When Hillary Clinton made a last-minute visit to Arizona in the final week before the 2016 presidential election, fretful Democrats worried—justifiably, it turned out—that the nominee’s political adventurism could come at a high cost.
Four years later, the Biden campaign is meeting Clinton’s high-stakes red-state wager and raising her by the second-biggest prize in the Electoral College.
In the surest sign yet that Texas is in genuine play this election cycle, the Biden campaign dispatched Sen. Kamala Harris of California, the vice presidential nominee, to a three-city tour of the Lone Star State on Friday, the last day of early voting in the state.
“It’s good to be in Texas,” Harris told supporters in Houston, her third appearance in a trip that also included the suburb-rich Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and the border city of McAllen, where the rising Latino population has made Hidalgo County one of the fastest growing in the country. “They’ve done a great job in terms of early voting and so we just want to remind people what’s at stake and that their votes really matter. Lots of important issues, and they have the power to determine the outcome of this race.”
For state Democrats who have been desperate for the national party to share in their enthusiasm that this year is finally the year that the “demographics is destiny” chant becomes reality, Harris’ tour presages a future where the state is embraced as a potential swing state instead of dismissed as a Republican California. Or, as youth activist Clarissa Conde said before introducing Harris at an event near McAllen, “a more resilient and compassionate Texas, a more equal and equitable Texas.”
Even in a campaign as rich as former Vice President Joe Biden’s, time is the most valuable commodity in the final week of a presidential campaign, particularly the hours devoted to in-person appearances across the nation’s second-largest state by population. While the late-coming investment in Texas—once polls showed a neck-and-neck race, the Biden campaign started buying millions in airtime in major Texas media markets—does force the cash-strapped Trump campaign to allocate precious resources in a state that should be a fait accompli, Harris told reporters that the visits are, just as importantly, in recognition of the hard-working party members who have rarely gotten thanks from national Democrats.
“There are people here who matter, people here who are working hard, people who love their country and we need to be here and be responsive to them,” Harris told reporters on the tarmac in McAllen after her first appearance in Forth Worth. “That’s why we are here—because there are a lot of important people in South Texas.”
Harris’ remarks in the state were not always particularly Texas-centric, unusual for get-out-the-vote events in a state with as pervasive a brand. Beyond speaking in front of a Lone Star Flag the size of a parking lot in each stop, Harris’ comments in her trio of appearances were standard stump-speech material—more geared for general base-boosting than winning over Texans at the last minute—although she did nod to the state’s unique demographic profile.
“When this administration has orphaned 545 children because of a policy that has been about separating children from their parents at the border, everything is at stake,” Harris told voters in McAllen. “When we are looking at the fact that 200,000 of our front-line workers have been DREAMers who were promised DACA protection, everything is at stake. Everything is at stake when we need to create a pathway toward citizenship.”
Part of the campaign’s strategy may be rooted in the fact that the Biden campaign is, by necessity, winging its Texas strategy to a certain degree—when no Democrat has won the state’s electoral votes since Jimmy Carter, there’s not exactly a playbook for turning out blue voters in Texas.
The campaign’s manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon—who herself waged one of the highest profile political battles in modern Texas history when she managed Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for U.S. Senate two years ago—said as much in a call with high-dollar donors last week
“Texas is a place that is a little bit harder for us to monitor because we’ve never actually had to before, in a presidential race,” O’Malley Dillon said in a state-of-the-race call with top campaign donors last week, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast. “We’re still trying to work through that, but we are seeing massive turnout in Texas… and I would say, continuing to focus on the lower-propensity voters to make sure that they’re trying to vote early to give us a more efficient bucket of people to go to for election day is job No. 1.”
If early voting numbers are any indication, the gambit has potential to pay off. With four days until Election Day, Texas already surpassed its 2016 turnout, reporting 9,009,850 votes already cast on Friday morning. Granted, some of that is rooted in expanded interest in mail-in voting due to the pandemic, as well as the state’s explosive population growth—Texas’ estimated population has grown by more than 7 percent in just four years—and the fact that the state has a famously low turnout rate.
But that kind of growth has hidden benefits for Democrats. The state’s decade-long pitch as a tax haven for corporate headquarters has brought in hundreds of thousands of people from more liberal, higher-tax states, and those voters don’t check their politics at the state line.
The excitement for those demographic changes to result in electoral changes is palpable.
“I can’t wait for Texas to be the deciding state in this presidential election,” said Tina Knowles—businesswoman, fashion designer and mother of Texas native Beyoncé—before introducing Harris in Houston. “Y’all know if we win Texas, it’s game over.”
That dynamic has borne out in urban and suburban counties, particularly in Harris County, a.k.a. Houston, where the 1.4 million ballots cast this cycle have already broken historical turnout records. Considering that political scientists with an eye on Texas have said that turnout would need to exceed at least 1.5 million in Harris County for a statewide Biden victory to enter the realm of possibility, that’s a very good sign for the former vice president’s campaign—and makes his running mate’s trip at least worth the price of jet fuel.
“We’re putting a lot of resources into Texas,” Harris told reporters upon landing in Houston. “Texas has so much at stake in this election and they deserve to be heard, they deserve to be engaged by us because we intend to earn every vote. We’re not gonna tell anybody they’re supposed to vote for us—we want to earn those votes.”