“Donald Trump is a turnout and motivation machine for both Republicans and Democrats,” Henson said. “I think we saw that in 2018, and we’re seeing that now.”
Democrats have been hoping for Texas to become purple for decades—the state’s demographics are similar to California’s, but its white population is much more conservative, and its voting population less diverse than the state at large. Statewide, Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of the population but accounted for only about 30 percent of the electorate in 2018, while non-Hispanic white voters made up 56 percent of the 2018 electorate even though they make up only about 40 percent of the population. With the surge in turnout however, it’s anyone’s guess what the Texas electorate actually looks like this year.
The short version of the story of Texas’s and California’s divergent fates goes something like this: Unlike in California, where Republicans embraced an anti-immigrant politics that compelled Latino residents to organize politically to defeat them, in Texas, the Republican Party was dominated until relatively recently by George W. Bush–style immigration moderates instead of Trump-style nativists. And whether because of Trumpism alienating young and college-educated white voters, or because of an influx of white liberals from other states, white voters in Texas appear to have become, on average, more moderate.
Also in the past decade, both Democrats and activist groups have made a concerted effort to shift the state’s politics to the left and help underrepresented groups turn out.
“It’s not coming from D.C. consultants swooping in, bringing people that they worked with in a national campaign, and saying, ‘We’ll fix you,’” Manzano said. “It’s people who know the state, who know their particular piece of the state and their communities.”
These efforts showed real results in the 2018 midterms, when Democrat Beto O’Rourke came within three points of unseating incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Texas’s senior senator, John Cornyn, admitted a few weeks later that “Texas is no longer a reliably red state.”
Texas’s reliable redness, however, is a product of design more than ideology. Texas Republicans have worked hard to raise economic barriers to voting, passing strict voter-ID laws, refusing to allow voters to register online, making it extremely difficult for third parties to register voters, and gerrymandering the state so effectively as to lock Democrats out of power. A study from Northern Illinois University recently found that Texas had the most restrictive voting processes in the country.
“The Republican Party in the last 20 years has been very effective at using the levers of part of government … to their advantage, particularly in the drawing of districts and in the management of voting rules,” Henson said.