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Despite Tightening Polls, No Sign Clinton Vying to Beat Trump in Texas

Recent polls show Hillary Clinton within single digits of Donald Trump in Texas. And Clinton herself said last month that she believed the state was flippable. Yet all signs point to Clinton ceding the state to Trump.

Hillary Clinton greets supporters at Texas Southern University in Houston Saturday, February 20, 2016, after winning the Nevada caucus.

WASHINGTON — Recent polls show Hillary Clinton within single digits of Donald Trump in Texas. And Clinton herself told a national magazine last month that she believed the Lone Star State was flippable.

So is a competitive fall presidential campaign coming to a precinct near you? Don’t count on it. 

There is little evidence that the Clinton camp will mount a sustained campaign this fall for the state’s 38 electoral votes, according to more than a dozen interviews with state and national Democratic officeholders and operatives.

To be sure, the Democratic presumptive nominee herself fanned the chatter in May, when she told New York magazine that she thought Texas might be in play “if black and Latino voters come out and vote.” And both Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have a soft spot for the state, dating back to the time they spent in Texas as operatives working on behalf of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.

But no one interviewed for this story — people familiar with the Clinton campaign’s electoral strategy, Texas politics or both  — anticipates any sort of serious general election campaign targeting Texas voters in the fall. 

“While I’m encouraged by these poll numbers, I take it with a whole shaker full of salt,” said former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost. “I think Texas is going to be in play at some point. I think it would take a lot for Texas to be in play, [but] I think Hillary will make it a closer race than in the past.” 

In national politics, it’s assumed that at some indeterminate point, a booming Hispanic population will make Texas competitive. 

But for now, Democrats view Texas as too conservative and too expensive. 

In the most recent statewide contest, the GOP's standard-bearer, Gov. Greg Abbott, carried the state in 2014 by a 20-point spread. And in these polarized times, presidential candidates do not organically win states their party has not regularly won in previous presidential elections. It would be a staggering development for Democrats to carry such a state without sustained television, field and voter registration campaigns. 

It’s still early, but neither Clinton nor her allied groups have placed television advertising reservations in Texas. And in a dozen interviews with state and national Democratic operatives and officials, not one person said there was any evidence that the Clinton campaign was expecting that to change.

“I’m not hearing that anyone is going out of their way to do anything in Texas above what they always do,” said Texas AFL-CIO President John Patrick, who is also a Democratic National Committee member. 

There is a plausible argument that Trump’s inciting racial rhetoric is so uniquely galvanizing that Democrats have an opportunity to register and turn out the state's dormant Hispanic voting population.

Patrick concurred that Trump presents an opening for Democrats for the future and he could imagine organized labor trying to take advantage of the situation to register Hispanic voters in the fall. But while that would be a smart long-term strategy to turn Texas competitive, national Democrats say they don't see much chance for flipping the state in the short term.

Officially, the Clinton campaign indicated Texas is on the radar. "Hillary for America is committed to reaching voters in Texas and supporting Democrats down ballot now and in the future," said Marlon Marshall, the director of State Campaigns and Political Engagement for the Clinton effort.

"While Hillary Clinton offers clear plans to build an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top, Trump's reckless rhetoric and divisive ideas continue to alienate diverse communities like those in Texas," he added. "We look forward to engaging voters throughout this election on the choice they face for the future of this country."

Even as most other Democrats downplay the state's competitiveness in the fall, they are quick to caveat that their calculations are based on conditions as they stand now, in midsummer. Trump is running an underfunded and erratic campaign, prompting some to wonder if the bottom could fall out for him in Texas. 

Judging by its June television advertising, the Clinton campaign and its allies groups are spending on the usual battleground states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia — according to NBC News. 

There is also a possibility that Clinton may have to run a defense in Rust Belt states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But should the campaign feel confident and move to a further offensive position, Texas is still likely to remain on the back burner. 

There are plenty of cheaper and more competitive states — like Arizona and Georgia — that will come before Texas. 

Arizona is intriguing to national Democrats because it boasts an increasingly bitter Senate race, with embattled 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain on defense. 

Thanks to a rigid redistricting map, Texas by contrast has few down-ballot Congressional opportunities for Democrats. There is no Senate race in the state this cycle, and there is only one competitive House race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its aligned outside groups are expected to fully invest in challenging U.S. Rep. Will Hurd in the Texas 23rd. Democrat Pete Gallego is vying to win back the seat after being defeated by Hurd two years ago.

But multiple national Democratic sources say they do not anticipate investment in Texas beyond that race. 

The Clinton campaign recently unveiled a 50-state strategy, and the campaign is expected to install a state director in Texas soon. A Clinton source said the aim in Texas would be to begin laying groundwork for the future.

“It’s interesting if it gets closer,” said Frost. “That has implications for the future.” 

Texas Republicans, of all groups, are perhaps the most enthused over the idea that the state could be in play in the fall.  

Republicans say they would love to see Democrats drawn into what they view as a hopeless money pit. But also, within a state GOP torn over its own nominee, a Clinton offensive could be just what it takes to rally an otherwise morose group.

“The quickest way to activate disenfranchised GOP donors who won’t give to Trump would be an aggressive effort by Democrats to win the state,” said Brian Haley, a Texan who was a top fundraiser in two previous GOP presidential campaigns.

Abbott is one of multiple Republicans who have already sent fundraising emails on the notion. 

“She has already made it known that winning Texas will be a focus of her campaign,” Abbott campaign director John Jackson wrote in a recent missive, referring to Clinton. “It’s clear that Hillary will not only continue Obama’s liberal leadership—she will be even worse!”

Trump, to be sure, unnerves some Texas Republicans who worry his rhetoric will repel a generation of Hispanic voters. But many caution that Texas Hispanics do not break down along monolithic party lines.

Chris Perkins, a Texas-based Republican pollster, warns that as polarizing Trump is, Clinton also has her own image struggles. 

“Public polls do show that Donald Trump is not very well liked among Hispanic voters, but the theory that they’re going to turn out in record numbers for Hillary Clinton, somebody they also do not have a good opinion of — doesn’t make mathematical sense,” he said. 

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