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Presidential Candidates Turn Their Focus To Texas, As Early Voting Begins

Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
The Texas Tribune
Bernie Sanders speaks to an enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Mesquite Rodeo Arena near Dallas for a campaign rally on Feb. 14, 2020.

Bernie Sanders wasted little time Friday night at a Dallas-area rally getting to what he said would be a “dramatic announcement.”

“We’re gonna win the state of Texas,” he declared, setting off raucous cheers.

“Yeah, we will,” he added nonchalantly seconds later.

While none of Sanders’ primary rivals has exuded as much confidence ahead of the March 3 primary, several others clearly see opportunity in the delegate-rich state — and are acting accordingly as early voting begins Tuesday. Still, the primary here remains somewhat in flux as campaigns gauge just how seriously to make a homestretch push in the massive, resource-intensive state, one of over a dozen that vote on Super Tuesday. To top it all off, early voting begins in Texas before Nevada or South Carolina even vote, meaning the state of the overall primary could be dramatically different by election day in Texas.

“I think a lot of this is going to have to do with momentum,” said one of the candidates, California billionaire Tom Steyer, who predicted he would come out of Nevada and South Carolina “with a lot of momentum” and with a “diverse coalition” that will position him well for a state like Texas.

“The state of the presidential race in Texas is fluid,” added state Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Carrollton, who sees her candidate, Michael Bloomberg, on more of an upswing in the state than anybody else as he builds an unparalleled operation here.

The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll of the state’s primary, released Friday, found Sanders and Joe Biden statistically tied after months of Biden leading most surveys here. Bloomberg was fourth, with 10%, behind Elizabeth Warren, at 15%.

There are 261 delegates up for grabs in Texas, allocated based on the results of the statewide vote and in 31 state Senate districts. The bluer the district, the more delegates at play — as many as 10, which is how many are available in Sen. Kirk Watson's Austin-based district. A candidate must clear 15% of the vote in a district to be eligible for its delegates, and the same threshold applies to the statewide delegates.

Texas appears increasingly important for the former vice president, whose campaign is eager to show he can break through in more diverse states after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“They remain bullish about Texas, I remain bullish about Texas,” said Biden supporter Mike Collier, the 2018 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. Collier added that he thought there was “no surprise” in the first two states and that it was natural for the Texas polls to tighten as the campaign heats up.

Biden has staff on the ground in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, according to his campaign, and it has offices in those first three cities. Biden also has the most impressive endorsement list in the state, to which he is adding state Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins on Tuesday. In a statement first shared with The Texas Tribune, the San Antonio lawmaker said Biden “has always fought for us — and as President, I know he will continue the fight to ensure that all Texans have the same economic and educational opportunities regardless of race, gender, or ZIP code.”

Sanders, the independent U.S. senator from Vermont, has moved briskly in recent weeks to beef up his Texas presence after winning the popular vote in Iowa and prevailing in New Hampshire. He now has five offices and 10 staffers in Texas, and his campaign is on TV as part of a $5.5 million ad buy across the Super Tuesday states. That makes him the only Democratic candidate other than Bloombergwho has been airing TV ads in Texas.

Undoubtedly looming large is the former New York City mayor, who is skipping the first fourstates on the nominating calendar and effectively beginning his campaign in the Super Tuesday states. While saturating Texas with eight figures worth of spendingin TV ads, he has built easily the biggest campaign here, opening 17 offices — with two more on the way — and amassing a 160-person staff.

Also, Bloomberg himself has been to Texas five times since launching his campaign in late November, easily more than any other candidate over the same period.

Bloomberg’s priority focus on Texas has won over several important endorsers, including Johnson. She said Bloomberg’s commitment to keeping his Texas infrastructure in place through the general election “was significant to me,” calling his effort in the state “not just a three-week splash and out.”

Asked about another candidate who has vowed to help put Texas in play as the nominee, Johnson said, “Bloomberg’s actually doing it and Biden’s just talking about it.”

Long before Bloomberg swept into the state, though, at least one candidate made Texas an early priority: Elizabeth Warren. The U.S. senator from Massachusettshas had people on the ground since August, and her campaign says it has dozens of staffers and organizers across 14 cities. It has four offices open.

While Warren herself has not visited Texas since September, her campaign sent surrogates on a five-city “Latino community engagement tour” that wrapped up Saturday.

