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Texas Takes on Growing Role in Democratic Presidential Primary

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are increasingly looking to the March 1 Texas primary as a pivotal contest in their race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Hillary Clinton's national political director Amanda Renteria (right) canvasses neighborhoods in San Antonio on Feb. 8, 2016.

SAN ANTONIO — On Saturday, as Hillary Clinton knocked on doors in New Hampshire days before the state’s primary, Amanda Renteria, her national political director, was doing the same 2,000 miles away.

After a rally at the campaign’s new San Antonio office with over 200 supporters, Renteria canvassed some of the same neighborhoods that Clinton worked in during George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972.

The event and others like it in recent weeks symbolize the increasing importance Texas is taking on in this year's Democratic primary race, especially as it becomes clear Clinton will not be able to dispatch with Bernie Sanders in the first few early voting states. The prospect of a longer-than-expected race between the two candidates has both campaigns spending significant time and money around the state ahead of its earlier-than-usual nominating contest — early voting for which starts next week.

“When you look at our Super Tuesday and you look at 200-plus delegate votes, Texas is pretty incredibly important,” Renteria said after the San Antonio rally. “Any time we spend here is really great for us because we’re not persuading, we’re actually bringing folks out.” 

Clinton finds herself in a similar position to the one she was in in 2008, when Barack Obama was faring better in early primary states than expected and the Clinton team began referring to Texas as her "firewall" against losing the nomination. The campaign now has six paid staffers in the state, according to its Texas spokesman, Carlos Sanchez.

By all stretches of the imagination, Texas will be Clinton’s to lose — an assumption supported by what little public polling has been done on the Democratic race in the state. But given her campaign’s recent bruises — and a tightening race in national polls — success in Texas will not be just about claiming victory on March 1 but also about running up the margins in order to secure as many delegates as possible. 

Sanders’ campaign is similarly focused on the delegate hunt, hoping its early investment in the state will overcome — or at least blunt — Clinton’s built-in advantages. With less than a month until the March 1 primary, Sanders supporters are sounding optimistic, buoyed by his momentum in the first round of early voting contests as well as an already active organization in Texas. 

“I think he's going to win Texas,” said former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, who has been campaigning for Sanders in early voting states. “One, you've got to enthuse people, and two, you've got to them out on election day. And they’ve got both the organization and the enthusiasm.”

Clinton’s allies and supporters argue Texas will amount to a bulwark against whatever steam Sanders picks up in the first few early voting states. What's giving them hope is the demographics of the state — far more diverse than in Iowa and New Hampshire — as well as Clinton’s deep connections to Texas dating back to the 1970s.

“We’re going to see the momentum he built to this point begin to fall off,” former state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat and Clinton backer, said Friday.

Polling on the Democratic race in Texas has been scant, but Clinton has consistently held a double-digit lead over Sanders. The most recent survey, which was conducted Jan. 25-26 by KTVT-CBS 11/Dixie Strategies, found Clinton beating Sanders by 34 points.

Diversity dynamics

For 40 years, the Clintons have demonstrated a unique affection for the Lone Star State. She and Bill Clinton started their political career here, working to elect George McGovern president in 1972.

The state party now is a shell of what it was in those days. But of the Texas Democrats who still carry sway, most worked at some point or another on a Clinton presidential campaign, either in the 1990s or during her storied Texas delegate fight with Barack Obama in 2008.

“The Clinton name is pretty powerful,” said Texas AFL-CIO president John Patrick, who is an unaligned superdelegate. “This is from someone who ended up being an Obama delegate in 2008.”

“But I know full well how powerful the Clinton machine was in 2008,” he added. “I don’t know if it’s going to be as powerful in ’16 as ’08, but I think the mechanism is there, and they can put it in play ... pretty quickly.”

And yet, Clinton technically lost the state in 2008. She won the popular vote, but in a second round, often referred to as the second part of the “Texas two-step,” Barack Obama’s prodigious caucus operation ran away with the most Texas delegates.

That won’t happen again, her allies say, in part because the Democratic National Committee eliminated the two-step last summer.

Texas also embodies a theory from the Clinton campaign that she will prevail against Sanders once the primary moves to more diverse parts of the country — places like Houston, Dallas and South Texas. Those areas, her supporters note, stand in contrast with the early voting states where Sanders has posed a serious threat to Clinton. 

