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Can an anti-Trump surge of voters sway Texas?

Texas is expected to go Republican this year, as it has in every presidential election since 1980. But Democrats have watched a turnout surge wash over the state’s most urban, least white areas.

By David Weigel, The Washington Post
Trump protesters speak with San Antonio police office outside Hyatt Hotel in San Antonio where Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump was expected to attend a fundraiser on October 11, 2016

EL PASO — On Wednesday, shortly after El Paso County broke its record for early voting, Andres Villalobos walked into the downtown courthouse and cast a ballot for “Mrs. Clinton and the Democrats.” He was 65 years old, and had earned American citizenship after years of crossing back and forth across the Mexican border, a few blocks away.

But he had never voted before. Nothing had compelled him to vote until Donald Trump ran for president. If Trump won the presidency, he predicted the absolute worst.

“Maybe chaos,” he said. “It would be ugly, very, very bad for the economy, for the city, for everyone. It would be bad for the border. It wouldn’t work.”

Leonardo Wong, 71, was also casting his first vote. He’d registered while renewing the passport that let him walk back and forth across the border, and he’d gotten behind Hillary Clinton.

“I don’t think everybody’s a rapist and everybody’s a narco like Trump says,” Wong said.

Texas is expected to go Republican this year, as it has in every presidential election since 1980. At Trump’s lowest point, when he was buried by his own gaffes and weak debate performances, the state closed to single digits in polling; final polls have him leading by closer to 10 points.

But Democrats have watched a turnout surge wash over the state’s most urban, least white areas. In 10 days of early voting, more than 115,000 early ballots were cast in El Paso County, blowing past the record set in 2008. Turnout overall was up by 64 percent over 2012; it was up by close to 40 percent around Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.

Turnout has also grown in the deep red suburbs, but in El Paso, Democrats are no longer struggling to turn out their voters. According to “We (fillintheblank),” a student-run political group that conducts the area’s only exit polling, Clinton is on track to win 71 percent of the vote in El Paso, better than any Democrat since the Texas Republican Party became competitive.

The Trump candidacy has challenged a Republican project that had succeeded in Texas more than in any state — a coalition between conservative whites and culturally conservative Latino voters. Republicans, who have controlled every statewide office here since 1998, have won supermajorities of white voters and courted enough Latino votes to make the Democratic Party irrelevant.

It was supposed to show Republicans the way to a one-party future. In 1998, a campaign designed to prove his appeal to voters beyond Texas, then-Gov. George W. Bush camped out in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso. “I want it to be known that a conservative candidate can carry the Hispanic vote,” he told reporters.

He did so, and won El Paso, a feat he did not repeat in his campaigns for president. In Bush’s wake, even as the national party abandoned immigration reform, Democrats struggled to activate Texan Latinos the way that they had in California, or Arizona, or the midwestern states where they were more recent immigrants.

The struggle won national attention — the bad kind — in 2014. Battleground Texas, a PAC created by veterans of the Obama campaign, launched on the theory that early spending and organizing could activate a slumbering, non-white vote. “Texas isn’t as red of a state as people say it is, if you look at the numbers,” said senior adviser Jeremy Bird at the launch event.

The numbers did not change. Greg Abbott, elected governor in a landslide two years ago, out-campaigned Democrat Wendy Davis with Latinos. Ads in the Rio Grande Valley played up Abbott’s marriage to a Mexican-American. Turnout in El Paso fell by more than half of its 2012 total, allowing now-Rep. Will Hurd to flip a House seat that Democrats had considered safe.

Then came Trump. Some Texas Republicans had been edging toward his rhetoric, away from the Bush approach. Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor elected in 2014, did not sound different from Trump on the border, or when he crusaded against college tuition for undocumented Texans. But voter awareness of Patrick was minimal; Trump blotted out the sun. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who in 2012 defeated an incumbent who’d relied on the teetering Democratic machine, had never encountered a line for early voting. The line was 45 minutes long this year.

“There wasn’t even a whole lot that someone like me needed to do to encourage that,” said O’Rourke. “Finally, there was a very clear reason to vote.”

In the summer, El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar began to notice that people who crowded into the semi-annual citizenship ceremonies dashed across the courthouse to get registered to vote.

“I think everyone understands how closely tied we are to Mexico,” Escobar explained, sitting in her office near one of the voting sites. “We lived through the devaluation of the peso, and when it happened, our economy was devastated. Insulting our most important economic partner, and wanting to isolate it from us — most people here realize there’d be an economic price, and we would pay it.”

The border described by Trump simply did not resemble the one El Paso lives with. The Republican nominee was not wrong about the drug wars in Ciudad Juarez, or the smugglers constantly changing their tactics to get opium and meth into the United States. But El Paso is growing. Unemployment is sinking. Thanks in large part to a policing build-up on the border, someone in Dallas or Houston was twice as likely to be a victim of violent crime. What was Trump talking about?

“He’s an embarrassment,” said Ana Morales, 31, a victim advocate who works with non-citizens and frets about how a Trump presidency would affect them. “I think he would put up a lot of barriers. There are very vulnerable people who would be hurt by him.”

“It would be like east Berlin,” said Edna Ortega, 42. “He would bring in an authoritarian type of government — very racist.”

Republicans, who do not need El Paso to win the state, said that Trump’s impact would be overrated. On Thursday, the local Republican Party headquarters was quiet but active. One volunteer made calls, near signs that advertised the summer social media campaign to bring Trump to El Paso. (He never came.) Adolpho Telles, the county chairman, insisted that plenty of Democrats were quietly telling him that they would buck the tide and vote for Trump.

“People don’t necessarily like the fence idea, the wall idea, whatever you want to call it,” he said. “But when the cameras are off, they will tell you: They don’t believe in illegal immigration. They do believe in securing the border.”

In dozens of interviews at the polls, Trump supporters were happy to talk. None said that they were voting Republican because of Trump’s immigration policy. Mike and Destiny Tipton, 32 and 34, supported Trump after Clinton’s record at the State Department put them off.

“These email things never seem to go away,” said Mike Tipton, referring an apparently false Fox News report that Clinton risked indictment.

“I’m disappointed with her over the whole Benghazi thing,” said Destiny Tipton.

Those sentiments were usually outweighed with genuine terror of Trump — and often, admiration for Clinton. Some voters, who spoke only Spanish, talked about a hypothetical Trump presidency the way that Tea Party conservatives once discussed an Obama re-election — a world-shattering event, the end of America as they knew it. At a polling station inside the Bassett mall, the Thursday lunch hour found a steady stream of voters entering, filling out their ballots quickly, and exiting to explain why they’d voted for Clinton.

Frank Noriega, 72, accompanied his wife as she voted for Clinton, then stayed behind to finish some errands. He’d long ago decided to oppose Trump. The mystery, to him, was why more people didn’t seem to trust Clinton.

“She’s out there with regular public, she talks to them,” he said. “For all the stuff that’s come out, they’ve never proven she did anything wrong. If they had the proof, she couldn’t be running.”

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