Texas Democrats launch largest voter registration campaign to hobble GOP's grip on the state

Texas Democrats are working with Stacey Abrams' Fair Fight on voter protection.

January 13, 2020, 6:01 AM

Texas Democrats, fueled by the party’s nearly quarter-century-held dream of turning Texas blue, are mounting an aggressive ground-game operation with the largest voter registration program in the state's history, according to the state party, and an expansive voter protection effort ahead of the 2020 election.

The two-pronged campaign, which aims to add to the party's 2018 gains up and down the ballot, will target unregistered voters who they believe are potential new Democrats, and safeguard the right to vote for Texans, in partnership with Fair Fight 2020, the multi-million dollar initiative launched by Stacey Abrams, a Georgia Democrat who considered a bid for president and the U.S. Senate last year.

"The rapidly emerging Democratic coalition in Texas has set the stage for historic Democratic gains at the ballot box," Cliff Walker, the deputy executive director of the state party, said in a statement announcing the program. "We are committing our resources to register and engage a new electorate that is more progressive and represents the diversity of our great state. Shifting the electorate in Texas is our top priority."

For Abrams' group, Texas is one of the 20 battleground states that Fair Fight 2020 is targeting to promote voters' rights and fair election policies ahead of November. Fair Fight began investing resources in Texas last month.

"Fair Fight is proud to partner with the Texas Democratic Party to fund, train and support a robust voter protection initiative through our Fair Fight 2020 initiative," said Seth Bringman, a spokesman for Fair Fight. "Republicans in Texas have, for a long time, sought to make it harder to vote, particularly for voters of color, and it takes a dedicated voter protection team on the ground well before Election Day to make sure all Texans’ voices can be heard."

Stacey Abrams, Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, speaks during an election night watch party in Atlanta, Nov. 6, 2018.
Kevin D. Liles/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At the core of the registration effort, which the state party says will be in collaboration with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for U.S. House Democrats, is an ambitious goal to register "a share of the estimated 2,600,000 Texans who are likely to vote Democratic," by using data-driven programs, deploying 1,000 field organizers and canvassers on the ground, and mailing hundreds of thousands of voter registration applications to unregistered voters across the state.

In a nine-page memo outlining their 2020 game plan on voter registration and protection, Walker and Lauren Pully, the state party's data and analytics director, contend that "in order to close the statewide gap and win in 2020, we must register and engage a new electorate that is more progressive and represents the diversity of our great state."

The second focus of their strategy -- voter protection, access and ending voter suppression -- will be bolstered by a number of initiatives spearheaded by the Texas Democratic Party, with the help of Fair Fight, among other national groups. Texas Democrats are expected to roll out more specifics on the protection effort at the end of the month, but in the coming week, the state party is launching a year-round voter assistance hotline for quick access to voting information and voting-related issues.

As part of the voter protection effort, the state party is also already moving forward on the legal front. Earlier this month, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the DCCC, and Texas Democrats filed a lawsuit, part of an eight-figure investment across seven battleground states by the national groups, to challenge the electronic signature ban in the state. Democrats argue the original or "wet" signature requirement is unconstitutional because it makes it more difficult for voters to gain access to the polls, particularly after upwards of 2,400 voter registration applications were rejected in 2018, due to the current rule.

"This unconstitutional ban does not make an ounce of sense, and it is the kind of arbitrary voter suppression that we’re working to tear down right now before even more harm is done to our Democracy," said DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

The unparalleled investments Texas Democrats are pouring into 2020 are in part a response to "the polarizing nature of the Trump presidency," the memo reads. But they also reflect the zeal of the party to narrow their deficit in a state still in the GOP's grip.

Voters cast their ballots at the Rummel Creek Elementary polling place, Nov. 6, 2018 in Houston, Texas.
Loren Elliott/Getty Images

Democrats are banking on the Trump factor to boost their chances of further solidifying their foothold in November. The president roiled the political waters in Texas -- and across the country -- "destabilizing" the Republican majority in the state, according to political experts.

Democratic pick ups in 2020, said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, will be determined by long-term demographic changes, the number of open seats and whether "Trump is as destabilizing of the Republican coalition in 2020 as he was in 2018."

"(The) declining Anglo-population is Republican and the rising minority population is Democrats, so that long term shift is endangering the traditional Republican majority," Jillson told ABC News. "This partisan competition in Texas creates the opportunity for Democrats to pick up seats that they had not been competitive for in the past."

In the most recent midterm elections, those factors cost Republicans "two U.S. House seats, two Texas Senate seats and 12 Texas House seats, as well as hundreds of local county races (and) city races," he previously noted.

Texas has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. But in 2018, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke received more votes than any Democrat has in the history of Texas in his competitive, upstart Senate bid against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. And changing demographics within the state -- including what FiveThirtyEight calls population growth "in and around the state’s cities" -- suggest that Texas could be a key battleground in 2020.

While O'Rourke failed to find success in the Senate contest, the race between him and Cruz was the closest Texas has seen in recent decades. Republicans eked out a victory by three points, but O'Rourke carved a path for Democrats, making significant inroads for the party both statewide and lower on the ballot.

Senate candidate Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) addresses a campaign rally at the Pan American Neighborhood Park, Nov. 4, 2018, in Austin, Texas.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Texas Democratic Party -- already identifying their prime targets down the ballot -- has set their sights on registering voters in a slate of state house districts, including 210,000 potential new Democrats in 12 districts that flipped in 2018, and 315,000 potential new Democrats in 18 targeted Texas Legislature districts for 2020.

Texas will see 'battles all over the state' in 2020

In mid-September, ahead of the Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told ABC News, "This debate is happening in Texas because the Democratic National Committee has determined that Texas is a battleground state. That being said, that makes Texas the biggest battleground state in the country."

But still, Democrats are up against lofty challenges -- Trump carried Texas by nine points in the 2016 presidential election, and some anticipate the incumbent will win it again.

"I expect Trump will carry Texas maybe by five or six points, instead of the nine he won it by last time," Jillson said.

While Democratic hopefuls might affirm the notion that the state is a battleground, Jillson said he sees the battle lines differently.

"Texas is a battleground state in places," he said. "And those places are the suburbs of the major cities of Texas. Texas itself is not a battleground state."

"There are battles all over the state, particularly in U.S. House races, and Texas House and Senate races," he continued. "There are battlegrounds all over the state, even if the state is not yet a battleground."

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