X Close

Is Texas turning blue? Democrats in the Lone Star State are starting to get their hopes up

President Ronald Reagan (left) and Vice President George HW Bush pose with cheerleaders during a stop on their reelection campaign, Austin, Texas, July 26, 1984 (Photo Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)

President Ronald Reagan (left) and Vice President George HW Bush pose with cheerleaders during a stop on their reelection campaign, Austin, Texas, July 26, 1984 (Photo Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)


October 29, 2020   6 mins

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 BeyoncĂ©, 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.


Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.

Daniel_Kalder

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

18 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
ard10027
ard10027
3 years ago

Texas, like most of the American South, was Democrat for a century because the Democrats were passing Jim Crow laws. Interestingly, these laws are always presented as “southern”, never “Democrat”, notwithstanding that every single one of them, without qualification or exception, was passed by a Democrat legislature, signed into law by a Democrat governor and enforced by Democrat officials. Equally interesting, the South turned Republican as it moved away from racism. So which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
3 years ago
Reply to  ard10027

To the leftists who scream “the parties changed places” – they did NOT. For example the Republicans who have dominated Eastern Tennessee since the Civil War have remained much the same. What has happened is that the Democrats who used to push racial politics for white people, now push racial politics for black and Hispanic people, the Democrats refuse to see people as INDIVIDUALS. They treat them only as members of groups. That was true for Collectivist Democrats such as Governor Bilbo of Mississippi a century ago – and it is true for Democrats now.

Jordan Flower
Jordan Flower
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Marks

What a bizarre story to push too, that entire parties just “swapped”, and according to the accepted narrative, nearly overnight as a result of the Southern Strategy. For starters, the Southern Strategy was a failure by its own metrics. I don’t care how many tapes you have of Nixon and Buchanon talking about how they’re going to get the southern Wallace votes; they didn’t actually get the votes.

The simple fact remains: only a couple of racist Democrats switched parties, like Strom Thurmond. The rest of the 200 or so racist Dixiecrat, former KKK, Southern Manifesto signatory congressmen, and elected officials stayed Democrats until they retired, well into the 80s.

The diversion is getting people to look at the electorate, instead of the elected. The southern Democrat electorate did switch red, but it started as early as 1928 with Hoover, and spread over several generations, and was multifaceted, for many reasons having nothing to do with race (imagine that”people concerned with things other than race, like southern fiscal conservatism in the face of FDR’s expansive policies). And as Joe said, the less racist each generation became, the more Republican they voted.

Dominic Straiton
Dominic Straiton
3 years ago

Having pretty much destroyed California with their insane policies and sky high taxes, they are leaving in droves and moving to Texas, where, like a cancer they will destroy that to.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

And yet California is full of people and has the country’s biggest economy and most innovative. Crazy, right?
I got some money, can I get a house in Lake Tahoe for the same price as in Dallas suburb ($ per sq foot0?

Fred Bloggs
Fred Bloggs
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

The great Californian economy is fading; unlike it’s homeless problems and the emergence of diseases that Europe has not seen since the middle ages.
All very well being progressive but what are they progressing towards?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

California also has the highest number of welfare recipients, a staggering poverty cohort, and income inequality – which the left used to care about – that is off the charts. And almost no one thinks “Tahoe” when first thinking of California. Big Tech’s presence is a fact but it wasn’t caused by a govt that now wants to control people’s Thanksgiving events.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

California and its extreme stratification of class – very rich and very poor and not so much in between makes it a perfect case for a soon to be ‘Banana Republic’.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

‘The Left used to care about’ — but there is really no significant Left any more.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Since 2018 there is a huge exodus of medium to small companies leaving California. Don’t think I can put a link on the comment section, but look up the Hoover institute on that subject: red tape and punitive taxes are driving them away. CA isn’t called for nothing the Socialist Republic of California

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Mr Smith – the land use regulations that push up house prices in California are not something to be boasted about. And those “innovative” companies you mention are being taxed and regulated into the ground – and now (thanks to the “Green” doctrine) can not even get a reliable electricity supply. They will not stay in California.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

What if Texas is getting the best and brightest Californians? I mean, they’re smart enough to leave.

