For a generation, Texas Democrats have hoped for a surge of Hispanic voters who could hypothetically put the state’s 38 electoral votes in play in a presidential election.
But now, the party sees a path to victory fueled not by turnout in the Hispanic-dominated Rio Grande Valley, but by the moving vans bringing new residents in from California, Illinois and New York — residents who are voting more for Democratic candidates than their new Texan neighbors.
In 2018, then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) came tantalizingly close to clearing that path when he nearly upset Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump-backed challenger to Cheney decried him as 'racist,' 'xenophobic' in 2016: report FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp The Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio MORE (R).
O’Rourke scored 48.3 percent of the vote, a higher percentage than any Democrat running for statewide office since 1994. He received more than 4 million votes, more than any Democrat ever to run in the state of Texas.
When Texans go to the polls in 2020, it will represent a test of whether O'Rourke was blazing the trail toward a bluer Texas — or the beneficiary of a once-in-a-lifetime political opportunity that still got away.
O'Rourke, who launched a presidential bid Thursday with several stops in Iowa, hopes he is the one who finishes what he started.
“He left behind a roadmap for how to be successful in Texas. If the [Democratic National Committee] treats Texas like it treats Ohio or Florida or North Carolina or Arizona or any other swing state, then Texas will flip in 2020,” said Colin Strother, a longtime Democratic strategist from the Austin area.
In some of his first campaign stops Thursday, O’Rourke highlighted his commitment to reaching new voters outside of dense metropolitan areas, pointing to his visits to all 254 counties in Texas.
But O’Rourke’s performance in many of the state’s smallest and most conservative counties was actually worse than past Democrats'.
Instead, election results show he came so close to winning thanks to the new voters pouring into the state’s booming metropolitan areas and their suburbs.
O’Rourke won five counties that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE lost in 2016, including Tarrant, home of Fort Worth; Williamson and Hays, in the Austin area, and Jefferson, near Houston.
In the six counties that have added the most residents in the last decade — all along the I-35 corridor from Dallas to San Antonio and in Houston — the vote shifted by at least 9 points toward O’Rourke.
The last Democrat to win Tarrant County was Ann Richards, in her successful bid for governor in 1990.
The last Democratic Senate candidate to win the county was Lloyd Bentsen, in 1988. No Democratic presidential candidate has won Tarrant County since favorite son Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Some Republicans are skeptical that the demographic tide has shifted.
Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who won reelection in 2018 with almost 56 percent of the vote, won Tarrant County by almost 11 percentage points.
And in the larger context of a nationwide race, O’Rourke is unlikely to maintain a clean veneer throughout what is sure to be a brutal contest.
“He’ll be defined as a West Coast liberal before Iowa,” David Carney, Abbott’s chief strategist, said of O’Rourke.
The population influx has shown few signs of abating in recent years.
Denton and Collin counties each added around 27,000 residents last year — averaging 75 new residents a day, each. Tarrant County added about 90 people a day; Houston’s Harris County added almost 100 new people every 24 hours.
The pace of growth is so fast that some mayors and county officials in suburban cities worry they will not be able to build sewer, school and power infrastructure fast enough.
“Everyone talks about the sleeping giant here in Texas, the Latino vote is going to rise up one day. The other giant that they don’t talk about is Texas is the fastest growing state in the country,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of the liberal group Progress Texas. “These new voters are voting for Democrats over Republicans by a ratio of 5 to 1.”
O’Rourke won 50,000 more votes in Travis County, home of Austin, than did Hillary Clinton in 2016; he won 20,000 more votes than did she in Dallas County and 10,000 more votes in San Antonio’s Bexar County — even though statewide voter turnout was 5 percentage points lower in 2018 than it was in the presidential year.
O’Rourke also scored better among core factions of the emerging Democratic electorate than did Clinton, a sign that those voters either embraced him or felt compelled to reject President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE.
He outperformed Clinton by 5 percentage points among women as a whole, and by 14 percentage points among white college-educated women, as well as by 10 points among voters under 45 years old and by 16 points among those under 30.
As city centers grow in both size and political power, and as housing prices subsequently increase, the leftward drift is beginning to change the hue of key suburban counties.
Once endless stretches of McMansions, they are now attracting new residents looking for cheaper home costs.
“In the past, the suburbs in Texas were places where the rich went to sleep at night. Now it’s where housing is more affordable,” Strother said. “It points to the migration of working folks out of the city centers as we see increased gentrification in our major metropolitan areas.”
Republicans are nervously eyeing two suburban counties just north of the Dallas metroplex, Collin and Denton, as canaries in the demographic coal mine.
Both counties voted for Cruz by more than 30 point margins in 2012; they voted for Trump by margins about half that size in 2016; and they voted for Cruz by less than 10 percentage points in 2018.
If Democrats are to compete for Texas’s electoral votes — either with or without O’Rourke on the ticket — “it’s these counties that are adjacent to the urban centers” that will make the difference, Espinoza said.