October 29, 2020

Although Texas is nowadays considered the Republican state ne plus ultra, it was not always thus. In fact, for over 100 years after Reconstruction, the Democratic Party dominated politics in the Lone Star state and the GOP could barely get a look in. Texans didn’t elect a Republican to Congress until 1961 and it took decades for the state to turn red; there were still Democrats holding statewide office right up until 1998.

Yet as far as presidents go, it’s been a while since a majority of Texans voted for a Democrat — nearly half a century, in fact. The last time it happened was 1976, when residents of the state opted for Jimmy Carter over the Nixon-pardoning Gerald Ford. Back then, Emmanuel Macron was still two years away from being born and Joe Biden was but a bonnie wee laddie of 34, serving out the first of his seven terms in the Senate. We hadn’t yet hit peak disco, let alone gone through the backlash and subsequent revival, and nobody knew who Darth Vader was. Needless to say, things didn’t exactly end well for Carter and since then, Texans have steered well clear of Democratic candidates for president.

Until now, perhaps. With less than a week to go before the election, and at least one poll showing that Biden might be slightly ahead in Texas, the question of whether the Democrats could finally break a decades-long losing streak and score electoral victory in the Lone Star State is filling the party (and pundits) with a sense of nervous excitement.

A Biden victory in Texas is regarded as a prelude to flipping the entire state, reversing the Republicans’ vice-like grip on Lone Star politics, from the presidency downwards. In this scenario, the prophecy of The Emerging Democratic Majority will at long last be fulfilled: the Republicans will be reduced to a rump of elderly trailer-dwelling deplorables clinging to their guns and scratched Duck Dynasty DVDs, while the youthful, diverse, progressive Democrats shall enjoy political hegemony forever and ever, amen.

Is their hope misplaced? Recently, it seemed that reports of the demise of the Republican Party in Texas were greatly exaggerated, to say the least. Consider, for instance, the lightning fast rise-and-fall of Democrat Wendy Davis, the Harvard-trained lawyer and Texas state senator who in 2013 became briefly famous for filibustering a bill that would have placed numerous restrictions on abortion in the state.

Davis not only made headlines on CNN and in the pages of the NYT but some parts of the British media also did that weird self-colonising thing where they reported on US regional politics with far more interest than they do their own. The Guardian in particular dedicated lots of column inches to Davis, including a particularly hard-hitting piece of reporting on how the trainers she wore during her filibuster had become the bestselling shoe on Amazon and an “unlikely feminist symbol”.

The attention went to Davis’s head: she published a memoir (17 copies going used on Amazon, from $0.08) and then, in 2014, ran for governor against the Republican incumbent Greg Abbott, only to lose by over 20 percentage points. Davis promptly vanished from the scene (although she is having a stab at entering the House of Representatives this year).

Yet despite Davis’s failure, her campaign for governor was significant in at least one respect: having achieved fame as an abortion rights campaigner she did not feel the need to represent herself as a “blue dog” or conservative Democrat. She was, essentially, very similar to the “progressive” type of Democrat you might find on the ballot elsewhere in America, except for her shameless pandering on guns (during her campaign Davis claimed to support the open carry of handguns, a position she denounced almost immediately upon losing.)

Because Davis’s campaign was so obviously a hallucinatory byproduct of Democrat wishful thinking and national media fantasising, I was initially equally dismissive of the “Beto” phenomenon. When the representative from El Paso announced he would challenge Ted Cruz for his Senate seat in 2018, nobody knew much about him; I read that he was from El Paso, spoke fluent Spanish and campaigned where other Democrats feared to tread, and that was about it. It was some time before I saw a photograph of him and was surprised to discover that, despite the Spanish nickname, “Beto” was actually Robert O’Rourke, an Irish-American almost as pale as myself — a Scotsman who didn’t see the sun until he was about 20 years old.

However, despite the fact that O’Rourke was the subject of giddy national media coverage just as Wendy Davis had been, his sudden rise to prominence seemed different. Despite the flood of endorsements from such incisive political thinkers as Beyoncé, Jim Carrey and Willie Nelson, there was also a genuine grassroots excitement around O’Rourke. “Beto for Senate” signs were proliferating on lawns like an invasive species and lots of people I knew were talking about him with cautious optimism. Texas Democrats, after decades of tilting at windmills, were allowing themselves to believe that it might finally happen this time. Betomania was certainly not at Obama ’08 levels, but the stakes were also lower — whereas Obama was running for leader of the free world, O’Rourke had merely set his sights on unseating Ted “No Mates” Cruz, a Tea Party obstructionist widely reviled even by fellow Republicans.

