FOREST HILL — As she entered a Luby’s on Monday morning in this Democratic enclave southeast of Fort Worth, state Sen. Wendy Davis drew a warm welcome from the roughly 100 attendees at a Veterans Day breakfast. The Fort Worth Democrat had filed to run for governor of Texas two days earlier.
“The sacrifices you’ve made on behalf of each of us will not be forgotten,” she said. “And as we move forward and make Texas the Texas we want to see it be in terms of delivering on its promise to each and every one of you, I will make sure to fight that we do a better job, a dramatically better job.”
Nine hours later and 20 miles north in the conservative city of Bedford, Attorney General Greg Abbott, the leading Republican candidate for governor, received a standing ovation as he unveiled new planks in his campaign platform to a church full of Tea Party conservatives.
“It takes warriors,” Abbott said. “It takes patriots who are willing to stand up and fight back against the liberal agenda. You all are those patriots. You all are those warriors.”
The two scenes capture the split political personality that has emerged this year in Tarrant County — both the largest reliably Republican county in Texas and ground zero of Democrats’ efforts to turn the state blue. The county, home of the Dallas Cowboys and Texas’ fifth- and seventh-largest cities, Fort Worth and Arlington, has become a focal point in the state’s political future.
“Houston, Dallas, Austin, El Paso, San Antonio — all of these are blue; they’re all Democratic areas,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University. “Fort Worth is the last holdout Republicans have of the big cities.”
For most of the 20th century, Democrats dominated politics across Texas. Amid the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, Republicans made inroads in Tarrant County and elsewhere. By the mid-1990s, the Republican Party held a majority of the county’s political offices and was well on its way to overtaking the political landscape statewide.
"I lived in Tarrant County when just about every judge was a Democrat, so for us to not have even one Democratic judge does not speak well to our efforts," Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairwoman Deborah Peoples said.
Davis, whose filibuster of abortion legislation catapulted her into the spotlight this year, is one of two rising political stars from Fort Worth drawing national attention to Tarrant County. George P. Bush, the son of former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, is a Republican candidate for land commissioner.
Political observers have cited Tarrant County as a bellwether, arguing that if Democrats were to ever win the county again, it would be a sign that the state is poised to flip politically as well. But Republicans see nothing that will change Tarrant from red to blue in 2014. And Davis has been careful to frame her run as aimed at increasing Democratic turnout statewide and not specifically in her home county.
Nonetheless, her decision to base her campaign for governor in Fort Worth has energized Tarrant County Democrats. Battleground Texas, a Democratic group trying to make the state politically competitive again, has recently relocated some staff members to Fort Worth to coordinate better with Davis’s campaign.
Local party leaders predict that all the attention will persuade more Democrats to compete in local races.
“It’s been hard to get Democrats to run in these ballot positions because of the recognition that it’s a Republican county,” said Steve Maxwell, a former Tarrant County Democratic Party chairman. “The attention Wendy is getting is going to result in more people running on the ballot in these spots than we’ve had in years.”
In 2006, Democrats in neighboring Dallas County swept more than 40 local races, upending the county’s longstanding Republican leadership overnight. Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder, a Republican who has been active in the local party for decades, said Dallas Republicans got complacent.
“They were just coasting off the top of the ticket, and they never built a base,” Wilder said. “We don’t have that problem in Tarrant County.”
Indeed, Tarrant County’s geography has played a role in the area’s Republican dominance. Whereas many conservatives in Dallas and Houston left the cities for suburbs in neighboring counties, Tarrant County has retained many of those voters in smaller suburban cities in its northeast quadrant, an area in which Tea Party groups have moved the Republican Party further to the right in recent years.
“It is an upper-middle-class, professional part of Tarrant County,” Riddlesperger said. “Demographically, they look like the Tea Party does nationally.”
The NE Tarrant Tea Party, the group Abbott addressed this week, has emerged as a key player. In a few years, the group has helped replace a handful of local Republican elected officials whom activists found to be insufficiently conservative. Konni Burton, the group's former vice president, is among several Republicans competing to take over Davis' seat in the Texas Senate.
"We know the Republicans are going to win in this area, so the primaries are the key elections for us,” said Julie McCarty, the group’s president. “Otherwise, we just hand it to the establishment every time."
Democrats do not plan to concede northeast Tarrant County to the Tea Party, Peoples said, though she acknowledged that area is probably the toughest to gain ground.
“Things are changing in northeast Tarrant County,” Peoples said. “They are changing much faster in the rest of the county.”
An analysis of lawmakers’ votes from this year’s legislative session by Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, found the Tarrant delegation in the Texas House to be the most polarized in the state, in part because of the rightward shift of freshman Republicans elected with Tea Party support.
“The sort of heart of this libertarian-Tea-Party-movement wing of the House delegation, the epicenter, is in Tarrant County,” Jones said.
McCarty agreed that local libertarians and Tea Party activists have forged a productive partnership in recent years by finding common ground on concerns about state fiscal issues.
“I don’t think the Tea Party can win without the libertarians, and I don’t think the libertarians can win without the Tea Party,” McCarty said.
Former state Rep. Todd Smith, a Republican from the northeast Tarrant city of Euless, defeated a Tea Party-backed primary challenge in 2010 before failing in a state Senate bid last year. He said the local Republican Party now felt dominated by activists who did not want elected officials who could think for themselves.
“I don’t know whether gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis has a chance to win that election or not, but I do believe that this Tea Party radicalism enhances her chances,” Smith said.
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who replaced Smith in the House and has strong ties to local Tea Party groups, countered that both Democrats and Republicans play a role in the county’s polarization.
“The Tea Party gets credit for pulling the Republican Party to the right, but the Democrats are eating some of their moderates alive, too,” Stickland said. “I think more than anything, Tarrant County is kind of ahead of the game on both ends because their voters and activists are hands-on and very engaged.”