“I see a lot of enthusiasm for Sen. Warren,” said Julián Castro, the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor who ended his own presidential run last month and quickly endorsed Warren. “Her campaign has been organizing for several months in Texas. They’re not taking any vote for granted in Texas and also reaching out to the Latino community, to the black community, so her campaign is putting in the work here in Texas to have a good showing, and I’m confident that she can do well on March 3.”

Then there are some candidates who are truly playing catch-up in the state, making their first serious moves here in recent days. Steyer opened his first Texas office Thursday in Houston and is planning to open a Dallas office later this week. Pete Buttigieg sent 24 staffers to Texas starting Monday, following his top-two finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. And the campaign of Amy Klobuchar, who is scrambling to scale up after beating expectations with a third-place finish in the Granite State, announced Sunday that her campaign “will have … staff on the ground in every Super Tuesday state,” but did not provide further details.

Over the weekend, Klobuchar won the endorsement of the Houston Chronicle, the newspaper in the state’s biggest city.

In an interview, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa acknowledged that candidates like Klobuchar could do well in Texas given the momentum they are building elsewhere, but he voiced skepticism of any campaign that is just now investing in the huge state.

“Unless you are willing to spend $30 million flooding the airwaves, it’s very, very difficult to have an additional impact than what you’ve already got,” Hinojosa said. “You cannot organize and you cannot put together a machine to pull out the vote for a candidate in a week or a month even.”

When it comes to endorsements, Biden has long led the way in Texas, accruing the support of dozens of members of Congress, state lawmakers and major county and city officials, with support particularly concentrated in South Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But Warren has also been able to put together a respectable endorsement list, and Bloomberg has been making considerable inroads, landing his biggest Texas nod yet last week, when he got the support of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Both Texans who had run for president earlier this cycle — Castro and Beto O’Rourke — are playing distinctly different roles as the primary nears. Castrohas endorsed Warren and emerged as a highly active surrogate for her. O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman, has said he does not plan to endorse before the primary, which a spokesperson reiterated Friday. (He has, however, been himself available to candidates seeking advice about Texas and he showed up at a Bloomberg event late last month in El Paso.)

Like many Democrats nationwide, Texas Democrats are highly focused on who can beat President Donald Trump. But in a traditionally Republican state that is getting more competitive, state Democrats are also looking for a nominee who can lead a robust down-ballot effort in November— or be a “party builder,” as Collier said in promoting Biden.

Before Bloomberg came along, Biden was making the most overt appeals to Texas Democrats’ general-election hopes. And along with Warren, Biden and Bloomberg sought to prove their down-ballot commitment by weighing in last month on a nationally targeted special election runoff for a Texas House seat that Democrats were hoping to flip. The Democrats' efforts fell well short — Republican Gary Gates won by 16 percentage points.

Sanders and Warren have taken their down-ballot involvement a step further, looking to burnish their progressive credentials by endorsing a few prominent primary challengers across the state. Those include Jessica Cisneros, who is running against U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and José Garza, who is taking on Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore.

Now, with two weeks until election day, the candidates are getting more opportunities to take their long-building Texas courtship directly to the voters.

On Saturday, Sanders and Steyer participated via video conference in a forum in Pasadena put on by Jolt, a group focused on mobilizing Latino youth. Biden, Klobuchar and Warren sent surrogates.

A few days earlier at the Harris County party’s annual Johnson, Rayburn, Richards Dinner in Houston, some of the central tension of the primary was on full display. Bloomberg was the first headliner to speak, and he was interrupted twice by hecklers, including at least one objecting to the stop-and-frisk policy that Bloomberg pushed as mayor but apologized for days prior to announcing his White House bid. Bloomberg then headed to another event in Houston — the launch of “Mike for Black America” — where he and Turner used their remarks to address the recent uproar over stop and frisk.

Meanwhile, back at the dinner, another headliner, Castro, took the stage and made a passionate pitch for Warren — and while he did not directly mention Bloomberg, there was little doubt he had the billionaire on his mind. In his speech, Castro acknowledged that Democrats’ number one priority is defeating Trump, but he sought to remind primary voters that they have choices for who will best represent their values in the general election.

"Having said that,” Castro said after a pause, “I also want to commend the folks that spoke up about stop and frisk earlier tonight."

The Texas Tribune provided this story

Patrick Svitek is a reporter for the Texas Tribune. He previously worked for the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau. He graduated in 2014 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He originally is from Fort Wayne, Indiana.