But there was another significant difference. Where Obama’s rise represented something new and genuinely progressive in American politics and culture, so O’Rourke’s was a variation on a very old theme. The wunderkind from nowhere was actually the pampered scion of the establishment; not only was he the son of Pat O’Rourke, an El Paso judge and Democrat Party apparatchik, he was also the step-grandson of Fred Korth, JFK’s secretary of the navy. After receiving the obligatory Ivy League education, he worked for his family or ran businesses where members of his family were either financial backers or significant clients, and along the way married the daughter of a real estate billionaire.

He then ran for the El Paso city council, where he distinguished himself by supporting a plan to redevelop a Hispanic neighbourhood in which his real estate mogul father-in-law was an investor. Then, when this horny-handed son of toil decided he’d like a seat in congress, one of his father-in-law’s companies contributed $37,500 to a $240,000 campaign against the incumbent, farmer’s son Silvestre Reyes. Inspiring!

Of course, most people weren’t looking all that closely at O’Rourke’s bona fides and in the end he couldn’t quite get it over the line. He did, however, spend a ton of money and set a new record for the most votes ever cast for a Democrat in Texas, finishing a mere two percentage points behind a very nervous Cruz. Like Davis, O’Rourke had not disguised his progressive leanings, but unlike Davis he managed to inspire hope among Texas Democrats that victory was within reach. In Williamson County, where I live — traditionally a conservative stronghold — O’Rourke beat Cruz by almost three points in 2018. The Democrats did not get the “blue wave” they had hoped for, but they made Republicans anxious in a way they hadn’t been for decades. O’Rourke had put them on notice.

Which brings us to 2020. Things are changing so rapidly it is difficult to keep up. O’Rourke, of course, jumped the shark in the eyes of many following his spectacularly unsuccessful campaign to win the Democratic nomination for president, but he still has believers in Texas. The Democratic candidate for my district touts his endorsement. His portrait is bigger than hers on her own posters. With the exception of Fort Worth, all the major cities in Texas — Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso — have Democrat mayors, and as Texas attracts more and more emigrants from California to the cities and suburbs, it is common to hear complaints that these new arrivals are changing the political culture by voting for the very same high tax, regulation-heavy progressive policies that would turn Texas into the type of place they just left. Meanwhile, polling indicates that white, college-educated voters in the hitherto reliably red-voting suburbs are shifting towards the Democrats and that up to a third of Texas’s Republican congressional seats may be up for grabs.

If Texas turns blue, or even a shade of purple, it could have a major impact on national politics long-term. Today, Texas is second only to California for electoral votes (38 to 55) and thanks to its growing population, it will have 41 by the next election (while California might actually lose influence). Meanwhile, not only is the population of Texas growing, but its demographics are changing; it is already a majority-minority state.

That the Republican establishment will now have to contend with a more competitive state seems undeniable. The extent to which they are willing or able to adapt to a changing Texas without alienating their base will be key to their fortunes. Yet the overall picture may be more ambiguous than it seems.

One of the most striking things about O’Rourke’s Senate campaign was that he actually polled higher among native born Texans in his Senate race than he did among those who have moved to the state. Therefore, rather than turning the state blue, it may well be that some of those new arrivals, having fled progressive strongholds, are aligning with rural voters with Trump flags flying over their properties and actively resisting the drift towards the Democrats. It also remains to be seen whether the shift in the suburbs represents an epochal turn towards the Democrats or simply disgust at the hi-jinks of this particular president and his enablers. Trump, meanwhile, has made gains among black and Latino voters. Could a less obnoxious populist a few years from now build on those gains and chip away further at the Democrats’ lead among minority voters?

As for whether Texas will finally elect a Democrat for president, well — even Biden seems doubtful. Having splurged a lot of cash earlier in the campaign he is resisting pleas to spend more money in the state,  so that well-known billionaire of the people, Michael Bloomberg, a man with no fear of setting fire to his own money, has chipped in to make up the shortfall. And yet regardless of the outcome next Tuesday, I think the Democrats can be sure of at least one thing: they will not have to wait the century the Republicans did before they start winning elections in Texas again.