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Donald Trump, Joe Biden highlight Lone Star showdown that could change face of Texas politics

Dallas Morning News logo Dallas Morning News 10/31/2020 Gromer Jeffers Jr., The Dallas Morning News

The Nov. 3 election could create a power shift in Texas, altering a political scene that Republicans have dominated for decades.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are locked in a close contest for the Lone Star State, making Texas the biggest battleground in the country. The narrow margin between the candidates is evident even as Trump and Biden have eschewed traveling here, or spending big money in its costly media markets. On Friday California Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, campaigned at St. John’s Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

A Democrat hasn’t won a Texas presidential contest since Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976, so a Biden victory would signal a mammoth pendulum swing powered by suburban voters, communities of color and some transplanted Texans.

While the presidential election is the main attraction Tuesday night, seasoned politicos will be watching to see which party controls the Texas House. Democrats are nine seats away from seizing the chamber for the first time since 2001, with many of the critical races occurring in North Texas.

Just one ballot spot below the presidential race is the Senate contest between Republican incumbent John Cornyn and former Air Force combat veteran MJ Hegar.

A Democrat hasn’t won a statewide race in Texas since 1994.

There are also at least 12 competitive congressional seats up for grabs, including five in in North Texas. Democrats are targeting 10 seats held by Republicans, while the GOP is trying to unseat two Democrats, including Congressional District 32 incumbent Colin Allred of Dallas.

The outcome of the elections, particularly the state legislative races, could not only change the political face of Texas, but impact issues that include health care, education, taxes, local government control, immigration, gambling and redistricting.

“It’s what it’s always been, a competitive state,” said Dave Carney, the chief political strategist for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. “There’s been great turnout. A lot of Republicans are going to vote Tuesday. We feel really good.”

Carney said that Republican candidates are urging voters that issues related to education, taxes, support for police and the economy are on the line for the election. He also warned that energy jobs are at stake.

“Democrats are talking about the Green New deal and other stuff that’s irrelevant to voters and will severely hamper the economy,” Carney said.

Meanwhile, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has been campaigning across the state with the Texas Organizing Project, a progressive group that—among other things—is fighting to end mass incarceration. O’Rourke’s group, Powered by People, has registered and tracked hundreds of thousands of transplanted Texas voters with a history of voting for Democrats in their former states.

“This is a new era in politics and in campaigning,” O’Rourke said in a the drizzling rain in Garland Wednesday as a handful of people chanted, “I believe that we will win.”

“We’ve got to get out there, knock on doors and tell voters what’s on the line,” O’Rourke said, adding that the voter suppression that targets Black residents is a systemic problem.

“All of this will come to an end and all of us will stand up and be counted,” O’Rourke said of a successful Democratic Party effort on Tuesday.

Changing political scene

In 2014 Abbott beat former state Sen. Wendy Davis by whopping 20 percentage points to become governor, an election that would prove the high-water mark for Texas Republican politics.

Since then the GOP margin of victory in statewide races has dramatically decreased. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by nine percentage points. Two years later, O’Rourke came within 2.6 percentage points of unseating Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz. The common denominator is Trump. The 2018 midterm election was, in part, a referendum on his policies and behavior in office. Now he’s seeking reelection.

Before Trump emerged on the political scene, Democrats had hoped to make gains in Texas by rallying women and communities of color, including the emerging Hispanic electorate that is projected to one day dominate Texas politics.

Analysts say Trump has potentially accelerated a political shift by driving away suburban voters, especially women. The success of 2018 Democratic candidates was boosted by suburban voters and residents that moved into the state from other areas, though many of those transplants are Republicans. So if Texas does turn purple, it will be because of Trump’s unpopularity and the exodus of many suburban voters from the GOP.

A poll by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas-Tyler revealed Biden with a narrow 48% to 45% lead over Trump two weeks before the election. Biden had a 51-29 lead with independent voters, who were 27 percent of the likely voters surveyed.

“This is the second presidential race in a row that is a ‘vote against’ race,” said Republican political consultant Vinny Minchillo, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. “This cycle Trump is the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party since FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt).”

Biden has tried to take advantage of Trump’s unpopularity in the suburbs, but he’s also shoring up his base of Black voters, while reaching out to Hispanic voters across Texas, including in the Rio Grande Valley.