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
3 years ago

The big cities in Texas have long been “blue” – if by that is meant Democrat controlled, their wild spending and big debts are very bad (compare cities in Texas to cities in Florida where, generally, cities follow more conservative fiscal policies). The question is whether the combination of the “liberal” (which oddly means Big Government in modern usage) cities (with their Californians and so on) and the illegal immigrants (many of whom vote illegally – and their children can vote legally) will outvote small town Texas. The way that Texas has attracted immigrants (both from other parts of the United States and from Latin America) may destroy the limited government model (at least at State level) that gave the immigrants their private enterprise jobs.

In Florida many Hispanics are conservative – but that seems to be because they are people who came to Florida to escape socialist policies (in Cuba, Venezuela and so on) – it is a bit different in Texas. One can make a case that the poverty of Mexico is due to Collectivist policies – but that case does not seem to really get home to many Mexicans. They look at the large privately owned farms and ranches of Texas. and the privately owned oil industry and do not seem to think “that is what we should be doing in Mexico!” (well some DO think that – but perhaps not enough), too many seem to think “Texas is what Mexico was like before 1910 Revolution – the land should be taken from the landowners, and the oil should belong to the masses!” which plays to the Democrats.. Politics is NOT genetic – there is no biological reason why Mexicans (and Central Americans generally) should think this way, but education and cultural factors push this way.

It would be a shame if the United States ended up as poor as much of Latin America – but the “Social Justice” Collectivist doctrine that the Democrats are now wedded to, would produce that result.

As for “Beto” – his vague ramblings do not even qualify as socialism. But they were perfect for the empty headed college crowd. The schools and universities teach that all problems can be solved by lots of government spending and endless new regulations (in reality these policies make everything worse) – and they produce mindless “educated” voters who fall for people like Mr Robert O’Rourke. They are the same sort of people who support lockdowns and mask mandates – and the “Green New Deal” (at some point the excuse for tyranny will switch from Covid 19 to “the environment”).

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Marks

My (legal) American-Ecuadorian housecleaner announced to me she was voting for Trump, much to my surprise. Her reasoning : she hears that back in Ecuador that Peruvians and Venezuelans are inundating Ecuador because of the comparatively better economy and that they use American dollars for currency. She said this influx of people is having a detrimental effect on Ecuador which made her understand how Americans must feel when the USA gets flooded with immigrants. She likes Trump’s policies, his strength and his positive vision for America, a country she has committed to. She said her friends are shocked when she tell them her position and to that end is trying to persuade them to vote Trump as well. Surprised me.

M Spahn
M Spahn
3 years ago

I think in the next 20 or 30 years in the US we are headed for a big political re-alignment. I suspect there are a lot of people like myself who are politically homeless to some extent or another. I’m a longtime Democrat and traditional liberal. I despise the Woke who have taken over my tribe the last ten years. But the Republican party as it is presently constituted could never work for me. Hopefully that will change, because it increasingly looks like I’ll need somewhere else to go.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  M Spahn

The situation in the UK largely mirrors that in the US.

The left, which I consider to be my natural home politically but not exclusively, has been hijacked by ‘the Wokerati’ in much the same way as the Democratic Party has in the US.

The problem in the US is even more acute as you only have a two party system leaving you and others with some pretty major compromises to have to make if you want to vote.

Similarly, whilst the UK electorate might have many more parties on paper to vote for, given the First Past The Post electoral system, it might as well be a two party system as well, certainly in England anyway.

The SNP, or Scottish Nationalist Party, have recently done extremely well out of it also incidentally.

Out of sheer frustration then I’ve recently joined a teeny, tiny party established in the 1980s that most people in the UK have long forgotten about or likely never heard of, the SDP or Social Democratic Party.

Its chances of seeing any actual power in my lifetime, particularly given our current outmoded electoral system, are less than zero, quite frankly, but if nothing else I feel I’ve finally found a political home.

M Spahn
M Spahn
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

I believe you are right, I only wish I could join a smaller party that had any relevance whatsoever.

Dave Tagge
Dave Tagge
3 years ago

O’Rourke’s failed presidential campaign almost certainly sealed that he’s never going to win statewide office in Texas because of his gun control positions during that campaign.