All that time, all that hard work, all for nothing, it seemed. Vanessa Adia’s dream of serving in Congress evaporated in an instant when early voting totals appeared on the website of the Tarrant County Election Administration. Adia was in a room at Fort Worth’s Omni Hotel with family members and supporters last November 6 when tallies became public after the polls closed at 7 p.m.
Outraged over the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the wife, mother, and Benbrook middle-school teacher became politically involved, bigly. With friend Veronica Penrod, she attended the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration and soon after decided to do something bigger and bolder to effect change: run for Congress.
But after more than a year and a half of block walking, candidate forums, and speaking to voters at receptions hosted at private homes, the Democrat was losing, which meant that Kay Granger was winning. Again. The 76-year-old Republican whose votes had aligned with Trump 98 percent of the time had been warming the same seat in Congress since 1997.
Election night ended the way it had begun, with an 18-point gulf between the political newcomer and the establishment politician who in the 1990s served as Fort Worth’s first woman mayor. Adia garnered 40 percent of the vote district-wide, but Granger won 58 percent –– and a 12th term. No Democratic or Libertarian contender has ever come close to unseating Granger, and neither have Republicans who posed primary challenges.
“Everybody knew that Vanessa was going to lose big except for Vanessa and Veronica,” said Vicki Moore, president of the Tarrant County Democratic Woman’s Club (TCDWC). “It was well-known going in that it was going to be a big uphill battle.”
Moore tried to soften the blow ahead of time for Adia and others who dreamed of a David-and-Goliath win in the midterms.
“I said, ‘You know, we’re not going to win every one, but we are going to win some,’ ” Moore said. “And what we’re going to do is lay some groundwork and build some inroads and learn what to do and what not to do.”
The city and school elections on Saturday, May 4, are nonpartisan, but Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Peoples is hoping to unseat Mayor Betsy Price, a Republican. A third candidate, James H. McBride, is also in that race. All of the other eight seats on the Fort Worth City Council are on the ballot, and only two incumbents –– Carlos Flores of District 2 and Ann Zadeh of District 9 –– are unopposed. District 5 incumbent Gyna M. Bivens is fighting for her seat against four challengers.
Democrats have a steep hill to climb after allowing their state party’s power to erode more than two decades ago. An article in the January 1998 issue of Texas Monthly titled “Who Killed the Democratic Party?” put the state party’s date of death at Dec. 2, 1997, the day when Democratic Attorney General and former state legislator Dan Morales announced his retirement.
“The Democrats, who had never completely embraced him, suddenly realized with his leaving that they had lost the strongest candidate they had,” Gregory Curtis wrote, adding that Democrats had no incumbents seeking to retain their statewide offices in the 1998 fall elections. Republicans went on to seize control of the state house and have held it firmly ever since.
Democrats have had problems on the national level as well, losing their once-reliable grip on white working-class voters. In 2016, the seething anger among that demographic, paired with a flawed Democratic presidential candidate, combusted. In large numbers, the white working class threw its support behind a Republican self-proclaimed billionaire and reality TV star who ran a dark campaign fueled by prejudice, paranoia, and misogyny. Though a month before the election The Washington Post released audio of Trump bragging to Access Hollywood correspondent Billy Bush about sexually assaulting women, 59.8 million people voted for him anyway, winning him the Electoral College but not the popular vote, which he lost by 3 million votes.
Two years after that repudiation, Democrats were hoping to regain some lost ground through the midterm elections. Though Adia was disheartened by her own failure to stake a claim for her party, she nevertheless mustered the fortitude to head to the Tarrant County Democratic Party’s election night gathering at the T&P Tavern downtown. She assumed she would walk into an atmosphere of defeat, but instead she found the ballroom full of upbeat energy and hope for the future. There were defeats, yes, but also victories. Significant ones.
Immediately, Adia’s despondency lifted.
