As Early Voting Turnout Surges in Texas, Dems are Counting Their Midterm Chickens

With less than 24 hours to go before election day, all eyes are on Texas and Georgia. Both races are full of drama, and both races matter for Democrats who wish to take back the House and challenge Republicans in the Senate.

But for strategists interested in understanding the larger political trends in America ahead of the 2020 elections, the Texas race offers a clearer view of long term voter sentiments. Texas, long a stronghold of conservative ideologues, might go blue in the Senate tomorrow for the first time since electing Lloyd Bentson in 1988.

By the end of last week, Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) lead over Democratic contender Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) had narrowed to just 3.6 points according to The Texas Tribune, which reported on the latest polling released last Wednesday. That is not an unexpected development, however. After all, polls often tighten in the days before an election as undecided voters make their final choices.

Instead, the real head-turner came out of the early voting turnout numbers. By the time early voting ended on Friday in the 30 of the most populous counties, 4.9 million Texans voted early, blowing past the total turnout for the 2014 midterms.

“If you got to see the people behind the scenes right now, you would see them high-fiving,” said Jacque Callenen, who is the elections administrator of Bexar County according to The Texas Tribune.

That’s because her county, the fourth largest in Texas, saw what she said was record-breaking turnout during early voting this year. By the time the polls closed Friday, 37.7 percent of registered voters in Bexar County had voted, almost double the 19.8 percent turnout at the same point in the 2014 midterm, and near the presidential-year turnouts recorded at the same point in 2012 and 2016.

Whether this is a positive signal for Democrats or Republicans in the state is hard to say but many liberals like Jacque Callenen are ecstatic. Historically, higher turnout bodes well for Democrats in elections at every level of politics.

The surging early voter turnout across the state has some Republican pundits already pretending Texas does not exist. Conspicuously, Trump has studiously avoided Texas while hitting the campaign trail across the rest of the midwest. But even more telling, Breitbart, Fox and other conservative news outlets almost completely snubbed Cruz and Texas just one day before the election. Coverage of the race was almost nonexistent across conservative media, and the resulting silence spoke volumes about Republican hopes there. With all of Trump’s brutal attacks on Lyin’ Ted during the 2016 election in mind, one might even suspect that the Republicans want Cruz to lose.

The snub has done little to dampen Cruz’s spirit of victory at the polls, of course.

“I think momentum continues to be with us,” Cruz told The Texas Tribune as he left a morning stop in Houston. “I’m very encouraged. The higher turnout gets, the better it is. The left was always going to show up — that’s no surprise. Our focus from the beginning was to make sure common-sense conservatives showed up as well, and I think that’s happening in big numbers."

That might be true in parts of the state where older white voters tend to dominate elections. But many of these voters are breaking with Republicanism over Trump’s divisive language on race and gender. Especially among educated, wealthier, white women, Trump’s rhetoric has prompted a severe backlash.

The New York Times reports that, according to a survey by Marist College and NPR, college-educated white women now say they prefer Democrats to control Congress by 18 points.

The Republicans in Texas have long depended on wealthier white voters to put aside their liberal views on issues like gun control and abortion to support G.O.P. economic policies in elections. But Mr. Trump’s fear mongering has done very little to coax these voters into the voting booth this year. 

Demographic shifts are also hurting Republican prospects at the local level. Many reliable white conservatives are now middle aged, which opens opportunities for younger voters to make a difference. A growing Hispanic population is also reacting negatively to Trump’s rhetoric, and the effects can be seen in several crucial down ballot races. 

“With Congress not really standing up to Trump, this election is becoming a referendum,” said J. Mark Metts, a 60 year old partner at a Houston law firm, explaining why he would not be voting for incumbent Representative John Culberson, an eight-term Republican.

“The divisiveness may play well in some parts of the country but it doesn’t play everywhere,” said the speaker of the Texas House, Joe Straus. “It’s hard to grow a party when your whole approach is to incite the base.”

To see incumbent Republicans like Mr. Culberson or Representative Pete Sessions, who is competing in the affluent suburbs of Dallas, facing this level of uncertainty in elections “would have been unthinkable just a few years ago,” said Mr. Straus.

At the same time, O’Rourke’s campaign has worked harder to build a grassroots campaign infrastructure than arguably any Democratic campaign in Texas history.

"Of the two campaigns in this race, we’re the only one that has a ground game like this," O'Rourke said on a call with campaign staffers over the weekend. "We have distinguished ourselves so far by our hard work, by our positivity ... please keep that going over the next four days and I promise you we’ll win this Tuesday night."

O’Rourke has the numbers to back that claim up. His campaign has focussed heavily on creating a brand new grassroots canvassing infrastructure across the state by encouraging volunteers to organize out of their homes and businesses at a local level. Their efforts have lead to the creation of over 700 pop-up campaign offices, each of which has mobilized dozens of volunteers to knock on tens of thousands of doors.

“What I’m slowly learning is that one of the reasons why Texas is a red state is it hasn’t had the canvassing infrastructure, people haven’t been going out, knocking on doors, and that’s probably one of the bigger reasons besides gerrymandering that this is not a voting state,” said Julie Gilberg, who organizes 30 to 40 volunteers depending on the day to knock on 1500 doors per week.

That effort may well give the Democrats the edge tomorrow. Whichever way the results end up going, however, one thing is clear: Texans are listening closely to Trump, and many of them are not happy with what they hear. 

This is good news for Democrats who are looking at Texas as a potential battleground state in the 2020 presidential elections. If Democrats can win over Texans tomorrow, they stand a good chance of appealing moderate Republicans in suburban areas across the country two years from now.

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