Amid the pomp and fervor at President Donald Trump’s latest Dallas revival on Oct. 17, there was, among many other emotions, an undertone of worry, possibly even sincere, from the event's public speakers.
Whether it was Prestonwood Baptist Church Pastor Jack Graham, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick or the president himself, the rally’s headliners focused as much on the looming threat of the 2020 election as they did on Trump’s list of accomplishments.
"They have no idea what's coming a little over a year from now," Patrick said, gesturing at the press pen and raising the crowd’s ire. "We in Texas will not stand by quietly, idly, as the big government left and their communist policies take our country away from us."
Democrats — whether called by that name or one of the pejoratives favored by Team Trump — are dead set on changing Texans' way of life, the message went, and the only thing stopping them are people like the 18,000 who huddled in the American Airlines Center for the president’s 90 minutes of hate.
No longer is Texas a place that Republicans can take for granted, the speakers said. “They” are banging on the door, here to take your guns, make your church pay taxes and turn Texas into the next worst thing to that socialist hell, California.
Stop us if you've heard this one before.
Infinite Monkey Votes
Anyone who’s paid any attention to Texas politics since former Gov. Ann Richards roamed the trail in the early '90s knows the story. Republicans have told it. So have Democrats.
Tony Sanchez or Ron Kirk or Wendy Davis or Beto O’Rourke all kinda, sorta, maybe had the goods to break the state GOP’s stranglehold on statewide races, if only the state’s sleeping Democratic giant filled their war chest, walked blocks and showed up to vote. Or maybe it was if the youth vote showed up. Or the Latino vote.
Post-election explanations for each of their wipeouts shifted, but the results never did. Sanchez pumped more than $60 million of his own money into his 2002 campaign, only to put the goober in gubernatorial. Ron Kirk’s Senate failure proved that being Dallas’ mayor is, more often than not, a dead-end job politically, and former state Sen. Davis embarrassed herself and her party, losing by three touchdowns to then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in the 2014 governor’s race.
O’Rourke, for all the crowds and the millions of dollars in fundraising during his 2018 race against Sen. Ted Cruz, won the same thing as his fellow Democrats — the favorite of millennials everywhere, a participation trophy.
Despite the many lessons of the near past, Cornyn, Patrick and Trump 2020 campaign director Brad Parscale all either hustled the crowd a couple of weeks ago or genuinely believe that Fortress Red Texas is in trouble.
Whether Texas Republicans really have anything to fear this election cycle, the specter of a Democratic resurgence here is having an effect: Money is flowing into Texas politics on both sides, from Democrats who think they have a shot at victory and Republicans who want to make sure they don't.
"More than $39.6 million flowed into U.S. House races in the Lone Star State during the first nine months of this year, marking an eye-popping 44% increase over the $27.6 million gathered there in the same time period last election," The Dallas Morning News reported earlier this month. A half-dozen GOP House incumbents have already announced they won't seek re-election, and eight House races are considered competitive in 2020.
Democratic donors and activists are redoubling their efforts from 2018 to pump resources and cash into the state. The possibility of a partisan shift is getting even more attention from the national media now, and they've never met a “Texas Is Competitive, Totally for Real This Time” story they didn’t like.
The thing that has to be kept in mind, that always has to be kept in mind when looking at what hue of red, purple or blue one thinks Texas is or might become, is that everyone is going to be right at some point. Think of it as a variation on the infinite monkey theorem: Give an infinite number of Texas monkeys an infinite amount of time and eventually they'll elect a Democrat to statewide office. The question is when.
City vs. Country
O’Rourke’s loss in November certainly left a bitter taste in Democrats’ mouths. The former El Paso congressman had, in the eyes of many, run a perfect campaign. He’d gotten as close to Cruz as anyone could have only to see the incumbent squeeze every last vote out of Texas’ rural communities and conservative small cities during the closing week of the campaign, securing a 3.5-point victory.