“I walked into that room, and I saw it absolutely packed with new people who had come out and had gotten inspired and activated through not just my efforts but the efforts of everybody who ran,” Adia said. “They were disappointed, but they were also excited. There was so much hope in that room, so my sadness that night didn’t last long.”
Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the largest seat gain (41) since the 1974 post-Watergate election. The party won 8.6 percent of the popular vote nationwide, the largest margin on record for a party that had previously been outnumbered in the House. More than half the electorate showed up to vote, representing the highest turnout in more than a century.
There were also Democratic victories on home turf. In the Texas Senate District 10 race, Beverly Powell booted Tea Party darling Konni Burton with 52 percent to 48 percent of the vote both district-wide and in Tarrant County. Devan Allen was victorious over Republican incumbent Andy Nguyen in the Precinct 2 race for the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, and Kenneth Sanders bested Republican Precinct 7 peace justice incumbent Matt Hayes with a 6-point spread.
But perhaps the biggest and most meaningful outcome for Tarrant County Dems was in the U.S. Senate race between El Paso Democrat and former congressman Beto O’Rourke and incumbent Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz. In Tarrant County, O’Rourke won 4,308 more votes than Cruz, with Democrats making up 46 percent of the county’s straight-party votes.
Peoples, Tarrant County’s Democratic Party chair, attributes part of the O’Rourke win in Tarrant County to the charismatic 46-year-old’s appeal.
“But also, when [voters] looked at the ballot, they saw Democrats on there,” she said. “We got this enormous lift in an off year.”
Republicans nationwide had braced for the possibility that the 2018 midterm elections might serve as an abrogation of the GOP and Trump. Though Trump has maintained high approval ratings within the party, his overall poll numbers have been historically low. He was deemed the worst president in United States history by 200 of the nation’s top political scientists based upon his first year in office. On a scale in which a rating of 100 was considered “great” and a score of 50 was “average,” Trump’s average score was 12.34.
The race in Texas between O’Rourke and Cruz was closely watched for two reasons. One was that Republicans held control of the Senate by just two seats, and all signs indicated that Democrats were headed for a sweep in the House races. The second reason was that if reliably red Texas turned blue or purple, that could spell disaster for the GOP in the 2020 presidential election as well as future contests.
Cruz won statewide by just under 215,000 votes out of 8.4 million ballots cast. (Almost 65,000 votes went to Libertarian Neal Dikeman). But O’Rourke’s win in Tarrant County immediately raised the question of whether the bellwether county had turned blue. If so, the midterm election might be the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the GOP.
“Quite frankly, Republicans are taking it as a warning,” acknowledged Sam Pohl, communications coordinator for the Republican Party of Texas. “It’s certainly a big wake-up call for Republicans, and it certainly lets us know that we have a lot of work to do.”
When O’Rourke announced a bid for the presidency four months after the midterms, joining a growing field of Democratic candidates aiming to unseat Trump, the Republican National Committee immediately pounced.
“It’s telling that the Democrats’ biggest star is someone whose biggest accomplishment is losing,” said Michael Ahrens, the RNC’s communications director. RNC chair Ronna McDaniel echoed the talking point.
The intent of the national party was clearly to paint O’Rourke as a failed also-ran, and its statements about his loss were true. But the fact that O’Rourke very nearly won a seat in the U.S. Senate in ruby-red Texas and helped Democrats capture two seats in Congress, two in the state Senate, and a dozen in the Texas House was quite an accomplishment indeed.
There are differing opinions about whether Tarrant County stayed red in last year’s midterm despite Democratic wins, or whether it turned blue, light blue, or purple. Both Republicans and Democrats risk misinterpreting what the results portend.
Jim Sutton, chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party’s Candidates & Campaigns Committee, stressed that care should be taken in how the outcome is viewed. As for himself, he said he feels that every election stands on its own, and the November 2018 contest was no different.
