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Can Democrats turn Texas blue? Early voting surge fuels hopes as local GOP is ‘almost in crisis mode’

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A dramatic surge in early voting across Texas cities is infusing fresh hope in Democrats’ dream of shaking Republicans’ once-solid grip on the state.

From Austin to Houston, and in their sprawling suburbs, voter turnout is shattering records in Texas, which hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976. Polls show the party’s nominee, Joe Biden, within striking distance of President Donald Trump, and the Cook Political Report on Wednesday moved Texas to a “toss up” from “leans Republican.” Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, will visit Houston, Fort Worth and McAllen this week.

Almost 8.5 million Texans had cast ballots by Wednesday, representing about 95% of the entire vote in 2016. Rapidly growing and increasingly diverse suburbs are the sites of some of the biggest upticks in early voting, and Democrats point to a surge in female voters as cause for optimism. Unmarried women make up a third of the Texans voting in this election who didn’t cast a ballot in 2016, the party’s state headquarters said earlier this week.

“We as Democrats are voting like our lives depend on it,” said Cynthia Ginyard, chair of the Democratic Party in Fort Bend, a fast-growing county that encompasses Houston suburbs such as Sugar Land and Katy and has come to embody the demographic shifts that Democrats are seeking to capture.

By Wednesday, 61% of all registered voters in Fort Bend had cast their ballots, either in person or by mail, making it one of nine counties that had surpassed their total vote counts for the entire 2016 election. The county went for Hillary Clinton by a margin of 6.6 percentage points in 2016.

Travis County, which includes Austin and its rapidly expanding suburbs, has also seen early voting exceed the total of all 2016 ballots. Dallas County, another solidly blue one, is on track to reach the same milestone. In Harris County — the state’s largest and home to Houston — almost 1.3 million people have voted early.

For more than a quarter-century, Texas was firmly conservative, producing gun-toting, church-going politicians like President George W. Bush and Rick Perry, a former governor and U.S. energy secretary. Dallas, Austin, Houston and San Antonio were liberal blips on an expansive red radar. But a population boom driven by immigrants and newcomers has put the state’s politics up for grabs.

Corporations like Apple Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp. have expanded, bringing employees who also pack their politics. As the cost of living rises within city limits, young people are putting down roots in places like Katy and Round Rock, in Williamson County.

And since 2011, Texas has been one of five majority-minority states. Its suburbs, like many other parts of the country, are no longer predominantly white enclaves. In Harris County, 8,800 early voters have the Vietnamese last name Nguyen, according to a Houston Chronicle reporter’s tweet.

National Democrats contend that turnout like that puts the state within reach. Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has said he’s spending $15 million to support Biden in Texas and Ohio. In Texas, his Independence USA PAC will air TV ads in both English and Spanish that will focus on the coronavirus.

Even if Biden falls short, cinching competitive races for the state House of Representatives could give Democrats a strong hand in redistricting after the census.

Caution signs

For all the gawking at early vote counts and narrowing polls, experts caution that it’s difficult to draw conclusions.

“You have to be impressed by the volume,” said Jim Henson, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who heads the Texas Politics Project. “But at the same time, I think until we see what the actual Election Day numbers look like, it’s not clear whether or how much this is going to carry through.”

The surge is likely influenced by a lack of options. Unlike in other battleground states, Texas voters are unable to cite fear of Covid-19 as a reason for mail-in voting. That means virus-wary residents may be going to the polls early to avoid long lines on Election Day.

Red counties have also seen a spike in early voting, with Denton, in North Texas, reaching 60% turnout as of Wednesday. In suburban Dallas, closely watched Collin County, which has emerged as a battleground even though Trump won it by double digits in 2016, saw turnout of 62%.

After converging to show Trump and Biden as even over the weekend, an updated average of 2020 polls by FiveThirtyEight widened slightly this week, with Trump holding a 1-point lead as of Thursday. And the state’s senior U.S. senator, Republican John Cornyn, is running well ahead of his Democratic challenger, former U.S. Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar.

Still, Texas is historically lightly polled, and residents don’t align themselves with a party when they register to vote, making it difficult to see who’s showing up to cast their ballot early.

Statewide, voters who most recently participated in a Republican primary have about a 350,000-vote advantage over those who did so in a Democratic primary, according to Derek Ryan, a Republican voter-data expert in Austin. But about 3.5 million early voters didn’t participate in either party’s primary. “That leaves a huge chunk of the early voters that I just don’t know about,” he said.

Hispanics Crucial

Key to a Biden upset in Texas is the Hispanic vote, with Latinos making up 30% of all eligible voters. Nationally, Latino participation in early voting is more than double what it was in 2016. Like the rest of the country, the vast majority of Hispanic votes in Texas is expected to go to Biden, and Harris’s visit to McAllen will take her to the heart of the four-county Rio Grand Valley border region. But polling has been all over the place, leaving room for a stronger-than-expected showing of conservative Latino voters.

“In Texas, the Latino vote has tended to lean Democratic, but that’s exactly it: It leans Democratic,” said Renée Cross, senior director at the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the majority of Hispanics will vote for Biden, but the question is how many of the ones who vote Republican will vote for Trump.”

Uncertainty aside, the early voting and closer-than-usual polls are a wake-up call for Republicans who thought they had time before the party’s grip on the state was in real jeopardy, said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist who’s worked on campaigns for Republicans including Cornyn and Representative Dan Crenshaw.

“We’re almost in crisis mode,” he said. “The party’s base is very white, it’s very old, it’s rural in a state that’s getting younger, more diverse and more urban. Everything is working against Republicans right now.”

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