“Demography is destiny.”
It’s a mantra that Texas Democrats have been invoking since 1994, the last year that the Lone Star State ever elected a Democrat to statewide office. They said it in 2014, when filibuster phenom Wendy Davis ran for governor and ended up losing by more than 20 points. They said it in 2018, when Beto O’Rourke raised a record-annihilating $80 million from wide-eyed national Democrats only to fall 2.6 points short of a hugely unpopular incumbent.
The notion that the booming Latino population in the state, coupled with an influx of nearly a million yearly transplants from the rest of the country, would bring about a Democratic renaissance in the state that gave us Lyndon Johnson and Ann Richards has, until now, been little more than a mirage.
But this time, Texas Democrats promise, will be different.
“I absolutely believe that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be making history here in Texas,” said Kim Collins Gilby, Democratic party chair for Williamson County, a former Republican stronghold that went for O’Rourke by nearly 3 points in 2018. “A Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won here since Jimmy Carter in 1976, [but] there’s definitely a different type of energy this cycle.”
“This election cycle is different,” said Gloria Meehan, party chair for Comal County, northeast of San Antonio. “This is a result of a well-organized, coordinated campaign effort from commissioner—we have two Comal County Democrats who are looking to unseat incumbents—up to president. From grassroots organizers to top party officials, we’ve all been focused, communicating, and have the right tools to get this done.”
Admittedly, being a Democrat in Texas requires a Cory Booker-esque ability to see the sunny side of even the darkest situations. That preternatural optimism can lead to seeing positive indicators in almost anything—even an increase in misbehavior from President Donald Trump’s supporters.
“Awful to say, but the level of stupid stuff—stealing signs from little old ladies’ front yards, and vandalizing things, running up and down streets with flags yelling stuff—that has skyrocketed,” said Mary Duty, party chair for McLennan County, home to the city of Waco.
As Duty sees it, those kinds of antics, while stressful for poll workers and public Biden supporters alike, are signs that “Trump Fever, shall we say,” might finally be breaking.
“If a Biden yard sign makes you that mad,” Duty said, “it’s because he’s too close to be ignored.”
But even perpetually pessimistic amateur election-watchers are seeing signs that the long-prophesied shift in Texas’ political winds could finally be at hand. Recent polls of actual quality show Biden trailing within the margin of error, or even ahead of President Donald Trump. Sen. John Cornyn’s lead over Democratic challenger M.J. Hegar is holding at a cozy 8 points (everything is bigger in Texas, a statement especially true of winning margins for statewide Republicans).
And on the first day of early voting on Wednesday, those indicators felt like they were actually manifesting in real votes.
“The long line of people waiting to make their voices heard was simply mind-blowing,” said Gilby, who was in line to vote on Tuesday at 6:15 a.m. “An excited voter shared with me that she’d been waiting for months to cast her vote. I replied that I wasn’t trying to outdo her, but that I’d been waiting for years.”
“Texas registered 580-something-thousand brand-new voters in September. It’s crazy, the number of people who’ve decided this is the year they’re gonna vote,” said Duty. “I don’t know what they’ve been doing for the last 30 years, but they can vote this year!”
The enthusiasm, party officials hypothesized to The Daily Beast, appears to be the result of a perfect storm for Texas Democrats: a weak incumbent president at the top of the ticket, softening support for the state’s Republican governor in the wake of his mishandling of COVID-19, a moderate Democratic presidential challenger who doesn’t scare the hell out of Texans, and, yes, demographic shifts, brought about in part by the state’s come-one-come-all solicitation of California-based businesses to seek shelter from higher taxes.
In 2018 alone, more than 86,000 Californians moved to Texas, with Houston’s Harris County seeing the greatest influx of out-of-state newcomers than any other part of the state. In addition to the vast increase in Texas’ Latino population—the population grew by more than 2 million people in the last decade, and is on pace to be the state’s largest population group next year—the number of exiles from higher-tax blue states has accelerated shifts in the state’s political culture, particularly in the suburbs.
“Maybe their companies have moved here, or maybe they moved here because our taxes are lower, because they can have a better lifestyle, but I think their basic value system does not change,” said Angelica Luna-Kaufman, a communications strategist for the Democratic Party in Harris County, home to Houston and more than 4 million Texans. “Some of those policies and some of those issues are still a very big part of who they are. So they may have to choose, they may have to make that choice, and I think that we are going to see a larger shift because of it.”
Biden’s campaign, until recently, was hesitant to follow in Hillary Clinton’s cursed example in electoral adventurism, preferring to invest heavily in the Great Lakes states rather than dream of expanding the electoral map. Presidents, after all, don’t get bonus points for having won 353 electoral votes with Texas instead of 315 without it.
But at the urging—even demanding—of state Democrats, Biden has begun investing both time and treasure in the Lone Star State. On the first day of early voting, Dr. Jill Biden made a trio of appearances in El Paso, Dallas, and Houston, telling Texans that victory was within their grasp for the first time in a generation.
“For the first time in a long time, winning Texas is possible,” Biden said in an appearance in El Paso on Tuesday. “Not just for Joe, but for the Senate and the state House as well—and if we win here, we are unstoppable.”
The Biden campaign has also reserved $6.2 million on airtime in media markets in the state, a truly massive amount considering that the state has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since the 1970s.
“This virus is tough, but Texas is tougher,” Biden tells Texas voters in one advertisement pegged to Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 17,000 Texans. “I want every single American to know—if you’re sick, if you’re struggling, if you’re worried about how you’re going to get through the day, I will not abandon you.”
State Democrats are convinced that Biden is now on the right track to keep Texas in play, for real.
“All of the indicators that you could put out there like strength of donations to the local party, number of volunteers, what volunteers are willing to do, I mean the metrics on that is just out the window,” said Duty. “People are absolutely on fire to make a difference in this election.”