HOUSTON — Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden sprinted through Texas on Monday looking to capitalize on his big win in South Carolina — and eager to ride the momentum into the state's delegate-rich primary Tuesday, when 13 other states vote, too.
Biden's momentous day culminated with a visit to Dallas where he won the support of three ex-rivals: former presidential candidates Beto O'Rourke, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. The nod from O'Rourke, the former El Paso congressman, was the most surprising — he had said he did not plan to endorse before the primary, and news of his endorsement did not leak until shortly before the rally was scheduled to begin.
"Ladies and gentlemen, tomorrow — March 3, 2020 — I will be casting my ballot for Joe Biden, and let me tell you why: We need somebody who can beat Donald Trump," said O'Rourke, who went on to call Biden the "antithesis" of Trump. "Joe Biden is decent, he's kind, he's caring, he's empathetic."
Despite the endorsement windfall, one thing remained to be seen of Biden's prospects in Texas: Is the sudden surge of support enough to pull off a win here against his closest competitor in the polls, Bernie Sanders? Over 1 million Texans have already cast ballots in the state's Democratic primary, whose early voting period began Feb. 18 and ended Friday — a day before Biden's Palmetto State triumph.
"With the Buttigieg and Klobuchar coalescence around Biden, the big question is, 'Is it too late?'" said Mike Floyd, the Pearland school board trustee and state party treasurer who endorsed Sanders on Monday. "I think Biden's gonna get a small bump, but I still think Bernie's gonna win Texas."
Floyd expressed that confidence in an interview before news broke that O'Rourke was set to endorse Biden. And Floyd acknowledged "a lot of Texas Democrats have been watching this election and ... deliberately waiting so that they don't vote for somebody who dropped out before Super Tuesday."
Those recent dropouts include Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Klobuchar, a U.S. senator from Minnesota. Buttigieg made an appearance with Biden before the Dallas rally, and in accepting Buttigieg's endorsement, Biden said the former mayor reminded him of his late son Beau, calling it the "highest compliment I can give to any man or woman." Like Bueau, Biden added, Buttigieg has a "backbone like a ramrod."
A short time later, Klobuchar took the stage with Biden and their spouses at Gilley's in Dallas to announce she was ending her campaign and endorsing the former vice president.
"If we spend the next four months dividing our party and going at each other, we will spend the next four years watching Donald Trump tear apart this country," Klobuchar said. "Texans, we need to unite our party and our country."
O'Rourke came out at the end of the rally and thrilled the crowd as he provided a full-throated endorsement of Biden, who in turn told O'Rourke, "You're gonna take care of the gun problem with me," alluding to a signature issue from O'Rourke's campaign. During his remarks, O'Rourke joked that he would treat the Bidens to a "world-class meal tonight" — Whataburger — and made good on that promise shortly after the rally, showing up with the former vice president at a nearby location of the beloved Texas fast-food restaurant.
Biden and Sanders have consistently polled at or near the top of the field in Texas, though a third contender — Michael Bloomberg — remains a significant factor. The New York billionaire, who skipped the first four early voting states, is hoping for a strong performance on Super Tuesday, and he has built easily the biggest campaign in Texas, with 19 offices and 160 staffers.
Bloomberg was optimistic about his Texas prospects during a rally Sunday evening in San Antonio — his seventh trip to Texas since beginning his campaign in late November, easily more visits than any other candidate over the same period.
"The road to victory in November starts right here, right now, in Texas," Bloomberg said, adding that "across the Lone Star State, we've got a lot of momentum on our side."
On Monday, though, all attention was on Biden and his full-court press to consolidate support after his resounding victory in South Carolina breathed new life into his once-flagging campaign. He began Monday in Houston, where he touted the fresh momentum during a rally at Texas Southern University, a historically black school.
"Just a few days ago, the pundits declared my campaign dead," Biden said. "But then along came South Carolina, and South Carolina had something to say about it. As I stand here today because of the minority communities, I am very much alive because of you."