“What worked in one election might not be valid for the next one,” he wrote in an email to me. When trends are interpreted, he posed, “do we cherry-pick what we want to see and are predisposed to hope for? Scientists have long known that it is easy to attribute a result to irrelevant conditions and theoretical catalysts that are later recognized as insignificant. In the case of election trends, I would think that many factors contribute to a given conclusion, and that the conclusion should probably not be generalized, or it becomes propaganda and not informative in nature.”
Sutton stated that major factors that play a role in election outcomes include: voters who have died; new voters; voters whose views have changed but that may change again before the next election; the level of election fraud; the amount of knowledge of the election provided through the media; and the availability of resources to motivate and identify voters.
“To correlate these factors and summarize them into a generalized statement is not a trivial task,” he wrote.
Maybe, but in the view of many Democrats, the results weren’t hard to summarize at all. Their party is finally starting to win.
Allan Saxe, an associate professor of political science at UTA, said the county didn’t turn blue, “but it will.” Its red is fading because of changing demographics, he said, and because Republicans haven’t been doing what they need to do to fend off a coming Democratic surge.
“First of all, the Democrats are reaching out to young people, and young people love Beto,” he said. “They didn’t know who he was, but he skateboards. He knows how to reach out to young people. We need more Republicans on skateboards. I’m serious. We need more Republicans who can reach out to young people.”
Another factor, Saxe said, is that “the Democratic party as a whole is reaching out to various other groups, and it’s working.”
The black population, he said, “has voted Democratic in overwhelming numbers since the 1960s, and you couple that with the immigration in counties like Tarrant County from all over the world, and the assumption is that the Democratic Party is ready to give them more food stamps, unemployment compensation, housing, whatever it is, so the Democratic Party has the advantage of being the party of ‘We’ll give you everything.’ ”
Saxe noted that such stereotypes are not necessarily valid. Democrats, after all, are taxpayers, too, so it makes little sense that they would be willing to fund generous handouts. By the same token, Saxe challenged the oft-held assumption that most Republicans are older, white, wealthy, and male. Saxe said he was recently surprised by a poll that showed that about 50 percent of Hispanics favor Trump’s proposed border wall. Who knew?
“A lot of Hispanics that live here, they pay taxes, they like a stable society, so it’s not at all certain that they’re going to vote on the basis of immigration,” he said.
That could be disappointing news for any Democrats assuming that Hispanic voters will be firmly in the party’s corner in 2020. Regardless, for now the party is energized by its 2018 performance and gearing up for next year’s presidential race when Tarrant County could possibly turn a bright, unmistakable blue.
Adia and Peoples feel the county turned pale blue in the midterm, but Moore of the TCDWC holds more of a glass-half-empty view. She said that Tarrant voters cast more Democratic votes than usual in top-of-the-ballot statewide races but noted that North Richland Hills, Southlake, Richland Hills, and the Hurst-Euless-Bedford area stayed stubbornly red.
“However,” she said, “some of the [Democrats] that lost only lost by 3 percentage points. That’s huge.”
Like Moore, past TCDWC president Leah Payne also was pleased with the midterm results but is cautious in how she interprets them.
“I think we didn’t necessarily turn blue,” the precinct chair said, “but we moved the needle, and we definitely turned purple.”
Peoples said that “in a lot of people’s mind,” the results of the O’Rourke-Cruz match-up meant that the county had gone blue. That’s good enough for her.
“We’ve got an energized Democratic electorate,” she said.
Moore said the party “started late in 2018” but learned what worked and what didn’t work and is now more organized.
The thing is, Republicans learned, too.
Meet April Lenaghen, a new hire by the Republican Party of Texas. She is a regional field director whose territory is Tarrant County. Her responsibilities include volunteer recruitment, management and training, voter registration, and coordination between the state party and local activists.
Spokesman Pohl said that the state party “absolutely” plans to focus on Tarrant County, and Lenaghen’s hiring is indicative of how seriously they are taking what happened last November. Although Saxe, as well as Democratic leaders and activists, said that Republicans were lax in making the same kinds of efforts that Dems made last year, Pohl said that the GOP will not be asleep at the wheel in 2020.
