Weaving through the crowd, Temple Gonzalez and her family enjoyed the scenes and fried snacks at the Texas State Fair in Dallas.
“Then we get on the rides and cross our fingers,” she laughed. Gonzalez, a mother from a town called The Colony, just outside of Dallas, professed love for Texas and its diversity.
“I’m proud that we love everybody,” she said. “Lots of people from everywhere. And we want more!”
Gonzalez had less welcoming words for U.S. President Donald Trump, who campaigned in Dallas recently.
“I don’t think he’s a kind person,” Gonzalez said. “I just don’t like how he treats people. He needs to be modeling that from the top down, and I don’t see that happening.”
Polls indicate suburban women like Gonzalez are a reason Texas – a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 – may no longer be a sure bet for Trump in 2020, despite the fact that he is giving it a lot of campaign time.
“Texas is not in play,” Trump said to a cheering crowd at his October 17 rally at the American Airlines Center in down town Dallas. “Donald Trump is not going to lose Texas, I can tell you that.”
The October rally was Trump’s third in the state in the past year and his sixth visit.
Texas Republicans welcome the attention. “It’s good to see that the president is reaching out and not taking Texas for granted,” said Rodney Anderson, chairman of the Dallas County Republican party.
Red with a purple tint
In 2016, Trump won Texas by only nine points, down from Mitt Romney’s 16-point margin in 2012. Analysts see this as evidence of the state shifting left as well as the fact that incumbent Republican senator Ted Cruz only narrowly defeated Democratic newcomer Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 Senate race.
Although it’s premature to call Texas a swing state, it will probably “go red with a very strong purple tint”, said Shannon Bow O’Brien, professor of politics at the University of Texas in Austin.
“Texas is a growing state and it’s growing in the cities, and a lot of the growth is Democratic voters,” said O’Brien. She pointed out that Trump is struggling in the suburbs in Texas, and said the Texas GOP is “worried.”
Rodney Anderson dismissed the notion but admitted that Republicans “have got a real ball game” in 2020.
Democrats gearing up
Democrats in Texas welcome the demographic shift and aim to build on their growth by wooing independents.
“There are a lot of people that just are not happy with the things that Trump has done and these are the people that actually voted for Trump in the last election,” said Tramon Arnold, political director of the Dallas County Democratic Party.
One of them is Larry Strauss, a life-long Republican, who co-founded the North Texas Jewish Democratic Council in 2017. The council recently hosted a gathering in a Dallas community center to discuss election politics with Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the political newsletter Quorum Report.
“The population is no longer reliably Republican,” said Kronberg. “Particularly the suburbs, which is the richest source of votes out there.”
Kronberg said this is partially because Texas demographics have shifted towards a larger population of Hispanic, Asian and Middle Eastern, as well as “Millennials who are antithetical to social conservatives” and what he calls “an abandonment of Republicans by women”.
But Trump can still rely on his base, who are fired up by his “ad hominem attacks, belittling and making fun of his opponents,” said Kronberg.
Larry Strauss, sitting in the front row, nodded. Strauss was a life-long Republican, until he heard the president’s remarks about the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned violent.
“When Donald Trump made that comment that there are good people marching on both sides, I went ballistic. I turned in my Republican membership card.”
Strauss, a retiree in his sixties was so distraught he reached out to the Dallas County Democratic Party and established the council, the first of its kind in the state, with co-founder Janice Schwartz.
Strauss supports the House impeachment inquiry against Trump. “We’re lacking integrity in the White House,” he said. “He’s not the type of president that gives a good example to my children and my grandchildren.”
Republicans dismiss the suggestion that Trump is hurting their party’s chances of winning.
“He’s absolutely helping us, 100%,” Rodney Anderson said, adding that the impeachment inquiry is energizing the Republican base even more.
Analysts point out that with strong support from rural areas, Trump may still win Texas, though with an even slimmer margin than 2016. But they say a lot can happen in a year particularly with an ongoing impeachment inquiry.
The latest poll from Quinnipiac University indicates 45% of registered voters in Texas approve of Trump. The same poll indicates 48% would not vote for him in 2020.
Texas is one of the most diverse states in the country, and one of the four “majority-minority” states in the United States — together with California, Hawaii, and New Mexico — where the population of racial and ethnic minorities combined is larger than the white population.
Activist groups say that because of “voter suppression tactics used by the state and other entities,” the diversity of Texas is not reflected in state legislature and minority communities’ interests are not reflected in state policy.
“Our state legislators are generally a lot whiter and a lot wealthier than Texans,” said Hani Mirza, senior attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit organization based in Austin.
Voting rights groups have long accused Texas of extreme gerrymandering and restrictive voter registration rules, that in effect have rigged the state’s election rules in ways that disempower black and brown voters.
“The tactics used in gerrymandering can dilute minority votes to where they can’t have their voice heard in elections,” said Mirza. He added that when drawing electoral lines, state legislature has broken up minority communities to dilute their votes, or packed minority groups into as few districts as possible to suppress their voice.
Texas is due for a federal census in 2020 and redistricting process in 2021 where electoral maps may be redrawn.
Presidency not the only prize
The presidency is not the only coveted prize in 2020 as Democrats make inroads in state legislature seats with an eye on redistricting.
“Honestly, it’s not flipping Texas it’s flipping the state legislature seats,” said Shannon Bow O’Brien. “And the Democrats have a shot.”
“The way that things are gerrymandered, we need to make sure that everything is the way that it’s supposed to be, and not favoring the Republican Party,” said Tramon Arnold of the Dallas County Democratic Party.
If in 2020 Democrats win nine seats that they need to control the Texas House, for the first time in decades they would have control over the redrawing of the electoral map.
Future elections based on that map may mean more Democratic lawmakers being sent to Washington, out of the 36 currently representing Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives.