters by the November elections, said Drew Galloway, the group’s executive director. Students are not just registering to vote but also asking how they can volunteer and get others involved, he said.
“What’s happening in Texas this year will be monumental,” Galloway said. “It’ll be exciting to see.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.