Democratic presidential candidates lavish Texas with early attention

Texas could be key to helping the Democratic candidates clinch their party's nomination — even if they don't win the state's primary.

Works crews set up a sign as preparations continue for Thursday's Democratic presidential debate in Houston.

On a recent weekday evening, about 70 Bernie Sanders supporters gathered inside the third-floor conference room of an Austin electrical workers union building listened intently as a campaign organizer explained the intricacies of the Texas primary.

Texas awards its 228 delegates proportionally based on both the statewide result and the outcomes in its 31 state Senate districts. That provides ample opportunities here for candidates to pick up delegates needed to win the party nomination even if they are not the statewide winner.

“What this means is that not only do we want to win the popular vote statewide — we want to win individual districts,” said the organizer, Emily Isaac. "This changes things a little bit, right? Because what it means is that our margin of victory at the district level is relatively small, and it means that the people here — just us in this room — can make a significant impact on the outcome of the primary here in Texas."

Isaac's explanation came at one of the first barnstorms that Sanders’ campaign held in Texas, with two others happening around the same time, in Houston and San Antonio. The previous week, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign also held its first organizing events in Texas, hitting Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio. And Beto O’Rourke’s campaign held its first organizing get-together last week in Austin.

The flurry of events represent a new phase for the Democratic presidential campaigns in Texas, which has already received earlier-than-usual attention from the massive field as its influence grows on the primary calendar. It offers the second-largest Super Tuesday delegate haul on March 3, and the district-level trove gives candidates reason to compete here even if they cannot win statewide.

The growing spotlight on the state this cycle will be brightest yet when 10 candidates take the stage Thursday night in Houston for the third primary debate. Most have visited the state multiple times this year — to participate in forums, raise money and stage their own campaign events aimed at building genuine support in the state, which has two candidates of its own in Julián Castro and O'Rourke.

“I think across the board, most of them are taking Texas really seriously right now, especially Harris County,” said Lillie Schechter, who chairs the Democratic Party in the Houston-based county. “Every single person I talk to at the local level either hasn’t made up their minds or likes three or four of them. … While we love our Texas hometown heroes, there are some amazing candidates in this race who also have deep roots here — and it’s totally up for grabs here.”

One of the candidates looming largest is O’Rourke, who remains a political force in the state after his near-miss loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman, has consistently occupied the No. 1 or No. 2 spot in 2020 Texas primary polls, though he slipped to third in a pair of surveys released Wednesday morning.

Still, O'Rourke's campaign has been increasingly eager to promote his home-state strength as he struggles to gain traction in the states that come before Texas in the nominating process.

"In 2018, Beto built a diverse grassroots campaign that forever transformed Texas and put the state in play," O’Rourke spokesman Chris Evans said. "In 2020, Beto is uniquely positioned to expand on that historic success and win Texas's 38 electoral votes."

O’Rourke’s campaign has spent the debate lead-up flexing his home-state muscles. On Tuesday, O’Rourke announced a Texas state leadership team — the first candidate to name staff for the March 3 primary — and on Wednesday morning, he unveiled an in-state endorsement list with over 100 names, including more than 70 current and former elected officials.

O’Rourke will follow up the debate with a weekend swing through Texas that will take him to two suburban counties — Fort Bend and Collin — that help tell the story of his 2018 breakthrough, when he dramatically swung the traditionally Republican areas. They’re also counties that none of the non-Texan presidential candidates have visited so far.

Of course, O’Rourke is not the only Texan in the race, though the other one, Castro, regularly gets far less support in state primary surveys. Still, the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor has built a statewide political network through years of being one of Texas Democrats’ biggest draws. While his endorsement list is shorter than O’Rourke’s, he has secured a little more support from Texans in Congress and the state Legislature.

Castro, who held a “Castro Country” rally Monday night in Houston, remains confident he can win his home-state primary once he proves himself in the earlier states.

“My plan is to work hard so that I can do well in Iowa, I can gain momentum and then by the time we get to Texas, it's going to be a different ballgame,” Castro told reporters after the rally. “What we see now in the polling is simple theory because by the time we get to March 3, there's going to be a lot of changes in this race, and I know I need to do well before Texas so I can win in Texas.”

Whatever home-field advantages O’Rourke and Castro may enjoy have not scared off their rivals, almost all of whom have been to Texas this year. Five have led the way with four Texas trips each, including their travel here for the debate Thursday: Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Sanders.