Through Lenaghen, the party will be getting volunteers “active and trained,” Pohl said, and that will include block walking –– a shoe-leather tactic that Democrats said was key for them in last year’s midterm. Pohl said that when the party ramps up for next year’s high-stakes election, Tarrant County will not be “slow off the starting block. It will take off pretty quickly.” The same will be true statewide, he said.
“We’re certainly not taking any area for granted,” Pohl said. “We will work to make sure that every Republican we can possibly find turns out.”
The party spokesman doesn’t think that O’Rourke’s numbers necessarily indicate “how the state is going.” He attributes the Democrat’s momentum largely to an $80-million campaign war chest that enabled his operation to bump up “to about 800 field staff in the last few weeks of the campaign, which is just unheard of.”
State Republican Party chair James Dickey has “laid out a pretty ambitious plan,” Pohl said, with goals of registering 1.6 million new GOP voters by October 2020 and turning out six million Republicans at election time.
“That effort is statewide, obviously, but I think it has a tremendous impact in Tarrant County, which has traditionally been the last, I would say, urban Republican stronghold,” Pohl said. “I think we’re going to be working pretty hard and we’re going to be able to combat what Democrats are going to do.”
Pohl said he feels confident that the strong economy and low unemployment rate under Trump will hold great sway with voters, as will the push by Republican lawmakers during the current legislative session to lower property taxes and give teachers pay raises.
“I think it’s easy for us to point to that and say, ‘This here is what we’ve been able to accomplish,’ ” Pohl said. “ ‘Here are the outcomes of our policies, and this is why it’s important to re-elect Republicans.’ I think we’re going to be able to use that very well going into 2020.”
There is a risk, though, that a cluster of far-right Republicans in the 86th Legislature could screw that up. Two years after pushing a controversial transgender-targeting “bathroom bill” that failed to pass, they are now focused on extreme anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ legislation. The bills have resulted in national media attention and major blowback.
“It does hurt,” Pohl acknowledged of the controversies. “And going into a difficult election, it’s tough.”
At least 15 bills containing “sincerely held belief” language were filed by GOP lawmakers during the current legislative session seeking legal protection for elected officials, business owners, and licensed professionals who refuse to serve the LGBTQ community. Corporations, including some Fortune 500 companies, warned that the bills could have a chilling effect on the state’s economy and its ability to draw top talent. Tourism groups, chambers of commerce, and civil rights organizations also have blasted the measures, calling them state-sanctioned discrimination.
Anti-abortion bills include Arlington State Rep. Tony Tinderholt’s House Bill 896, known as the Abolition of Abortion in Texas Act. The statute criminalizes abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest, or medical issues and opens the door for a woman who receives an abortion to receive a death sentence. The bill stalled in committee after an April 8 public hearing that stretched into the next morning.
Some suspect that HB 896 and similarly severe bills are part of a plan by Republican lawmakers to force court challenges that could ultimately result in the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
With so much happening so fast under chaotic Republican leadership, Peoples said that Democrats will work hard to register and educate voters.
“We’re going to keep reminding everybody why it’s so critical to go and vote,” she said. “We’ve got work to do in suburban counties. There’s no question. But when you look at the large urban counties and what Democrats were able to do to run the numbers up, people are starting to believe that Texas is winnable. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Actually, the elephant may be eating itself. The Republican base is declining and aging. In a June 2018 online article titled “Trump Owns a Shrinking Republican Party,” the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, stated, “A political party that can’t attract young people, especially in a generation that is as big as the millennial generation –– America’s largest demographic group –– is not a party with a very bright future.”
Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, showed up at the polls in record numbers for the 2018 midterm elections and overwhelmingly backed Democratic candidates. They helped create the most diverse Congress in United States history and put the U.S. House of Representatives back under the control of Democrats.
That could mean real trouble since Trump won some key electoral college states in 2016 by less than 100,000 votes. A poll released in March by Florida Atlantic University’s Business and Economics Polling Initiative showed that voters in that state, which Trump won by one percentage point, were evenly split on his job performance, setting the stage for the Sunshine State to be a key swing state in next year’s presidential contest. At the end of the first week in April, FiveThirtyEight, a website that provides opinion poll analysis, listed Trump’s disapproval rating at 52.5 percent. That was before the release of the report by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
And here’s another problem: Trump will be challenged in the Republican primary by former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. Historically, a primary challenge has been the beginning of the end for an incumbent president. Even if they win the primary, they are so weakened that they lose in the general election. In 1976, President Gerald Ford lost in the Republican primary to Ronald Reagan, who then went on to lose the election to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Four years later, Carter was primaried by Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. Carter won the primary but lost his bid for a second term to Reagan. In 1992, Pat Buchanan’s challenge in the Republican primary to George H.W. Bush weakened the incumbent to such an extent that he lost to Bill Clinton.
Immediately after Trump’s narrow victory, the TCDWC began to see a surge in membership. In 2017, it grew to 713 members, making it the largest grassroots Democratic women’s group in the state, according to the club’s leadership. Its numbers dropped to 441 in 2018, but that number is still higher than in the club’s pre-Trump days. Moore, TCDWC’s president, said that the average attendance at monthly meetings has been a healthy 150.
Although the election of the 45th president was a “major factor” in the organization’s rise, Moore said that members are increasingly upset with congressional leadership.
“A lot of them are shocked that some of the Republican leaders don’t stand up to Trump,” she said. “That is more than just a worry about Trump. It’s a worry about the direction of our country.”
Joel Fryar, a white 62-year-old architect, had never been politically active until he took his wife Tammy to the 2017 Women’s March in Fort Worth, one of many protests held across the nation and worldwide. Since the Fort Worth march had been hastily arranged, Fryar figured that maybe a couple hundred people would show up. Instead, estimates put the crowd at up to 8,000.
“I stood there on the courthouse steps, and I watched [marchers] coming down Main Street in Cowtown, of all places, and it was just amazing,” Fryar said. “That event is what kicked me off my fence post, and I really became active right then and there.”
Fryar has since become a precinct chair and a district coordinator responsible for all precinct chairs in Texas House District 91, which encompasses Watauga, Richland Hills, North Richland Hills, and Haltom City. He serves a similar role for Texas Senate District 9, which spans Keller, North Richland Hills, and part of Arlington. At the Women’s March downtown, he was registering voters for the Saturday elections.
“When I started, there were no active precinct chairs around me,” Fryar said. “I started by building a group of them, and it became the House district concept, and it spread all over the county. Northeast Tarrant County is absolutely vibrating, there is so much activism.”
Esther Hernandez-Sevier, who works for a general contractor in North Fort Worth, is also someone who became politically involved after the election of Trump. She worked last year’s midterms hard and intends to double-down in 2020 after watching some near-Democratic victories slip away.
“I volunteered for some campaigns, but it was after the midterms that I realized how little I did,” she said. Still, though, Democrats made “a huge dent in the turnout” of Democratic voters, she said.
“The only fear that I have is that we don’t keep that pace and we get complacent and we let all that work go to waste by not staying active,” she said. “People get overwhelmed, and sometimes when they get overwhelmed, they throw their hands up and say, ‘Well, you know what, it’s all for nothing anyway.’ I did run into people who are hardcore Democrats, and they voted every single chance they got for decades, and after Trump was elected, they said, ‘You know what, my vote doesn’t matter. This country is going so far off the deep end that I don’t feel like I need to participate anymore.’ ”
Hernandez-Sevier said she begged those people to go to the polls “one more time.” Some weren’t persuaded, but some were, and the resulting turnout was why there is now a debate over whether Tarrant County is now blue rather than red. If even more closeted Democrats turn out in 2020, both in Tarrant County and nationwide, Trump might be prevented from winning a second term.
“It’s just time to turn it around,” Fryar said.