Wherever one looked around the state, however, there were glimmers of hope for Democrats, and reasons to pause for Republicans. In Dallas and Houston, Democrats took out prominent Republicans at the local, state and national level. U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions was shown the door after decades in D.C. Dallas County’s GOP Texas House delegation was reduced to two, and Harris County voters turned the keys to their commissioners court over Lina Hidalgo, a 28-year-old Democrat with no previous experience as an elected official.
Places like Tarrant and Collin counties proved more hospitable for Democrats than they had been since the Carter administration. O’Rourke beat Cruz in Fort Worth and drew huge crowds in Plano. That could, and should, be blamed on the incumbent’s unpopularity. But younger Texans and Latinos — Texas’ twin sleeping giants — actually showed up in larger numbers than they had in the past, energized to vote for O’Rourke and against the president.
“In 2018, really, the big turn, the big breakthrough, when it became clear that not only were we going to win in Harris County but we were going to win big, was when (Trump) showed up at his rally,” said Matt Angle, the founder of the Lone Star Project, a left-leaning political action committee, recalling the president’s pre-2018 election visit to Houston. “I think that he charges up people in the more rural parts of the state where you don't have an ongoing Democratic voice, but in places like North Texas and in Houston, you've had Democrats being elected and serving the public for a decade. Now people are used to it, they know that Democrats have provided good leadership.”
In Texas’ big cities, Republicans are forced to win in spite of their party affiliation, rather than the other way around.
The first time Uptown’s Shawn Terry ran for elected office, he served as the GOP’s standard bearer against one of Dallas County’s longest-serving Democrats in the U.S. House, Martin Frost. Terry lost that race in 1998, and 20 years on, he’s competing in a Democratic primary, hoping for a shot at Dallas Republicans’ Omega Man, Park Cities state Rep. Morgan Meyer.
Terry is the kind of pro-business Democrat who, in saner times, one could easily imagine representing a wealthy, urban-suburban district like House District 108 as a moderate Republican — just not with President Trump at the top of the ticket.
“My conversion from being a Republican to a Democrat, I think it's somewhat typical of the district," Terry says. "The district's changed in two primary respects. First of all, there's been extraordinary growth in Uptown and East Dallas, and that growth is predominantly Democrats like me, I live in Uptown. ... Secondarily — and importantly, Beto carried the Park Cities. (State Sen.) Nathan Johnson and (U.S. Rep.) Colin Allred did very well in what were traditionally Republican areas. ... What's happening is the Republican Party is disenfranchising and losing educated voters. So candidly, the more educated a district, the more likely it is switching from Republican to Democrat."
However fiscally conservative University Park voters might be, they are uncomfortable with what Republicans are offering, whether it’s Patrick’s socially conservative agenda in Austin or Trump’s pronouncements from the rally pulpit.
“(Patrick’s agenda) is based on excluding people, demonizing people and social conservative values that are not representative of the majority of people in urban areas of the state,” Terry says. “Dan Patrick is not popular in (House District) 108. Morgan Meyer falls in line behind his agenda every time, and that agenda is anti-growth, anti-inclusion and wrong for urban Texas.”
As Republicans have lost their grip on urban Texas, they’ve been quick to blame migration for their woes. Sessions, lamenting his loss to Allred on election night, complained of coastal interlopers in North Texas who just didn’t understand the region’s values. Terry, despite living in a district popular with newcomers to the state, rejects the idea.
“A lot of people in the cities especially moved here from California or Boston or Chicago, but I also meet a lot of lifelong Texans who are fed up,” Terry says. “These are native Texans who’ve lived here their whole lives, and they're tired of this incessant bickering and social conservative values being perpetuated on us. ... I don't agree with Pete. It's not just people from other states. It's the native Texans are tired of this.”
Move out a little from Dallas County's core and you’ll find Republicans who sound just as confident as Terry. Taylor Gillig, a combat veteran and small business owner running to replace retiring tea party firebrand Jonathan Stickland in the Mid-Cities’ Texas House District 92, believes that he can sell President Trump’s record to voters.
