Democrats in Texas hope Trump helps them build foundation for future wins
HOUSTON — First, there was Donald Trump's threat of a wall across the USA's Southern border. Then, his rhetoric aimed at undocumented immigrants. And now: the recently released recording where the GOP candidate is heard speaking lewdly about women and subsequent allegations of sexual misconduct.
Increasingly, Texas Democrats feel they're gaining sufficient ammo to mobilize voters to their side and nudge Texas toward a long-held Democratic dream of transforming the Lone Star State from solid red to purplish.
“The Republican brand is getting destroyed at the top of the ticket,” said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “And it’s penetrating down.”
Trump attended fundraisers this week in San Antonio and Dallas, even as fallout from the tape rattled some of his Texas backers. Initial reports signaled that Gene Powell, one of Trump's financial backers, may be pulling out of the San Antonio event, but Powell later released a statement saying he was "disgusted and offended" by Trump's remarks but would go ahead with the fundraiser, according to The Texas Tribune.
Despite it's solid-red reputation, Texas has drawn much interest this election season. All candidates, including Trump, Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and both vice presidential candidates have held fundraising events or rallies in Texas this year. Republican and Democratic activists are wooing Latino voters in places like Houston, Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley, where much of Texas’s demographic shift from older and white to minority and young is occurring. And the Democratic National Committee announced last month it was adding Texas to its Victory Leaders Council, along with Arizona, Georgia and Utah, where national officials partner with grass-roots recruiters.
A WFAA Texas Tegna/Survey USA poll out Thursday night showed the GOP nominee's lead over Clinton down to 4 points, a troubling sign for Texas Republicans, who have dominated statewide elections here since 1994. The state's prized 38 Electoral College votes and growing minority populations, which tend to vote Democratic, make it an attractive draw to party strategists.
No one expects Clinton to carry Texas. But Democrats like Garcia said they hope to capitalize on Trump’s misfires to build registration rolls and mobilize more Democrats to the polls. The state has signed up 1.2 million more voters since the 2012 presidential elections, with most of that growth coming from urban centers like Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, according to Texas Secretary of State’s office. Tuesday was the last day to register in Texas.
"Texas is dramatically changing," Garcia said. "You're going to continue to see that growth over time."
At the center of the battle for Texas is Harris County, a sprawling county of 4 million residents and the third-most populous county in the USA. The county, with Houston as its seat, has been run by Republicans for years but has shaded purple in presidential elections. President Obama carried the county by slim margins in 2008 and 2012.
More important than the presidential race are heated contests for Harris County Sheriff and District Attorney that will be on the same Nov. 8 ballot, said Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist. If Republicans lose top positions there, it could embolden Democratic visions for the state, he said.
“The last thing you want to do if you’re a Republican is raise Democrats’ hopes in the third-most populous county in the country,” Jones said.
GOP support remains strong in Harris County, said Paul Simpson, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. The Republican primary in Texas in March drew 327,000 voters, nearly double the turnout of 2012.
That was due in large part to the vote being moved up the calendar, while the primary race was still competitive, but it’s also a sign of Republican enthusiasm in this election, Simpson said. Ted Cruz won the primary in Texas with 44% of the vote, with Trump coming in second with 27%. Simpson expects strong turnout on Nov. 8, as well.
“We’ve been through this before,” Simpson said. “Every cycle, they target Harris County. This year’s no different.”
He concedes this has been an “unusual” election year but feels Republicans will hold their grip on Harris County. The goal: focus voter attention on local races. “Local officials have a much bigger impact day to day on peoples’ lives than a president does,” Simpson said.
One of the groups fighting to turn Texas’ political future is Battleground Texas, a group co-founded in 2013 by Jeremy Bird, Obama’s former national field director. The group backed then-state senator Wendy Davis’s run for governor in 2014. She lost badly to the state's GOP attorney general, Greg Abbott.
While the loss stung, Battleground Texas gained a database of more than 35,000 volunteers across the state from the effort, which they plan to expand in the coming years, said Oscar Silva, the group's political director. Today, Battleground Texas has field staffs in El Paso County, Dallas County, Harris County and Bexar County, with headquarters in Austin.
“It’s a long-term project,” Silva said. “But it will happen.”
A key tenet of that strategy: Motivating more Latino voters to the polls. With 1.9 million Hispanics, Harris County trails only Los Angeles County among the 60 counties with the largest Hispanic populations in the USA, according to the Pew Research Center.
In Houston, staffers with Mi Familia Vota, a non-partisan group working to boost voting participation among Latinos, visit high school and college campuses across Houston, urging young Latinos to register and vote.
At the University of Houston, Maria Villenas paced through the Student Center during a busy lunch hour with a clipboard and voter registration forms. In less than an hour, she had signed up a dozen first-time voters. Wearing her Mi Familia Vota T-shirt and baseball cap, Villenas says she gets approached by potential voters as often as she stops them — a departure from what she’s seen in past elections.
“It’s different this year,” she said. “Latinos are feeling more comfortable with the voting process. They want to be a part of this.”