BEDFORD, Texas – Deep in the northeast suburbs of Fort Worth, Democrats trying to win Texas House for the first time in years have gotten help from a surprising source.
For 16 years, until he stepped down in 2013, Todd A. Smith was a Republican representing these suburbs in the Texas House of Representatives. His neighborhood covered a rapidly growing hub of middle-class and affluent communities next to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
When the time came to decide who he would support for his old seat, Mr Smith said he had no hesitation – he threw his endorsement on Democrat in the race, Jeff Whitfield.
“It’s not my Republican Party anymore,” Smith said last week as he sat outside his house, which has a “Republicans for Biden 2020” sign on the lawn.
“It’s the Trump party,” he said. “If you give me a reasonable Republican and a crazy Democrat, then I’ll always vote for the Republican. But if you give me a mad Republican and a reasonable Democrat, then I’m going to vote for the Democrat, and that applies in the presidential race, and that applies in the Whitfield race.
After a generation under unified Republican control, Texas is a battleground at all levels of government this year. President Trump and Senator John Cornyn are fighting for their political life, and five Congress seats held by Republicans are at risk of tilting.
But some of the most important political battles in Texas unfold across two dozen contested races for the Texas State House, which Republicans have controlled since 2003. To win a majority, Democrats must overturn nine of the chamber’s 150 seats – the same number of Republican-controlled districts Beto O’Rourke were elected during his Senate race in 2018, when he was the first Texas Democrat to run for the Senate or governor in a generation.
Mr O’Rourke has organized nightly online phone banks that make about three million phone calls per week to voters during the campaign’s home stretch. His organization has helped register approximately 200,000 Texas Democratic voters in an attempt to complete a political transformation in Texas that began with his Senate race.
“I’ve actually won more State House districts than Ted Cruz,” Mr. O’Rourke said in an interview last week. “It’s just that the candidates of nine of them, the Democratic candidates, didn’t end up winning.”
Control of Texas House has huge implications beyond state borders. A Democratic majority in the Texas House of States would give the party leverage in the 2021 redistribution process, when the state is expected to receive up to three new seats in Congress. It would also give them a voice in shaping Texas state legislative lines for the next decade.
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Officials from both parties said the difference between the current unified Republican control of the state government of Texas and the Democrats controlling the State House could amount to as much as five seats in Congress when new maps are drawn.
“Overthrowing the Texas House this year may be the key to unlocking a Democratic future in Texas,” said John Bisognano, executive director of the National Democratic Redistribution Committee. “With a level playing field, Democrats will be able to compete statewide and build a large pool of candidates who can run and win statewide.”
Nowhere in the country has there been a wave of votes to match that in Texas. In two weeks of in-person early voting, more than 6.9 million Texans voted – a figure that represents more than three-quarters of total 2016 turnout.
The turnout is highest in the state’s largest metropolitan areas, which are the State House’s main battlegrounds – and are six of the country’s 10 fastest growing counties. There are five competitive seats in the State House in Tarrant County, which includes Fort Worth, five more in other Dallas suburbs, and eight in greater Houston.
“I have always been political my whole life,” said Gina Hinojosa, an Austin state representative whose father is the president of the Texas Democratic Party. “Now all of a sudden everyone is so political. The last election resulted in the involvement of ordinary citizens in our political process.
Texas Republicans have sought to tie Democratic State House candidates, who campaign on issues such as health care and increased funding for schools, to their party’s more liberal proposals. Governor Greg Abbott launched a digital ad on Thursday attacking Mr. O’Rourke’s past statements on police funding, gun control, tax policy and the Green New Deal.
This week, the governor and other Republicans jumped on former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s promise during Thursday’s presidential debate to “transition away from the oil industry,” a staple of the Texan economy, claiming such a move would cost the state hundreds of thousands of jobs and reduce the revenues that pay schools.
“He’s an albatross neck of the lower ballot candidates in Texas,” said Jared Woodfill, a conservative activist and Houston lawyer and former Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. “Biden just lost Texas.”
