FORT WORTH - Long before most Texans had ever heard of Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke's bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Planned Parenthood organizers saw something unusual happen in the winter of 2017: Their annual Fort Worth fundraising luncheon sold out.
Not since Gloria Steinem headlined the Democrat-leaning group's event in the state's largest Republican stronghold several years prior have organizers seen such enthusiasm for their reproductive health care mission.
But this time felt different to attendees who spoke to The Texas Tribune at the time. The mostly female crowd was there because of President Donald Trump, whose sexualized comments about women drew backlash even amid his successful candidacy. And many attendees were surprised to see familiar faces who were like-minded about politics.
It was that luncheon in America's most conservative urban bastion that marked the beginning of a coming-out process for many Fort Worth residents who are now furiously campaigning for Democrats like O’Rourke, state Senate candidate Beverly Powell and a slew of other down-ballot candidates.
Fort Worth and its outlying ranches and suburbs are mostly a backwater in Texas politics. Gerrymandered to the hilt, the national parties have mostly ignored this county.
But since Trump's election, things have changed here thanks to organic Democratic activism and O’Rourke's high-risk bet to stake his entire statewide strategy on flipping this county to his party.
"Tarrant County is where the energy is, where the excitement is, where they’re blowing the early voting totals from the last midterm out of the water," he said on Friday, while campaigning on the southeast side of town. "It’s why we are so encouraged."
But Julie McCarty, the president of the Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party, is not buying any of it.
"I have no worries about Tarrant County," she emailed to the Tribune. "We are solidly red this go-round, though there are pockets that may be pink. Of course any area that threatens to change is always a concern so we will watch the results carefully and plan accordingly."
O'Rourke's strategic gamble would have sounded nuts only four years ago. One by one over the years, other Texas urban counties fell to the Democrats, but Tarrant County remained the largest Republican county in the state and a pivotal part of GOP domination of the rest of the state.
Between 2000 and 2014, each Republican presidential, U.S. Senate and gubernatorial nominee carried the county by an average of 19 points. As recently as 2014, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn won Tarrant County by 24 points.
Then came Donald Trump.
With him at the top of the ticket, the GOP's 2016 margin in Tarrant shrank to nine points — the same spread with which Trump carried the entire state.
And if O'Rourke is successful at turning Tarrant County blue next month, he will push Texas deeper into a political territory where cities are pitted against suburban and rural areas.
"Tarrant County has been the, really, the hold out," said U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, the Democratic congressman on the north and east sides of town. "I’ve never seen any enthusiasm like this before."
“I thought this was Cruz’s country”
The scene at Hobert's Soul Food Canteen on Friday morning was happy mayhem. Several dozen people congregated in the parking lot here just outside of the Stop Six neighborhood to see O’Rourke campaign on one of his final swings through the state.
The east side is predominantly African American residents and Democratic voters. The residents here are known as some of the most disciplined voters in the state and they form Veasey’s political base.
None of these supporters can remember the last time a nationally prominent politician bothered to come through their side of town.
"No, nobody. And we’ve both been here our whole lives," said Faye Jefferson, a retired General Dynamics assembly line worker.
But it is not just the east side.
Sonia Williams-Barbers is the retired former owner of the Black Bookworm bookstore on the south side. She found reason to be at least hopeful about O’Rourke’s chances after a grocery run to the neighborhood around Texas Christian University on the southwest side of Fort Worth.
"I saw so many Beto signs in the yard, I was almost tempted to take pictures," she said. "I thought this was Cruz’s country. That’s encouraging."
TCU is nestled within the wealthier, predominantly white enclaves of Fort Worth. It's a place where at least some of the residents are beginning to reveal their Democratic leanings for the first time since the days of Ann Richards, the state's last Democratic governor.
Dubbed "the Westside," this is a place where high school allegiances can run deeper than the collegiate. The social culture revolves around the city's famed annual rodeo, debutante associations and country clubs. Philanthropy is a competitive sport, dating back to the Fort Worth wildcatters' contributions to world-class art museums.
And it was just assumed that everyone on this side of town was conservative.
But dating back to that 2017 Planned Parenthood luncheon, a number of wealthy white residents — many of them women — have made their support for O’Rourke and the down-ballot candidates public with yard signs, social media posts, campaigning and political fundraiser attendance.
Robin Sanders was the co-chair of the luncheon and said the same scene played out at a recent Annie's List fundraiser in Fort Worth a few weeks ago.
"They were all over the room," she said of seeing friends she recognized. "I said, 'I'm so happy to see you here.' That's when I realized there was hope. We all said that."
Over the summer, the "Westside Democrats" had to relocate their monthly meeting from Tommy’s Hamburgers to a barbecue joint because of exploding attendance. This jump was in part because a local volunteer is known to drive around town in search of O'Rourke signs and leave invitations on supporters' doors.
There are other visible cracks in the GOP's statewide foundation here. A car parked at a Friday O’Rourke event on the north side of the city bore the bumper sticker of a prominent evangelical private school.
The change in the political air has stressed social and business relationships in a place where partisan tensions are typically not spoken of out loud. After all, Fort Worth mayors tend to stress non-partisanship. Both parties famously recruited U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, a Republican, back when she first ran for Congress in 1996.
A wall for the wave
But there is much more to Tarrant County than just Fort Worth, and this is a complicated place — the county is urban, suburban and rural all at once.
Republicans still hold most of the offices here, despite the narrowed Trump margin of 2016. And Trump will not be on the ballot this year.
That dominance was on display on Thursday when Cruz held a rally in Arlington.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price was on hand, as were Republican state Sens. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills and Konni Burton of Colleyville.
Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright attended as well. He is the GOP nominee to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Joe Barton in the 6th Congressional District, and he spoke about the local climate.
"I've got news for our friends on the other side," he said. "That wave they’re trying to generate in Dallas County is going to die here in Arlington, Texas."
McCarty, the tea party activist, concurred to the Tribune. The question in her mind is not whether Tarrant County could flip, but whether the Republicans she expects to win will hold the conservative line.
"The bigger concern to me is not whether the Republican will win, but whether that Republican is truly supporting Republican ideals," she said. "Much of the time that is not the case, and that's where we have a problem."
Even if Tarrant County does not flip, there is some Republican concern that the Democratic anger and organization has strengthened to the point that some down-ballot candidates running for state Senate, the Texas House or local offices could be endangered.
Yet McCarty sees things going in a different direction.
"Regarding Tarrant County, we all know this is the stronghold that keeps Texas red," McCarty said.
She'd like to see other urban areas follow Tarrant County's example of urban conservatism, but said they "need some help for sure."
"Make America Texas," she added. "Make Texas Tarrant."
Disclosure: Annie's List, Planned Parenthood and Texas Christian University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.