Trump’s team is rallying the president’s rural and small town base, but also trying to cut into Biden’s lead with Hispanic voters. Polls show Trump has had success appealing to some Hispanic and Black men.

Before 2020, there were more Republicans than Democrats in the Texas electorate, which has swelled by nearly 2 million voters since 2018.

Though there’s no longer straight ticket voting in Texas, the presidential race is still expected to have an impact on down-ballot contests.

“Without Trump on the ballot, John Cornyn would be beating MJ Hegar by 15 points,” Minchillo said.

Down-ballot battles

The News' poll showed Cornyn leading Hegar by eight percentage points, though other surveys have her doing better. Her team is confident she’s mobilized enough voters and has the resources to finish strong and upset Cornyn.

But the incumbent, who watched O’Rourke nearly upset Cruz, is rallying his base and trying to beat Hegar with independent voters.

If there aren’t a lot of Biden/Cornyn voters to link with the GOP base, Cornyn could have trouble. But Hegar needs a big boost not only with suburban women, but Black and Hispanic voters that were still getting to know her as the campaign hit the stretch run.

The Texas House contests could be the most impactful races on the ballot, since lawmakers will draw new legislative boundaries in the 2021 legislative sessions and create legislation that deals with education, taxes, immigration and much more.

If they take the House, Democrats will have a greater voice in the redistricting process, though Republicans will still control the Senate.

Legislation like the Sanctuary Cities law, which passed in 2017, would be killed under a Democratic Party-controlled House. And local government, which Republicans have tried to minimize in recent legislative sessions, would have a greater voice in Austin. Though it’s up to Abbott to opt into the federal government’s Medicaid expansion deal under the Affordable Care Act, a shift in power in the House could mean progressive health care legislation.

Republicans contend that Democrats would not be a proper check on high taxes and sound energy policy.

“The Republican argument is if you put Democrats in charge, your taxes will go up,” said political consultant Bill Miller.

Democratic strategist Lisa Turner said the message her party’s candidates are making relates to issues like putting more money into education, providing access the health care for the uninsured and getting control of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The central argument is that tit’s time to restore responsible leadership to the state of Texas,” Turner said. “Republicans have turned a hard right and catered to a fringe group on their far fight and ignored the economic concerns and the health of this state.”

The outcome of North Texas will determine if Democrats take the House or Republicans continue their 17-year run of control.

Analysts say many of the races are too close to call. In Dallas County, Morgan Meyer of University Park and Angie Chen Button of Garland are the only two GOP lawmakers from Dallas County. Meyer has a rematch with Dallas Democrat Joanna Cattanach, while Button try to beat Garland Democrat Brandy Chamber for a second time.

Democrats are targeted five Tarrant County seats held by Republicans, as well as one seat in Denton County. In Collin County, incumbent Republicans Matt Shaheen and Jeff Leach, both of Plano, are fighting for political survival against Democrats Sharon Hirsch and Lorenzo Sanchez respectively.

Republicans are also trying to regain seats that they lost in 2018. In Dallas County Republican Will Douglas is making a strong challenge against incumbent Democrat Rhetta Bowers of Rowlett. Former Rep. Linda Koop of Dallas is in a rematch against incumbent Democrat Ana-Maria Ramos of Richardson.

North Texas congressional races are also intriguing.

The most competitive race is in District 24, where Republican and former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne is running against Democrat and former Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD trustee Candace Valenzuela for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Kenny Marchant. The suburban district nestled between Dallas and Fort Worth has undergone demographic shifts that make it a swing district.

Republicans hope education tech company executive Genevieve Collins can unseat Allred, the freshman Democrat, in a district that analysts say favors the Democratic Party.

In Collin County’s District 3, Republican Van Taylor is trying to fend off Plano lawyer Lulu Seikaly in an area undergoing population shifts that could make the race closer than originally anticipated.

Democrats have also targeted two other Republicans with districts that include Tarrant County. Incumbent Ron Wright, who’s battling cancer, is running against Democrat Stephen Daniel. And incumbent Roger Williams is facing a tough challenge against Democrat Julie Oliver in the district that stretches from Burleson to Austin.

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©2020 The Dallas Morning News

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