There is a significant and growing probability that Texas will become the most consequential swing state in presidential and senatorial elections to come. A campaign in the Lone Star State could cost President Trump the White House next year, even if Texas voters will ultimately choose him.
A powerful combination of demographic forces are propelling Texas from one of the reddest states in the union into a swing state. Democrats will likely make an outside play in Texas ahead of 2020, along with a full run for its projected 41 electoral votes. Texas also stands to gain three seats in Congress after the next census, making it a crucial state for both parties.
Texas demographics today are strikingly similar to those of California in 1990, before Democrats began their seven to nothing streak of Golden State victories in presidential races. Like California in 1990, the Texas population currently hovers around 29 million and is changing rapidly in light of heavy immigration from Mexico. The second generation children of Mexican immigrants have played a major role in keeping California out of Republican reach. This same transformation is taking root in Texas.
Immigration has already had a very tangible impact on Texas politics. While illegal immigrants cannot vote, their children born in the United States are indeed citizens and make up a significant share of the new generation of voters in the southern state. There are around 35 percent of Texans under the age of 18 who are the children of immigrants, a figure that has nearly doubled in the last 30 years. This carries weight.
Young Texas voters overwhelmingly turned out for Beto O’Rourke over incumbent Ted Cruz in the Senate race last year. O’Rourke beat Cruz with 18 year olds to 24 year olds by a margin of 68 percent to 32 percent and with 25 year olds to 29 year olds by a margin of 73 percent to 26 percent. O’Rourke also outperformed the traditional edge Democrats already have among Texas Latino voters by a wide margin of 64 percent to 35 percent.
With these second generation Mexican Americans strongly supporting Democrats at the polls, Texas changing to a purple state could not happen at a more inconvenient time for Trump. His margin in the state in 2016 was the smallest for a Republican nominee since the poor showing of Bob Dole in Texas in 1996. Considering the immense and enduring new wave of left leaning voters that O’Rourke attracted, there is a real chance that Texas will be close enough in 2020 that Republicans cannot take it for granted.
Over the next year, Trump and his surrogates will be forced to spend more time campaigning in Texas, which will diminish time spent on the ground in other crucial swing states. Ultimately, this could be a death knell for the campaign. A major reason Trump won in 2016 was due to his critical time investment in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. He spent around 50 percent more time in these battleground states than Hillary Clinton did. A diversion of time and money campaigning in Texas over the next 15 months could deal a fatal blow to high hopes for a second term.
Consider the margins in 2016 to see how razor thin the next election may be. Trump won Michigan by less than 11,000 votes, Wisconsin by 23,000 votes, and Pennsylvania by just 44,000 votes. These were all margins of less than 1 percent. Democrats need to take back all three states to win 2020, and whoever gets the nomination will pour immense energy and resources into each, which Trump will need to reciprocate. Any diversion of the large but finite campaign resources to shore up a traditional red state like Texas will cut into the ability of Trump to win key swing states.
Moreover, Texas is not just any state. As the second largest in the nation, by both population and land area, it is an expensive state in which to run a full campaign. Just ask O’Rourke and Cruz. The two combined spent nearly $125 million on their 2018 Senate campaigns, with O’Rourke outpacing Cruz by over 50 percent. Furthermore, outside donations and spending did not just impact the midterm Senate race, with donors also sending millions of dollars into suddenly competitive House races.
Republicans took note of the sheer volume of Texas votes that Democrats attracted in the last cycle. A Republican affiliated group, Engage Texas, is spending $25 million to register and turn out red voters. Considering the Trump campaign spent $325 million for 2016, the implications of such a drain of resources are clear well before the general election race begins.
Republicans are already walking a tightrope between the 2018 midterm results and changing demographic realities. In many ways, the resources used to keep Texas red next year are balanced by the fates in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Several campaign stops or a late ad buy could mean the difference in the race. Trump could see his electoral chances go to hell, if Democrats spend more time and money in Texas.