Democrats said they were not worried, calling the outcry over Mr Biden’s comments as an attempt to distract voters from more pressing issues, including the continued spread of the coronavirus in Texas.
Suburban voters don’t seem to buy the Republican arguments during Trump’s time that Democrats will turn their communities into socialists. A poll in 10 targeted Texas state districts shows Mr Biden is gaining an average of 8.6 percentage points, while Democratic US House candidates have gained 6.5 points since March in polls conducted by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which has invested more than $ 1 million in Texas. over the past two years.
Suburban voters of 2020, said Steve Munisteri, a former president of the Texas Republican Party who worked in Mr. Trump’s White House, have much more in common with city dwellers than with the more conservative voters who once populated the outskirts of Texas. metropolitan areas.
“Due to urban growth, many of what are considered traditional suburbs in metropolitan areas of Texas are really just extensions of urban areas,” Munisteri said.
Collin County, a suburb 20 miles north of Dallas, has two competitive State House districts that Mr. O’Rourke led in 2018. In six years, the county has added 200,000 people. It now has a population of over a million people and has grown from a Democratic wasteland to a swarm of Liberal volunteers.
In 2014, when John Shanks moved to Collin County, there were approximately 20 dedicated Democratic Party volunteers. Now Mr. Shanks, the county’s Democratic Party executive director, has several hundred – so many that he’s struggling to find jobs for all of them.
“We’ve had about four years of people getting used to the idea that their vote can really matter,” Shanks said. “We realized that you can make a difference. And as they realize that and wake up, things get more competitive.
Bedford has been found in a part of the Dallas-Fort Worth region that has been deeply conservative for decades. Republicans have held the region’s State House seat since 1985, and the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party was one of the most influential tea party groups during Obama’s day.
Outgoing state representative Jonathan Stickland is a bearded Cruz-style brandon who supported gun rights and carried his .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol to the Texas Capitol. In 2015, the Texas Tribune called him “the chamber’s chief antagonist.”
Mr Stickland apologized in 2016 after an online post he made in 2008, before running for office, was unearthed by a political opponent. In the post on a fantasy football site, he responded to a man’s request for sexual advice by writing: “Rape is non-existent in marriage, take whatever you want my friend!”
Yet after years of sending conservatives to Austin, the neighborhood has changed. In just two years, the Republican advantage grew from 9,100 votes for Mr. Trump in 2016 to 1,167 when Senator Ted Cruz defeated Mr. O’Rourke in 2018.
“When you hear people who have spent their entire lives voting Republican and they say, ‘The party left me,’ I don’t know if we’ve heard that before,” Mr. Whitfield, the House of Commons. the Democratic state candidate, said as he stood in a parking lot outside the Bedford Public Library, an early voting site.
Steps away in the same parking lot, Mr Whitfield’s Republican opponent Jeff Cason took issue with any idea of widespread Republican defection.
“I’m a man of faith, and I just believe the doors are opening for us, and if the Lord wants us to be in Austin, we’ll be there,” Mr. Cason said. “I have no idea the Republicans are leaving our camp.”
Julie McCarty, who was the chair of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party and is now the CEO of the group she transformed, the True Texas Project, attributed the Democratic gains in the region to Republicans who weren’t conservative enough.
“Republicans want to be left alone. We want a smaller government. When we can’t get that, we move to where we can, ”she said. “That’s where the answer to what makes Tarrant turn purple lies.”
For Mr. Smith, the former Republican lawmaker, 2020 was a year to split his poll. In addition to the Biden sign and his support for Mr Whitfield, he has a court sign for Jane Nelson, a Republican state senator running for re-election. And he voted for Senator John Cornyn, Trump’s ally locked in a tough re-election fight with MJ Hegar, a Democrat and former Air Force helicopter pilot. Years ago, Mr. Smith started a fundraiser for Mr. Cornyn at his home.
“I have mixed feelings about this,” he said of his vote for Mr Cornyn. “But I trust what I believe to be his honest beliefs.”