Here's Why the Texas Senate Race Is More Nuanced and Complex Than You Think

When Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke decided to challenge far-right incumbent Republican Ted Cruz for his seat in the U.S. Senate, he knew he would be fighting an uphill battle. Texas has a reputation for being deeply Republican, and Cruz had defeated Democrat Paul Sadler by 16% when he was elected to the Senate in 2012. Last week, however, a Texas Lyceum poll showed Cruz ahead of O’Rourke by only 2%—which is a statistical dead heat. And according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, O’Rourke has an advantage among female voters: men preferred Cruz by 20%, but women preferred O’Rourke by 6%. 

In light of how hard-right Texas can be, these polls come as a surprise. But Texas, although far from a swing state at this point, is more nuanced and complex politically than many pundits think—and the Lone Star State isn’t without its pockets of liberalism. 

Many of Texas’ major cities lean Democrat, including Houston, Dallas, El Paso, San Antonio and Austin. Democratic mayors and city council members have been plentiful in those cities, and Houston hasn’t had a Republican mayor since the late Jim McConn left office in the early 1980s. But in Texas, things become much tougher for Democrats at the state level. Republicans dominate Texas’ state legislature, and Texas hasn’t had a Democratic governor since the late Ann Richards (who was voted out of office when president-to-be George W. Bush won the Texas gubernatorial race in 1994). 

Nonetheless, Texas’ demographics are not what one would expect in a red state. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, non-Hispanic whites comprised only 42% of the population in 2010. But unfortunately for Democrats, Latino voter participation in Texas has been low. Rosario Doyle, a 26-year-old Latina who has volunteered for O’Rourke’s campaign, told NBC News, “We are not a red state; we are a nonvoting state.” And the Texans who are the most likely to vote tend to be older, whiter and more conservative.

In 2016, President Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 9% in Texas—which isn’t as wide a margin as one would expect given how strong the GOP’s ground game is in the Lone Star State. According to CNN, it was white men who overwhelmingly supported Trump over Clinton; Trump won 62% of the white male vote and 52% of the white female vote in Texas. But Clinton’s support among Texas voters included 94% of black women, 82% of black men, 63% of Latino men and 69% of Latinas.   

Unfortunately for Clinton, however, Latino voter turnout lagged behind Anglo voter turnout in 2016. Latinos have become a majority in some parts of Texas, but according to Texas Monthly, they accounted for only 19% of Texas’ voter turnout two years ago. 

Further, Republicans are experts when it comes to voter suppression in Texas. The last thing the Texas GOP wants to see is voters of color showing up in huge numbers, especially if they’re younger.

In the long run, Texas’ demographics would tend to favor a candidate like O’Rourke—assuming Democrats could overcome voter suppression, register people of color in huge numbers and get them to the polls. But in Texas, older white males continue to be a reliable, consistent voting block for the Republican Party—and as long as the Texas GOP can keep getting them to the polls while keeping people of color away from the polls, Democrats will be fighting an uphill battle in the Lone Star State.


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