"Iowa’s the whitest, most liberal caucus state in the union,” said former Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, who has been involved in many Clinton campaigns in Texas. "I mean, 43 percent of the Democrats self-identify as socialist, and after all, Bernie is a socialist. And he couldn’t even carry that state."

“I expect he’ll do pretty well in Austin,” he added. “But there aren’t any senatorial districts outside of Austin that I would call progressive, so I don’t see where his targets are.”

In most polls, Clinton performs especially well against Sanders among minority voters. In the KTVT-CBS 11/Dixie Strategies survey, Clinton had a 44-point advantage over Sanders with both African-American and Hispanic respondents.

Leticia Van de Putte, who represented San Antonio in the state Legislature for more than two decades before losing the race for lieutenant governor in 2014, said Clinton’s presence in Bexar County during the 2008 campaign and her longtime connections to the area add a sense of familiarity for Hispanic Democrats.

“She was in our neighborhoods walking and registering voters when it wasn’t cool to be registering Latino voters in the seventies,” said Van de Putte.

While acknowledging that Democrats “like to root for the underdog,” Van de Putte also sees Clinton’s policies as more attractive to minority voters. For example, she contrasted Sanders’ push for free public college tuition regardless of financial status to Clinton’s more modest proposal to eliminate student debt.

“For voters in Latino communities, we’ve never wanted a handout, we want to earn it,” she said. “So her position resonates. It doesn’t insult us. We want it better, but we don’t want our kids to grow up as spoiled brats either.”

With a structural head start due to demographics and history, Clinton’s organization in the state started slow, as Renteria admitted at an Austin organizing event in January. Since then, it has picked up fast. In the past week the campaign has opened offices in Houston and San Antonio, with several more planned as the race continues to heat up. It has hired more staff, including lead organizer Carlos Paz Jr. and Sanchez, who took a leave of absence from his job as U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro’s chief of staff to serve as the campaign's Texas press secretary.

Sanders’ supporters dispute the idea that he is at a disadvantage in more diverse parts of the country, arguing his populist message transcends race and ethnicity.

A jump on the ground game

Well aware of Clinton’s deep connections to the state, Sanders’ campaign quietly began building an organization in Texas three months ago, naming a legislative staffer, Jacob Limon, as its state director and setting up shop in Austin. The Sanders campaign has since opened seven offices across the state, most recently in Corpus Christi, with paid staff based at each location.

“From the campaign standpoint, this is actually proceeding as exactly as we planned,” Limon said. “We always knew we had to get a jump on the ground game.”

Sanders’ campaign has already made “hundreds of thousands of voter contacts” in Texas, Limon said. Like elsewhere, Sanders’ team in Texas is focused on both turning out rank-and-file Democrats and bringing new voters into the process, all while meticulously cultivating delegates.

“This isn’t just about victory or defeat,” Limon wrote in an email to Sanders supporters Friday. “The margin by which we lose or win matters, too, since Texas’ delegates are divided up proportionally.”

After Sanders’ near-victory in Iowa, his campaign in Texas is seeing a surge in interest. State Rep. Marisa Márquez, D-El Paso, said Sanders’ showing in the first-in-the-nation caucuses “certainly shocked a lot of people.” It also had implications for his prospects in Texas, showing he is a viable alternative to Clinton.

“Clearly, his message is getting across to a lot of nontraditional voters, and that should say something about Texas,” said Márquez, the only known member of the Legislature publicly backing Sanders. “I think she has her go-to establishment supporters here, and I don’t think she’s prepared for those nontraditional, excited voters that she hasn’t had.”

On why her colleagues are lining up behind Clinton, not Sanders, Marquez volunteered a reason: “Hillary’s safe for them.”

At a recent meeting of Sanders volunteers in the Austin area — one that was billed as more important than ever following the razor-thin margin in Iowa — supporters were hopeful about the senator’s prospects in Texas but also acknowledged his challenges.

“Hillary tends to do well with Hispanic voters, so I’m worried about Bernie’s appeal to them,” said Thais Hinton, who suggested Clinton could overcome that gap by mobilizing young voters.

If Sanders notches a win in a solidly red state like Texas, Carla Wibright added, “It could turn the tide for the country."

Madlin Mekelburg contributed to this report.

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