"Now — tomorrow — Texas is gonna speak," Biden added, "and I think we're gonna do well here in Texas with the help of all of you."
Biden took the stage at the university as a raft of fresh endorsements across the country poured in for him, including in Texas. On Monday alone, Biden gained the support of U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, state Rep. Jessica González of Dallas and Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who had been Buttigieg's biggest booster in the state.
"I think it's time for the party to consolidate," Adler said on MSNBC.
Another former Buttigieg supporter in Texas, Dallas school board trustee Miguel Solis, endorsed Biden while his Houston rally was underway.
"The moment to choose a path forward has arrived for our party, maybe sooner than people had anticipated, but it's here," Biden said, drawing a thinly veiled contrast with Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, by billing himself as a "lifelong Democrat, a proud Democrat, an Obama-Biden Democrat."
Sanders' campaign rolled out 18 new Texas endorsements of its own Monday, including city council and school board members and progressive activists. Floyd expressed confidence that Sanders' ground game would carry him to victory Tuesday in Texas, calling it only rivaled by Bloomberg's "ground operation that's paid for."
As other candidates largely focused on Nevada and South Carolina, Sanders was the only one to hold multiple events in Texas during its early voting period, barnstorming four major cities — El Paso, San Antonio, Houston and Austin — two weekends ago. He predicted at each stop he would prevail in the state's nominating contest.
A significant chunk of the total ballots cast in the primary usually comes from early voting. During the last two competitive Democratic presidential primaries in Texas — 2016 and 2008 — early voters made up 42% and 45% of the total ballots, respectively.
On the eve of the primary, there was no question that Biden's campaign was out to make a show of force. Across Houston and Dallas, heavyweight lineups of elected officials took turns boasting of Biden's ability to put Texas in play in November, particularly when it comes to flipping the state House ahead of the 2021 redistricting process. In Houston, state Sen. Carol Alvarado called Biden "our best bet to win Texas."
"This past Saturday we witnessed a resurrection of this campaign ... and we will make sure that we continue that momentum tomorrow," said Alvarado, who helped introduce Biden here along with Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston.
After the rally, Biden supporters held out hope that his moment was arriving with enough votes still up for grabs in Texas after the early voting period.
“I was concerned about that, but I think there’s gonna be a surge,” said Ken Black, 73, a University of Houston professor. "I think there’s a bunch of later adopters who are sitting back waiting and they’re waiting for a candidate that they think will win in the fall, so I’m hoping they’ll jump in and vote tomorrow for Joe Biden.”
Black voted early for Biden, and so did Barbara Dillard, a 72-year-old Houston retiree. She said she hoped undecided Texans waited until after the early voting period to make up their mind given the fluid nature of the primary.
“When [Biden] won in South Carolina, that brought back the momentum,” Dillard said. "All of a sudden we knew we were back in the race.”
Texas will award 228 delegates on Tuesday, 79 at the statewide level and 149 in the 31 state Senate districts. A candidate must get 15% of the vote statewide or in a Senate district to compete for delegates at either level.
While Biden and Sanders have had little problem clearing the 15% threshold for statewide delegates in recent polls, it is less certain whether Bloomberg will hit it Tuesday — and it looks unlikely Elizabeth Warren will.
Warren's last Texas swing came Saturday, when she held an evening rally in Houston as her dismal showing in South Carolina became clear. While offering some of her sharpest rhetoric yet toward her rivals, Warren insisted her campaign is "built for the long haul."
"I’ll be the first to say that the first four contests haven’t gone exactly as I’d hoped," Warren told a crowd at Discovery Green. "Super Tuesday is three days away, and we’re looking forward to gaining as many delegates to the convention as we can — from California to right here in Texas."
The candidates have lavished attention on Texas in the final days before the primary. By Saturday afternoon, every candidate except Klobuchar had plans to visit the state over the next two days or already had in the two-week run-up to the primary. Aside from Biden, Hawaii U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was also in the state Monday for an evening town hall in Austin.
Disclosure: Texas Southern University; Steve Adler, a former Tribune board chairman; 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.