Biden eyes historic opportunity as Trump’s star wanes in Texas

Adrienne Bell, an African-American Democrat vying to oust a Republican congressman in a Texas Gulf Coast district in November, recently received an unexpected surprise from a conservative voter.

“I had an 83-year-old white man call me,” Ms Bell recalled. “He said: ‘I’ve voted Republican for 40 plus years but . . . I’m voting for you because of what is coming out of this administration.’”

Ms Bell believes Republicans who are similarly disillusioned with Mr Trump over his handling of Covid-19 and other issues will help propel her to victory. She is one of many Democrats hoping Joe Biden will become the first Democrat to take Texas since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Texas is the political holy grail in the US. With 38 electoral college votes — second only to solidly Democratic California — the stakes are huge, with victory erasing the need to win most of the more traditional swing states.

Democrats have watched eagerly as demographic changes have moved the state closer to their column. And while few thought the shift would occur rapidly enough to have an impact on the 2020 race, the president may have altered the equation. 

In 2016, Mr Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Texas by 9 percentage points, the lowest margin for a Republican since Bob Dole beat Bill Clinton to take the state in 1996. But four months from the election, Mr Trump is neck and neck with Mr Biden.

A Dallas Morning News-UT Tyler poll last week even gave Mr Biden a five-point lead in the state, up from April when they were tied. The change comprised a 10-point rise among independents and a four-point gain among Republicans.

Volunteers distribute food to residents in line at a church in El Paso, Texas on Friday © Bloomberg

Mr Biden ran his first TV political ad in Texas last week. But he has not decided if the odds of winning the state of 29m people are good enough to justify the spending needed, according to people familiar with his campaign.

Filemon Vela, a Texas Democratic congressman who thinks Mr Biden has a good shot, says the campaign must weigh its priorities. “It is more of a resource issue . . . How much money is in the bank and where else do we have to invest?”

Mr Vela thinks the landscape is favourable for Mr Biden because suburban Texas has become increasingly Democratic. He stresses that even Republicans are angry at how Mr Trump has handled the pandemic, particularly as Texas has become one of the worst hotspots in the country.

“When I left Texas, I did not know one person who had coronavirus,” Mr Vela said about the situation three weeks ago, when he made the 28-hour drive from Brownsville to Washington. “I [now] know over 50 people who have been infected and am connected to three people who have died.”

Scott Braddock, editor of Quorum Report, a Texas politics newsletter, said Mr Trump was narrowing the odds of a Biden victory. “This pandemic . . . is changing everyone’s lives the way a hurricane on the Gulf Coast would upend everything. The performance of the president is not getting a big thumbs up.”

He said another reason Mr Biden had a good chance was that suburban Republican women were “souring on Trump” but he still thought there were not enough of them to give Mr Biden a sufficient boost. 

However, one Austin-based lobbyist said Mr Trump had “Saddam Hussein levels of popularity” in rural Texas but faced a perilous shift elsewhere. “Texas will remain red until Anglo voters give up on Republicans, but you’re starting to see white suburban women give up on the Republicans,” he said.

Sherri Greenberg, a University of Texas politics professor, agrees that women are critical, building on the energy that helped catapult a large group of female Democrats to Congress in the 2018 midterm elections.

“The fact that Biden and Trump are in a dead heat is pretty amazing,” she said.

Prof Greenberg said Republican women who were angry about gun violence were now frustrated at how Mr Trump was handling the pandemic. He had also alienated some with his immigration stance, she said. “What you saw at the border really hurt, seeing mothers separated from their children.”

While Prof Greenberg thinks Texas is more competitive, she believes the demographic shift — from immigration, a growing indigenous Hispanic population, and migration from other states — has not hit the threshold Mr Biden needs. “You can talk to me until the cows come home, but demographics don’t vote.”

Samantha Cotten, a Trump campaign official, said internal polls showed the president with a lead in the state. She added that Mr Trump was not being complacent but had the resources to win. “If Biden wants to come to Texas and waste his money, he’s more than welcome.”

One thing that has encouraged Democrats, however, is the campaign that former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke fought in 2018 when he came very close to ousting Senator Ted Cruz in Texas. He visited all 254 counties in the state as part of an effort to energise Democrats and register new voters.

Mr O’Rourke and Powered by People, a group he has since created to boost voter turnout, is helping Mr Biden but faces constraints because of Covid-19. He said the group was navigating the hurdles by holding big phone banks to reach Democrats across Texas and giving the information to the Biden campaign.

Some Biden supporters want him to focus on traditional swing states and not repeat the mistake Mrs Clinton made in 2016 when she ignored Wisconsin while flirting with Arizona in the hope that Hispanics there would help her turn it blue.

But Mr O’Rourke argues that victory in Texas would not only drastically change national politics, it would also make it much harder for Mr Trump to contest a national defeat — something that some Democrats fear he may try to do if he loses.

“If we win Texas, it will be seismic,” Mr O’Rourke said. “There will be no question about the result.”

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi