No matter how frequently it happens, it’s always a bit startling.
Ever since February 2019, polls have been coming out indicating that former Vice President Joe Biden is competitive with — sometimes even leading — President Donald Trump in Texas. A June 3 poll by Quinnipiac University gave Trump a 1-percentage-point lead in the state. A recent FiveThirtyEight roundup of “key battleground state” polls taken since May 1 shows Trump up by an average of 1.5 points here.
And every time a survey is released, the same questions arise: Is 2020 the year deep red Texas flips to the Democrats? Is Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in trouble as well?
But for many in politics, the consideration is slightly different: The state is clearly more competitive. But even if Biden can compete here, how seriously will he choose to?
The answer to that question is more complicated. For Biden and his allied groups, making a run for Texas is no simple task and there are strategic considerations beyond looking at the polls. The most immediate objectives for national Democrats in 2020 are to recapture the White House and Senate majority. And Texas is far from necessary for either.
Recent polls have suggested Biden might hold an even stronger position in other states that Trump won in 2016 — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and even Georgia. And because of its vast size, numerous media markets and massive population, Texas is more expensive to compete in. The paths to victory for Biden are so great in number, it’s hard for many political operatives to imagine a scenario where Texas would flip where it would be anything other than icing on the cake in a much broader national victory.
In other words, the cost of seriously trying to win Texas would almost certainly be high, while there’s a decent chance that the reward would ultimately prove inconsequential.
Below the surface, however, the presidential race in Texas still matters — an underperformance by Trump compared to recent history has the potential to reset Texas politics for the next decade. The central question in the political class every time one of these polls is released five months out from Election Day is: What kind of down-ballot damage could Republicans potentially suffer if Biden has coattails?
“It’s competitive, but I’m not predicting Biden will win,” said John Weaver, a Texas-based Republican who is part of an anti-Trump group called The Lincoln Project. “Trump will have to spend a ton of money and come down here several times. And the Texas House is gettable for Democrats and probably two to four congressional seats.”
It is those races — the ones for state House and the U.S. House seats — that will likely be the most consequential front in the battle for Texas this fall, according to interviews with three dozen state and national operatives.
And amid all these atmospherics, the Trump campaign expressed confidence in its Texas outlook, and its ability to raise and deliver resources across the country.
“We are doing our due diligence that we are leaving no stone unturned ahead of November, and we remain very confident that Texas will remain in Republican hands,” said Trump Victory spokeswoman Samantha Cotten. “We share our information, we share our data through the RNC. We’re not just helping President Trump, but Republicans up and down the ballot.”
Biden, meanwhile, has publicly insisted that he has Texas in his sights. And his campaign could well end up making significant investments in the state.
“Texas is an important battleground state for our campaign in 2020,” he told the state Democratic Party’s convention earlier this month. “I think we have a real chance to turn the state blue because of the work all of you have done."
Other national priorities
Beginning in 2016, Texas political observers have witnessed dramatic movement within the state’s urban and suburban regions toward Democratic candidates. While Trump over-performed in the Rust Belt, he is widely blamed for increasing misfortunes in the Lone Star State, particularly in the Dallas and Houston metros.
Democrats argue they will be competitive deep into traditionally Republican territory this year. An influx of newcomers to the state, growing diversity in the suburbs and an exodus of white, college-educated women from the GOP have completely scrambled age-old assumptions on voter turnout. This trend most showed itself in 2018, when then-U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke came within three percentage points of unseating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
“The Republican base of old white guys like me is dying — literally,” said Jerry Patterson, a former Republican state Land Commissioner who is open about his unhappiness with Trump.
Despite this logic, national Democrats say Texas’ Electoral College votes and the Cornyn Senate seat are intriguing but rank at the bottom of the second tier of priorities.
For some Democrats who have a say in spending decisions at the presidential level, the first priority is to avoid losing three Rust Belt states that went Republican in 2016: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. There is little appetite to take exotic risks on places like Texas in this context.
As Trump continues to sink in national polling, the map expands into states that are far cheaper than Texas, according to several national Democratic operatives interviewed for this story. In the event Democrats feel confident in those three Rust Belt states, they will most likely shift focus to other reach-states like Arizona, Georgia, Iowa and Ohio.
But Texas could still provide a strategic boost: If Biden’s polling organically holds into the fall, Republicans may have to pull money from other battleground states to shore up Trump’s Texas standing.
It is similarly unlikely the Senate majority will rest with the political fate of Cornyn, who is running for his fourth term, as races in other states appear competitive. If Democrats win the White House, they’d need to gain three U.S. Senate seats to win control of the chamber.
But Cornyn has also done much to bolster his reelection with prolific fundraising. He reported about $13 million in reserves this spring — an astonishing sum that means it is highly unlikely national Republicans will have to move money from other races to save him.
Furthermore, the Democratic runoff remains contested. The nominee will not be determined until July and, whether that person is Air Force veteran M.J. Hegar or state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, the nominee will enter the general election later than usual and with his or her fundraising coffers likely depleted.
“I do think there are other candidates and states that are well ahead of making races more competitive than where Texas is right now,” said Jessica Taylor, a Senate race analyst for the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
Depending on the national environment, Cornyn could feel a squeeze from a Biden over-performance and Democratic organizing down-ballot. Democrats and Republicans alike are bracing for a scenario in which that race appears competitive in the fall. If that comes to pass, it would not be impossible to see a national Democratic advertising campaign in Texas.
“Depending on what happens in the Democratic Senate runoff, Cornyn is not out of the woods,” said Weaver, the Republican who may end up working against Cornyn and other GOP Senate candidates.
And that is why it is Cornyn, more than any other Texas Republican, has been ringing the alarm to Republicans underneath him on the ballot.
State House is the Texas prize
When national Democrats look at Texas, there is no greater priority than taking control of the state House and in turn a say in drawing political districts in 2021. In interview after interview, Democrats say they see a more-friendly congressional map in Texas as one of the most fruitful paths to expanding the U.S. House majority they anticipate they will hold in the fall.
“Texas is in play, obviously, because we want to make sure that we gain the majority that we need in the state House, but we are focused on winning the Congressional seats at play,” said Jane Hamilton, a former Biden campaign staffer.
“And in terms of a Biden administration, he would obviously want a Congress that he can work with,” Hamilton added.
Here and there in Texas, there are Republicans who are concerned that state legislative and U.S. House Republicans are not taking the Biden threat seriously.
Even when Trump holds a lead in recent polls, it’s far smaller than his nine-point Texas victory over Clinton in 2016. And even that win pales in comparison to Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 16-point victory over President Barack Obama in 2012.
To make matters worse, with the collapse of state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who is not seeking reelection after a scandal involving a secretly recorded meeting he had with a hardline conservative activist, there is no centralized state House voice to organize the GOP members, delegate resources and most importantly, light a fire under members to take their own campaigns seriously and to support colleagues.
Instead, many Texas Republicans are fairly sanguine about the fall. Mostly, according to interviews, Republicans say they are confident the Democratic expansion into GOP suburbs and exurbs is a strategic blunder. Trump’s recent trip to Texas reinforced enthusiasm in donor circles. Couples paid nearly $581,000 to attend a fundraiser with the president in Dallas.
Moreover, there is supreme confidence in the state GOP infrastructure and Gov. Greg Abbott’s ability to lead the party, even as it is an off-year for his own reelection.
“For the next year, I am campaigning as though I am on the ballot myself,” Abbott previously told the Texas Oil and Gas Association. “I’m gonna be working in collaboration, in support of, the House members who made this past session so successful. I will be working day in, day out, to make sure they get reelected, knowing that the future of Texas itself is at stake.”
State GOP Chairman James Dickey also told The Texas Tribune in a recent interview that his organization took the GOP’s 2018 setbacks seriously. He intends to be on the offensive in the fall, thanks to an emphasis on candidate recruitment and increased infrastructure, and to take Texas off the table at the presidential level.
“Of course we are going to deliver all of Texas’ 38 Electoral College votes for President Trump, after a resounding victory in November,” he said.
Additionally, Texas Republicans say the Democratic base may help the GOP more than anything else. Continued calls for a Green New Deal, universal government-funded health care and, most recently, the “Defund the Police” movement give Republicans an added sense of security in Texas.
That defund slogan implies an aim to eliminate police forces altogether. Democratic leaders will hastily say that is not the intent of the movement. Instead, the idea is to reallocate police funding to social services that would reduce the likelihood of unhealthy engagement between police officers and the communities they serve.
“The left’s demand to defund the police is completely toxic to a vast majority of voters, but it’s quickly become a Democrat litmus test. Democrats created this monster and predictably it’s turned on them,” said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the House GOP campaign arm, who echoed a number of other Texas Republicans’ read of the messaging.
Hanging over all of these calculations is the uncomfortable void of certainty between June and Election Day.
Runoffs must still be resolved. Operatives on both sides eagerly argue how their party will benefit from the elimination of straight ticket voting, but until November it is only speculation. Democrats worry about foreign interference. The economy is as unstable as it has been in most Texans’ lifetimes. And then there is Biden’s coming vice presidential selection.
Biden has already pledged to choose a woman, and some operatives say it would behoove him to choose someone who could appeal to the state’s pragmatic Democrats and disillusioned Republicans. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, and U.S. Rep. Val Demmings, D-Florida, are said to be on Biden’s shortlist. But, if the former vice president “comes out with an AOC-type, progressive Democrat,” Patterson warned, “he’s toast [in Texas.]”
The biggest unknown of all, however, is the COVID-19 pandemic and how it will affect campaigning and voting. Given the social upheaval the pandemic has unleashed on American society, it is an ill-advised practice to assume historical patterns will hold in the fall. It's an open question whether candidates will be able to campaign in person. There are even considerations that candidates may spend Election Day in their own homes on lockdown.
But more than anything, operatives are hedging their assumptions as they've watched news cycles and movements take hold, only to be forgotten within weeks. No one interviewed for this story would confidently predict what issues would be on the minds of voters in November.
What is known is that people like Patterson — Republicans who do not like Trump but want to hold the Senate and confirm more Republican judicial appointments — could determine Texas’ political fate in November. And even he is not 100% certain of what he will do.
“As of today, I still intend to vote for Trump,” he said. “After which, on my way to my truck in the parking lot, I might puke.”
Patrick Svitek and Alexa Ura contributed to this report
Disclosure: The Texas Oil and Gas Association 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.