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Texas 2020 Elections

Bernie Sanders stokes question for Texas Democrats: How would his nomination affect their down-ballot plans?

Sanders supporters say he'll bring new voters to the polls to help Democrats flip Texas, but some establishment figures are in panic mode.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at his campaign rally in Austin on Feb. 23, 2020.

* Correction appended.

FORT WORTH — U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey is about as restrained as Texans come, but in recent days he has unloaded his unvarnished thoughts on the Democratic presidential primary to practically any reporter he could find.

His message? U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ march to the party’s nomination will jeopardize Texas Democrats’ efforts to capture the state House of Representatives and a slew of U.S. House seats across the state.

“Bernie has no coattails,” said Veasey, who has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden. “It’s going to be Bernie and his cause taking the party down with him.

“People are sufficiently wary as hell, and from this point on, the scrutiny is going to be very, very high on Sanders,” he added. “When I was in church [Sunday] in southeast Fort Worth, people were coming up to me in tears.”

There’s no doubt that Sanders’ strong showing in the first three states of the nominating contest has sparked strong emotions in Texas politics. The candidate barnstormed the state over the weekend, drawing undeniably enthusiastic crowds of thousands and declaring, “We’re gonna win here in Texas, and in November we’re gonna defeat Trump here in Texas."

But Veasey is not alone in his fear.

While Sanders supporters proclaim a growing movement that will bring out new voters needed to flip the state, nearly two dozen Texas Democratic officeholders, candidates, activists and donors interviewed for this story expressed concern — sometimes bordering on despair — that a Sanders Democratic nomination is the difference between being on offense or in retreat in Texas this cycle.

The longtime minority party in Texas started the year with aims to flip nine seats needed to wrestle control of the Texas House of Representatives ahead of a crucial redistricting year in the Legislature. And on a parallel track, national Democrats are targeting seven Republican-held U.S. House seats in Texas.

The key to achieving those goals was continuing to make gains in the suburbs, where educated voters have shown an uneasiness with President Donald Trump’s brash brand of politics. But many leading Democrats in Texas — Sanders supporters would call them “the establishment” — fear the focus of the races here will shift if the Democratic Party elects a candidate at the top of the ticket who embraces the label “democratic socialism.”

“There is so much hope ... knowing that if you have somebody like a Biden or a Buttigieg or a Klobuchar at the top of the ticket, we have extraordinary opportunities down-ballot ... and to make this race about Donald Trump and Republicans in Texas,” said Matt Angle, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state. “The concern is if Bernie is the nominee, then it’s about him.

“It clouds the narrative down-ballot,” he added. “It changes the narrative in a way that we didn’t expect to.”

Beyond Veasey, Texas Democratic officials lined up in interviews with The Texas Tribune to make their worries known. Save for U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville, these are not officials who enjoy a political rumble. And many are supporters of Sanders' biggest rival, Biden.

“Our majority is at risk,” U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, a Biden backer, said of the Democratic hold on the U.S. House of Representatives if Sanders is the nominee. “Any chance of winning the [U.S.] Senate is at risk, and back in Texas, any chance of winning back the [state] House is at risk.”

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Biden endorser considered by many to be a likely candidate for speaker if Democrats flip the state House, said, “Nonpartisan observers are placing the chances of taking back the state House at 50/50 or better. If Bernie is at the top of the ticket, I think it throws that entire formula into question.”

And Vela lamented, “Bernie at the top of the ticket endangers current Democratic House seats and will make it very difficult to win other targeted congressional and House seats in Texas.”

Meanwhile, state Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston, who hasn't endorsed in the presidential race, said a Sanders candidacy “would hurt our chances of gaining seats in the Legislature.”

Sanders is the delegate leader within the Democratic primary. He finished strongly in Iowa — though it remains unclear if it was a first-place finish there — and won in New Hampshire and Nevada. After the South Carolina primary Saturday, Texas and other Super Tuesday states loom large. Sanders leads the polls in many states, and a strong showing March 3 could give him an insurmountable lead.

For Sanders supporters, the fear of a Sanders candidacy is mystifying. Sanders leads most public polling in Texas, garnering around 25% support in the primary. And he fares well in hypothetical matchups with Trump. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll showed Sanders behind Trump by just 2 percentage points in Texas, the lowest margin among top Democratic candidates. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Texas by 9 points in 2016.

Former state Rep. Marisa Márquez is one of Sanders’ most prominent Texas backers.

“The truth is that Bernie speaks to people, not party,” she said. “The disenfranchised and marginalized, especially Latinos, have found their voice in this campaign.

“I would encourage the leaders in our state to take a good look at the real change Bernie Sanders’ campaign represents for the people of Texas,” she added. “Fear will not defeat Trump in November. “

And Sanders’ campaign has stressed that it believes he is the best candidate for a Democratic victory here.

“Texas isn’t a red state, it’s a nonvoting state,” said Kolby Lee, a Sanders spokesman who grew up in Texas. “If we’re serious about flipping the state House and winning in battleground congressional districts, we need a nominee who will inspire grassroots enthusiasm and turn out voters on Election Day.”

Zack Malitz is a Texas-based consultant who worked on Sanders’ 2016 campaign and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate race and is currently working on behalf of Democratic Senate candidate Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez. He is not affiliated with Sanders this cycle but supports him.

“When it comes to presidential politics, the same dynamic is playing out everywhere that people are tired of a government and economy that is dominated by elites,” he said. “If we get a candidate who wants to go back to the pre-Trump status quo, we’re going to get the same result as 2016.”

Still, Republicans have sent countless press releases over the last year that tagged Democratic candidates with the socialist label. In Republicans’ eyes, the Democrats would do the work for them by nominating Sanders.

The anti-Sanders Democrats fear that planned tax increases, socialist labeling and calls for mandatory, government-funded health care will destroy their candidates in the suburbs. Possibly, though, no other issue unnerves Texas Democrats more than a standard-bearer in favor of the Green New Deal and against fracking — positions that might unnerve swing voters in a state with a huge energy economy.

Compounding the drama are memories from 2016. Texas Democratic leaders watched in horror as a Texas delegation breakfast at that year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia devolved into yelling and chaos between supporters of Sanders and those of his 2016 primary rival, Hillary Clinton.

The Catch-22 among these Democrats is a worry that down-ballot candidates lose if Sanders repels moderate voters, but they also lose if Sanders’ passionate supporters stay home.

Further adding to the unease is rhetoric from Sanders and his followers criticizing “the Democratic establishment.” That establishment in Texas comprises of people who saw the party lose control of the state House in the early 2000s and then nearly take it back in 2008, only to watch those gains wash away in the 2010 Republican wave election.

In their view, they have been digging the party out of a hole since those dark days until Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate race beat expectations, losing by fewer than 3 percentage points.

“We were fighting tooth and nail with no help from anybody nationally when [then-U.S. House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay was redrawing our districts, and Bernie Sanders was waving his arms in Congress and getting nothing done,” said Angle, the Democratic strategist.

“There is a resentment he will have to overcome, and he doesn’t seem to understand that,” Angle said. “That people who have been fighting the bad guys, the Tom DeLays, the Dan Patricks, resent somebody coming from a state smaller than Dallas County and tell them how to win races.”

Those arguments ring hollow to Sanders supporters, however.

“This happens to be the same generation in which Democrats have not won statewide since 1994,” said Malitz, the strategist and Sanders supporter. “It’s not a dis against anyone in particular that these things are true.

“It should make you question the conventional wisdom, when that conventional wisdom is coming from those people who don’t have a track record of winning,” he added.

That squabbling comes during a time that Texas Democrats had expected to spend building the party. Instead, Democrats interviewed said they were counting down the days until the primary wrapped.

“This can’t end soon enough,” wrote one operative to the Tribune. The F-word is a favored word in private conversations. And one Texas Democrat simply texted the vomit emoji when asked for comment on the presidential primary.

Given Sanders’ momentum, many Democrats suspect the fight is probably over.

But not Veasey.

“To say that it’s over? No,” he said.

Still, other Democrats are trying to keep their focus on November and their rivals’ vulnerabilities. State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, who runs the campaign to recapture the state House, noted audio recordings that surfaced last year revealing state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s concerns about the challenges Republicans face. Bonnen was caught on tape saying Trump was “killing us in urban-suburban districts.”

“They’re not doing anything to be that mainstream party,” she said. “They seem to be content to be the party of Trump. … I’m really excited about 2020.”

Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schechter said her team will stand ready to support whomever the nominee is.

“We will be there to support whichever candidate comes out of the convention,” she said.

And nearly everyone interviewed for this story conceded predictions are a risky game these days. Republicans went through a similar angst in 2016, when the infamous “Access Hollywood” recording revealed Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. Many in the party feared the GOP would lose the U.S. House. Instead, they easily held the chamber.

Texas Republicans, meanwhile, boast the Democratic divide is precisely the bump their party needed after 2018.

“From our perspective, the infighting is what is making us just sit back and smile,” said Chris Perkins, a former Texas Congressional delegation staffer and a pollster for many Republican officeholders and candidates.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter 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.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave the wrong number of congressional districts in Texas that national Democrats are targeting.

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