Late in the afternoon on the last Monday in June, 430 Democrats, who had paid up to $100,000 each, clicked into a private, Texas-themed Zoom call organized by Joe Biden’s campaign. They were greeted by former Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards, whose mother, Ann, was the state’s last Democratic governor. They heard from Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke, and they were treated to a performance by Willie Nelson, who sang a song with his son Lukas called “Vote ’Em Out.” It began, “If you don’t like who’s in there, vote ’em out. / That’s what Election Day is all about. / The biggest gun we’ve got is called the ballot box.” And they heard from Biden, who — just four days after a Fox News poll showed him narrowly ahead of Donald Trump in the state no Democratic nominee has carried since Jimmy Carter — told them, “I think we can turn Texas blue.”
From Amarillo to Brownsville to Beaumont to El Paso, you could practically hear the sighs: Here we go again. Texas Democrats hear a version of this overture in every election cycle as outsiders swoop in citing statistics about demographic shifts. The national party has long regarded the Lone Star State’s 38 electoral votes as the just-out-of-reach golden key to perpetual success.
Still, the ex-VP is now basking in a double-digit lead nationwide, and we’re improbably entering month 17 of close polling between Biden and the president in Texas, which Trump won by nine points in 2016. The state’s Republican senators are warning that Texas will be “hotly contested” (Ted Cruz) and “at risk of turning purple” (John Cornyn). And after months of bluster from its GOP leaders — in March, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said seniors like him would be willing to die to restart the economy — Texas is under assault from COVID-19, and frustrations are turning into fury. Governor Greg Abbott has backtracked on plans for reopening as more than 5,000 new coronavirus cases flood in each day, while Houston hospitals are at capacity and millions remain out of work.
Four months into lockdown — about halfway between being left for dead politically early in the primary and Election Day in November — the nominee and his campaign are still adjusting to political fortunes they can hardly believe all around the country, let alone in Texas. As the summer stretches on, party leaders are starting to work out whether Biden’s lead and Trump’s spiral mean Democrats can afford to experiment in conservative states or if it’s worth shining a brighter light on down-ballot races that could hand a President Biden the Senate.
Of course, no national Democratic group has spent a dime on TV advertising in Texas, and they’re unlikely to. Biden doesn’t need Texas to win the White House. Far from it: Carter is the only Democrat to win there since native son Lyndon B. Johnson. Pro-Biden groups, like the Unite the Country super-PAC, that aim to get him to 270 electoral votes have been spending money in top-tier battleground states like Florida and North Carolina, not Texas, where Trump still has a slim lead in some polls. “If we win Texas, it will be the 350th or 370th electoral vote,” says Lily Adams, a senior Unite the Country official (who happens to be Ann Richards’s granddaughter and Cecile Richards’s daughter). “Not the 270th.”
And Democrats are still haunted by their 2016 confidence, especially in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton’s wasn’t even the party’s only semi-recent collapse; one July 1988 poll showed Michael Dukakis beating George H.W. Bush by 17 points. Trump’s team, meanwhile, insists it hasn’t started fully unloading on its opponent yet. But this year’s race is showing signs of becoming something entirely different: Despite being stuck at home in Delaware because of the virus while Trump soaked up the national attention, Biden held a roughly ten-point lead in national polling averages by the end of June — about four points wider than the margin at this stage of any race in recent history. It would be overly kind to describe Trump as “flailing” as his poll numbers continue to hit new lows amid the pandemic and the protests against police brutality. His answer is to desperately look for a more cutting nickname for Biden, as he’s worried that “Sleepy Joe” isn’t good enough. (The 74-year-old Trump’s allies think their best bet is to portray 77-year-old Biden as frail and deteriorating. When asked by a Fox News producer about “cognitive decline” late last month, Biden replied, “I’m constantly tested … I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I’m running against.”)
Biden’s leads in the crucial swing states are more solid than expected — Trump’s campaign team is already worried he may have too big a mountain to climb in Michigan, the site of perhaps his most shocking 2016 victory — but the leads are still smaller than Biden’s apparent national margin. Biden has only recently begun venturing out for campaign events and rarely travels farther than next-door Pennsylvania. Wary of distancing recommendations, he isn’t planning to hold rallies in the fall, and only now, with four months left, is he building up senior teams in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and the like, while his allies pound digital and TV airwaves in those battlegrounds with a barrage of anti-Trump ads.
A Biden sweep still isn’t certain, which is why he probably won’t go all-in on a state like Texas. “My grandmother used to say, ‘You don’t know the size of Texas until you’ve campaigned in it,’ ” warns Adams. O’Rourke’s race against Cruz was the priciest Senate contest ever — and he still lost. But, Adams continues, “what you may be witnessing is a confluence or perfect storm of events that is making Texas more competitive this cycle than any other in recent history.”
Three Democrats independently used the “perfect storm” metaphor in conversations with me to refer to the pandemic, Trump’s plummeting popularity, and demographic shifts that have increased the state’s number of Latino voters and city dwellers. (A fourth called it a “perfect shitstorm.”) While that combination doesn’t yet have party leaders considering Texas a central swing state, it has forced them to shift it solidly into their expanded conversation about electoral battlegrounds, just behind Georgia.
Those closest to Biden have better things to worry about than these debates — like picking his running mate and designing his coronavirus-recovery proposals. When they do get sucked in, though, the pro-Texas-investment arguments usually start by noting that this ain’t the Bushes’ Texas anymore. O’Rourke, whose presidential campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, now runs Biden’s effort, came within three points of Cruz in 2018. That was just four years after Abbott beat Democrat Wendy Davis by 20 points, and the state’s briskly growing cities and suburbs are sprinting away from Trump’s GOP. Long-term trends have seduced Democrats: The Census Bureau in June reported that Texas’s Hispanic population grew by more than 2 million in the past decade. And the state’s present crisis has only sped things up. It’s the latest stage in a four-month saga during which Trump’s polling has dropped precipitously, but it mirrors similarly dire pictures for Trump in Florida and Arizona. “It’s 24/7, all over the place on TV, on their cell phones, as counties send out emergency texts to every single person in the county,” Castro, the former presidential candidate, tells me. “People are putting two and two together that this is the direct result of a failure by Donald Trump and Greg Abbott.” Whereas Biden has lagged previous Democrats a bit in popularity among Latino voters, Latino communities have been hit especially brutally, causing many to turn hard against Republicans.
The party’s wallet will stay shut for now anywhere but Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Arizona, and Florida. Still, before Willie Nelson and his guitar took center stage that Monday afternoon on Zoom, O’Rourke warned that if the vote tally is tight on Election Day, “I believe that the current occupant of the White House — who does not believe in the rule of law, who does not respect the Constitution, who will do anything he can to maintain and increase his purchase on power, will exploit a close outcome to attempt to steal the election.” But, he continued, “the greatest safeguard against that outcome is Texas.”
*This article appears in the July 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!