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Could die-hard Republican Texas really turn Democrat?

Ted Cruz. Credit: Richard Ellis / Getty

September 26, 2018   5 mins

Two years ago, Texas Senator Ted Cruz was Donald Trump’s strongest competitor for the Republican presidential nomination. Today, polls show he could lose his bid for re-election in what, for decades, has been one of the most Republican states in the Union. Why this is so tells us much about the tectonic shift American politics is experiencing.

Cruz is, in many ways, the embodiment of his native state. Like many of his fellow Texans, Cruz strikes most people as brash, aggressive, fiercely nationalistic, unapologetically religious, and protective of his liberties. For native Texans, that’s just fine. There’s a reason the state adopted “Don’t Mess With Texas” as its motto for an anti-litter campaign. The swagger and not-so-subtle underlying threat fit the state’s traditional mentality to a T.

These sensibilities run deep; they stem from Texas’ origins as an independent republic with its own War for Independence. Every Texan learns in school about the defenders of the Alamo, a church mission in San Antonio whose 200 Texan soldiers were slaughtered by Mexican President and general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. “Victory or Death”, the doomed men’s commander William Travis had written in a call for aid, a statement Texans revere in the manner the ancients honoured Leonidas and the stand of his Spartans at Thermopylae. The inscription on the monument commemorating the battle in which Texas won its independence also aptly summarises that mindset: “The slaughter was appalling, victory complete, and Texas free!”

Like much of the American South, these sentiments found their original political expression in the Democratic Party. That, however, was when the Democrats were the party of the farmer and the less-educated – and of the defeated, former slaveholding Confederate States of America. As Democrats have moved in the past 25 years towards becoming the party of the very poor, the non-White, and the secular White urbanite, these values now find their expression in an unyielding and pugnacious support for the Republican Party.

But Texas, like America, is changing. The state has always been home to a large black population: it was once a slave-holding state and had joined the Confederacy during the American Civil War. More recently, though, its robust economic growth has attracted millions of migrants.

Many come from other parts of the United States – and bring with them their non-Texan upbringing and values. Millions more come from Mexico, attracted by economic opportunity and freedom. The result is that native Texans are increasingly declining in power and influence in their own state.

These demographic changes are slowly making Texas more open to electing a Democrat. The state is already projected to have a majority of ethnic minorities in the eligible voter pool by 2020. Since non-whites typically vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, Cruz’s path to victory will require winning large majorities among native Texans and smaller, but still substantial, majorities among the non-Texan whites who now live there.

Cruz is in trouble. Both his own past acts and his present attitude towards President Trump anger many in the that latter group of settlers. He started his young Senate career by viciously attacking the more centrist Republicans, going so far as to call the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar. He also took aim at Trump during the 2016 campaign, attacking Trump’s character and calling his foe a “pathological liar” and a “narcissist”.

He pointedly refused to endorse Trump at first, even after he lost the nomination, telling the Republican delegates at the national convention to “vote your conscience” in November. He soon changed course, however, endorsing Trump by late September. He now suffers among both anti-Trump Republicans who hate his current stance, and early Trump backers who haven’t forgotten.

There are a lot of anti-Trump Republicans in Texas, in part because of the legacy of the two presidents Bush. Both men were and remain popular among the non-native Texan whites. Like elsewhere in America, they tend to be highly-educated, affluent, and live in suburbs. While similar voters across America abandoned Trump’s Republicans for Hillary Clinton, the shift was particularly strong in Texas, and especially in the neighbourhoods where the Bushes lived or had made their careers. These people remain openly hostile to Trump Republicanism and intend to cast out his GOP allies even if that means electing a (gasp) Democrat for the first time in more than a quarter of a century.

Cruz’s Democratic opponent, El Paso-area Congressman Beto O’Rourke, is tailor-made to attract these voters and add them to the growing Democratic ranks. He is young, only 45 years old, and graduated from an elite university. He has positioned himself as a centrist and has worked with Republicans in Congress. He is also fluent in Spanish and his Congressional district has one of the highest number of Hispanics in the nation. Pro-choice on abortion and pro-LGBT rights, he also shares the views of the Democratic Party’s identity politics wing. The combination of these attributes makes him a formidable opponent.

Texas’ demographic shifts are visible in the polls. While they differ in whether Cruz is ahead by nine pointsfour points, or is essentially tied with O’Rourke, the underlying breakdowns are remarkably similar. O’Rouke wins 90% or so among Democrats and carries the young and non-white voters, while Cruz runs well with voters who still call themselves Republicans and among non-college-educated whites.

College-educated whites are more evenly split, and two polls sponsored by The New York Times show O’Rourke ahead in the two most affluent and best-educated Congressional Districts in the state, the 7thand the 32d, seats that Republican nominee Mitt Romney carried by between 15% and 21% just six years ago.

The shifts in Texas, then, are very similar to those Britain experienced in its 2017 general election. In that race, the Labour Party received enthusiastic support from non-whites and the young, and were the beneficiaries of large swings in support among educated, affluent anti-Brexit Tories. It rode these trends to unexpected and historic victories in British constituencies similar to the 7thand 32nd districts, such as Canterbury and Kensington. Even in Texas, politics is increasingly less about Left versus Right than In versus Out.

Cruz will probably still prevail. Just as the Tories still carried extremely Conservative seats such as Richmond Park, despite the strong upper-income swing against them, so too Texas remains so Republican that even a candidate like O’Rourke will need the stars to align even for a narrow win. Cruz will also benefit from the type of increased support among less-educated whites that Teresa May’s party obtained outside the affluent south of England in places like Stoke-on-Trent.

While the peculiarities of Britain’s political demography meant that the Tories lost seats in 2017, they won the popular vote with this working-class backing despite the surge in Labour voting among the young, the non-white, and the rich. Texas’s Senate seat is a first-past-the-post election, and accordingly Cruz, like May, should also narrowly prevail in a statewide ballot.

The fact that these divisions are now present even in the very distinctive culture of Texas – which has not elected a Democrat in either senate seat or as governor since the early 1990s – demonstrates how global in scope our political divisions are. Educated and non-educated white Texans may both wear big hats, hunt, and attend church more frequently than their counterparts in London or Newcastle, but they are moving politically in similar directions and for similar reasons.

And just as Brexit has divided Britain down the middle, with both sides engaged in an increasingly bitter battle to achieve what we at UnHerd call “hegemonia”, so too are Americans divided against themselves in a rancorous battle for supremacy.

Quoting the Gospel of Mark, the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln famously declared that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. Texas – like America, like Britain, like much of the West – is a house divided. Ted Cruz may emerge from his own Alamo bloodied but alive, but the same may not be said of his nation unless these divisions are resolved.

Henry Olsen is Editor of UnHerd.com’s Flyover Country theme and a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of ‘The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism’.


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