Not all the trips are the same, and some candidates have distinguished their visits from the typical drop-ins just to appear at candidate forums or make quick fundraising jaunts. There was Harris' late March swing through the state that was highlighted by a campaign rally at Texas Southern University, complete with signs proclaiming, "This is Harris County." There was former Vice President Joe Biden's late May visit to the state that included a teachers union town hall in Houston, where he unveiled his first major policy proposal, on education. And more recently, Sanders and Castro got credit for being the only candidates to show up to the Islamic Society of North America's annual meeting in Houston, one of the largest Muslim gatherings in the country.

Warren began debate week with the biggest splash in Texas among the candidates, endorsing Jessica Cisneros, the primary challenger to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. Cisneros then got to introduce Warren at her town hall Thursday night in Austin, and the two shared the stage before a crowd of thousands.

Warren used the rally to note her Texas ties, saying she’s “been coming to Austin since I was a little girl,” when her aunt and uncle lived on Bull Creek Road on the city’s northwest side.

“This is really family for me,” said Warren, whose Texas experience also includes an undergraduate education at the University of Houston and a teaching job at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin.

Of course, some of the non-Texan candidates made more of an effort than others before this cycle to make inroads in the state. For example, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker headlined the Texas Democratic Party’s yearly Johnson-Jordan Dinner a year ago in Austin. That appearance seemed to be on the mind of the Travis County chair, Dyana Limon-Mercado, as she introduced Booker last month at a small-dollar fundraiser for his campaign in Austin.

Booker, she said, had been “paying attention to Texas when a lot of other people weren’t.”

For his part, Booker pledged to be the kind of party standard-bearer who works hard for down-ballot candidates, mentioning the U.S. Senate race next year in Texas. “And if I’m your nominee, I’m back down here helping to organize so that I win Texas and you win Texas,” Booker said.

Among the non-Texan candidates, Biden has landed some of the more serious endorsements, getting support from former Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville and U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas. Buttigieg, meanwhile, has cultivated a key ally in Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who endorsed Buttigieg at his campaign launch in April in South Bend, Indiana, and has since hosted him in Austin.

One thing that is not different about this cycle is Texas’ perennial status as an ATM for presidential candidates.

Unsurprisingly, O’Rourke has raised far more money — $5.9 million — from Texans than any other candidate, according to a Tribune analysis. Castro comes in third, behind Sanders, $1.1 million to $1.4 million.

Among the 10 leading candidates, the Vermont senator has the highest percentage of low-dollar donations from Texas, with 90% of his in-state donations being $200 or less. Biden, on the other hand, has the lowest percentage of low-dollar donations (40%), along with Booker.

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For his Texas fundraisers, the former vice president has been able to rely on a network of high-powered trial lawyers concentrated in Houston and Dallas — people like Lisa Blue Baron, John Eddie Williams and Marc Stanley.

While some of the state’s prominent Democratic donors appear to have made up their minds already, others appear to be still keeping their options open. This week alone, for example, Wally Brewster, the former U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, is hosting Dallas fundraisers for two candidates — Buttigieg on Friday and Biden on Saturday.

“We have a great field of candidates, and like us, you may be supporting multiple candidates,” Houston attorney Roland Garcia wrote in a recent invitation to a Klobuchar fundraiser that he and his wife are hosting Wednesday evening in the city. “Amy has been a friend for several years.”

As candidates get serious about competing in Texas, the next step is organizing. The Sanders campaign said its first three barnstorms in the state drew over 210 people, and thousands of volunteers have already taken it upon themselves to hold 334 events in Texas.

“I don’t expect any real formal organization or ground game until we get closer to our primary, but I think supporters are starting to align themselves with campaigns, so by the time they get here, they won’t have any trouble” putting them to work, said Deborah Peoples, chairwoman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party.

For now, though, all eyes are on the debate — and the additional candidate activity it has brought to Texas. An hour after the debate ends Thursday night, the Texas Democratic Party is hosting a “midnight rally” across the city that at least two candidates, Castro and Booker, will attend.

The party’s message, for both the event and the primary: the more the merrier.

“No matter who the candidate is,” party spokesman Abhi Rahman said, “they can come here and compete.”

Disclosure: Former Texas Tribune board member Steve Adler, Lisa Blue Baron, John Eddie Williams, the Texas State University System and the University of Houston 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.