“There's a good story I can tell, personally, at the state level and with the president of the United States,” Gillig says. "I think that when you go to, like, a minority neighborhood, black, Hispanic, and you talk about the unemployment rate, that's something that they can get behind — that their lives are better off. You can talk about the border and the strides that we’re trying to make to shut down human trafficking.”
Trump being on the ballot will energize more Republicans than Democrats, Gillig says.
“I think it's definitely something that's going to be a big boost for us," he says. "I know that there are definitely a huge segment of the Democrat Party which is staunchly against President Trump and they're going to be very energized to come out and vote against him, but I know from talking to folks, whether they're die-hard conservatives or whether they’re middle of the road, that there is definitely a story that you can bet that the president’s record is definitely something that we can expand upon.”
Any drag the president might have on Republicans is mitigated by Americans' improved quality of life, Gillig says.
“I think that’s one of the positive things about Trump,” Gillig says. “There’s less worry, generally, whether people know it or not. Not that they don’t know, but they’re concerned with their own lives.”
The key for Republicans like Gillig, according to veteran GOP ad man Vinny Minchillo, is keeping their potential voters locally focused without looking like they’re ignoring the orange elephant in the room.
“If I’m a new candidate running for an open seat like Stickland’s seat, then I want to talk about Republican principles and what you personally are going to do when you go down to Austin. I’d try to keep it local, (but) you can’t whistle past the graveyard. Some of that stuff you’re going to have to respond to while your opponents are trying to nationalize the race,” Minchillo says. “Candidates and campaigns are going to have to be really well-prepared and are going to have to understand how to message against impeachment and Ukraine and Russia and all that crazy stuff.”
Minchillo agrees with Angle that the president makes the electoral environment tougher for Republicans in Texas’ cities. That doesn’t mean Democrats are ready to compete statewide.
“To think that Texas is competitive in the presidential race is, at best, wishful thinking," he says. "I don't see any data that says Texas is even remotely competitive in the presidential race. I don't think that is happening now. But will it be competitive up and down the ballot? Yeah, we're going to see a lot of competitive races, and we'll see a lot more competitive general (election) races than we have ever.”
The president and his team came to Dallas because it’s a home game, an easy chance to fire up the faithful, Minchillo says.
“You've got to rev up your base. That's the first thing in any political campaign. It's like, all right, let's consolidate our base and see if we can grow our base. Also, let's be honest here, the president is really good at spectacle,” Minchillo says. “He may be the best ever at spectacle. Certainly Obama was good at spectacle, and Trump is good at spectacle, and that's what it was. ... It’s a show of strength.”
When the 2020 campaign gets into full swing, Trump’s campaign will likely move on to real battlegrounds, but, for now, there’s little to be lost from shoring up its most fervent supporters. A rally like the one two weeks ago also gives the president the chance to take on any rumors that the state might be in play before they really get started, Minchillo says.
As for the reason the rumors exist in the first place? Minchillo blames last year’s senatorial contest.
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“I think a lot of people read way too much into the Beto-Cruz race," Minchillo says. "They go, ‘Oh, look, look, look how close that was.’ Right. So you had a really charismatic Democratic, young, handsome, well-spoken candidate versus a, you know, a guy that even Republicans don't like that much, you know? Yeah. So you had a really unique situation."
It’s immediately striking, attending a Trump rally in Texas, how little the crowd looks like the state, especially its cities. Texas is increasingly young and increasingly Latino. The president’s crowds are not. They are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly older. If they look like the Texas GOP, that can’t be a good thing for the party that routinely picked up more than 40% of the Latino vote during the '90s and early '00s.
“I'm of the opinion that (Texas) is solidly turning light pink,” says Victoria DeFrancesco Soto of the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs. “I think that because of 2018 and the new voters that we saw and especially the Latino voters that we saw. That sends a signal to me — I’m not going to tell you that that’s the new normal — but when you’ve been in power for so long, things start to crumble. Texas Republicans have been in power for so long that they’re losing their grasp, their finger on the pulse.
“Like with anything, if you go too far to the extreme, the pendulum starts to swing back.”