U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' message of modern-day populism brought out Texans by the thousands on Saturday.
In Austin, Texas' liberal hub, the Vermont Democrat had particular appeal to the mix of older Austin liberals and younger progressives who have migrated here by the tens of thousands in recent years. And later in the day, Dallas-Fort Worth supporters showed up at a suburban concert venue to cheer their hero.
The Texas visit comes a day after early voting in Tuesday’s Texas Democratic primary ended and with Sanders trailing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by 10 points in the state, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll published this week.
The deficit didn’t seem to bother Sanders.
His message, albeit predictable, was delivered in the same fiery tone that has resonated with the supporters who have helped the Vermont senator close the gap between him and the frontrunner to deliver higher-than-expected results in other states.
“We were 50 points down in Iowa and ended in a virtual tie. We were 30 points down in New Hampshire — we won that state,” he said.
He doubled down on his criticism of his Democratic rival for being at the behest of special interests and the corporate machinery he hinted she would be beholden to if elected president.
“We are listening to the American people, not wealthy campaign contributors,” he said. “And what the American people are telling us is that they are sick and tired of establishment politics, sick and tired of establishment economics. They want a government which is going to represent all of us.”
Sanders hit Clinton for voting for the war in Iraq while she was a U.S. senator, and for supporting the “homophobic” Defense of Marriage Act, which passed in 1996 when her husband was president. He also criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying it shipped jobs away from American workers to those foreign countries.
Sanders reiterated his commitment to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and expanding Social Security and health care, proposals considered taboo by his GOP rivals who insist Sanders is little more than a modern-day socialist.
But the candidate saved his fiercest criticism for the current GOP frontrunner, billionaire Donald Trump, whom Sanders seemed convinced will win that party's nomination. He conceded that immigration reform is a divisive issue that won’t be easily solved. But he said the rhetoric toward minorities has spun out of control and needled Trump for his now infamous comments about Mexico.
“I would hope that every American would stand up against the xenophobia and against the racism that we are hearing,” he said. “It is not acceptable to refer to Mexicans who come in to this country as criminals, as rapists, as drug dealers.”
“I believe that Donald Trump’s idea of dividing us up is a horrific, un-American idea,” he added at the end of his 40-minute speech in Austin. “We will defeat Trump because the American people do not want an American president who insults Mexicans and Muslims, who insults women and African-Americans and veterans and basically anybody who is not like Donald Trump. And thankfully, most Americans are not like Donald Trump.”
Though they were happy to see Sanders on Saturday, some supporters said an earlier visit might have helped the candidate by swaying undecided Democrats to his side during early voting.
“I was wondering when he would show up. I figured he would some time before Tuesday, and here he is,” said Robin Rieck, a precinct chair from neighboring Bastrop County. “He’s spread thin, but I would like to have seen him sooner.”
Others said he should have paid more attention to the border, especially with his support for a comprehensive overhaul of the current immigration system.
“I am actually disappointed in that regard. Hillary has really stepped up her game in that regard, but that’s one area he’s lacking in,” said Eric Martinez, who moved to Austin from the Mexican state of Guerrero 10 years ago. “That’s also a mistake. He should have been here [in Texas] a lot sooner.”
Hightower, who earlier introduced Sanders in Austin, breezily greeted the crowd with, "Hello, revolutionaries."
When Sanders spoke, any mention of or allusion to Clinton elicited boos.
Sanders' Dallas crowd of about 7,000 was one of the largest — if not the largest — of a series of candidate events in the Metroplex in the last week. Elsewhere in the country, Sanders has attracted similar crowds.
Saturday's two Sanders events marked his only two recent appearances in the state in the run up to the primary. Clinton's only recent event was last weekend in Houston. She has delegated most of her Texas campaigning to Bill Clinton, who is scheduled to return before Election Day.
Sanders said he was encouraged with his Texas prospects.
"As I look around, we had a great rally in Austin this morning; this is just fantastic," Sanders said in Dallas. "So I think we have a surprise coming for some people on Tuesday."