Democrats see more opportunity in Tarrant County than any other to flip seats in the state capitol in Austin. They need to pick up nine seats to win control of the state House for the first time in 20 years, and are targeting five seats in Tarrant, the state’s third-largest county.
While contemporary political campaigns rely on new technologies and complex data to reach and mobilize voters, some Democratic organizations in Tarrant County are going a little more old-school: Using pen and paper to build up the Democratic voter base.
Democratic activist group Tarrant Together is organizing a massive letter writing campaign. A battalion of the organization’s volunteers have been gathering in offices and cafes across the county since the summer to write letters telling potential Democratic voters why it’s important to vote in 2020. They’re hand-written, hand-folded and slipped into envelopes addressed by hand, along with a voter registration application.
“It’s a little more personal and from the heart than your standard form letter,” said Gwenn Burud, a Tarrant Together board member who ran for a state Senate seat in 2018. “There’s some people that say health care is important to me, or some people might say they want strong public schools. Some might say ‘look, voting is my superpower. It’s my way to be heard, and if I don’t vote, I can’t complain.’”
Tarrant Together was formed by Democratic women who ran for office in Tarrant County in 2018. They wanted to solve a problem they saw first-hand: Candidates do a lot of voter outreach – knocking on doors, sending mailers, making phone calls – but they don’t have the resources to reach every potential voters, so campaigns mostly focus on talking to Democrats who vote regularly.
Focusing money on reliable voters is a sensible strategy, said former state Senate candidate and Tarrant Together President Allison Campolo, but it also leaves a lot of people out.
“These folks who don’t participate or are unregistered just go uncontacted for years and years and years,” Campolo said.
Now, the group is mailing hand-written letters to people who don’t vote or don’t vote frequently, which will be followed up with a knock on the door or a phone call.
The group is also targeting the tens of thousands of people who’ve moved to Tarrant County in recent years who were Democratic voters before they moved, but haven’t voted since they arrived.
In all, the group hopes to add 40,000 voters to the electorate through letter-writing and other outreach efforts.
That turnout will go a long way to move the needle in this historic Republican stronghold, Campolo said. Tarrant County has seen explosive growth over the last decade – adding more than 275,000 new residents since 2010. Fort Worth and its suburbs have been adding black, Latino and Asian residents much faster than white residents, and many new residents are coming from more liberal-leaning regions of the country. All trends that tend to favor Democrats. But voter turnout in the county remains low, and many of the majority Democratic precincts here vote at a much lower rate than majority Republican ones.
“We have one of the lowest urban voter participation rates in the country in Tarrant County, and I think that’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy of Democrats generally being told that it’s a red county,” Campolo said. “The Republicans of Tarrant County tend to vote well — they’re good at voting and they vote regularly, whereas the Democrats tend to stay home.”
Long seen as a linchpin to Republican control in Texas, Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke beat Republican Senator Ted Cruz in Tarrant County in 2018, and Democrats were able to flip a seat in the state legislature and two local ones.
Democrats came within ten percentage points of overtaking Republicans in five statehouse seats and one congressional district that includes part of Tarrant County. Since then, two state representatives and one member of Congress decided to retire.
“That 2018 election really woke us up,” said Rick Barnes, chairman of the Tarrant County Republican Party. “I’ve seen us more active this year getting ready for this election than I’ve seen us in quite some time, despite the fact that we don’t have many primary races.”
Republicans have been registering new voters, and Barnes said he’s working with state and national GOP organizations to defend incumbents by engaging less-frequent voters, and even convincing Democrats to switch sides. He also points to the state party campaign to get 10,000 Texas Republicans to send the party a list of 10 people who aren’t registered, but would vote for Republicans if they did vote. It’s part of a coordinated strategy that shows Republicans aren’t willing to take their majorities for granted.
“We’ve got Trump people working out of our office today. We’ve got Senate people, Cornyn people, working out of our office today. We’ve even got Abbott people working out of our office and Abbott’s not even up for election,” Barnes said. “So we know that everybody understands the importance of Tarrant County and they’ve already committed their resources to working through this office.”
Both Barnes and Tarrant Together’s Campolo say their goal is to register people to vote who’ll vote for their party, but both say they’re not bothered by the fact that their volunteers may register voters who’ll vote differently.
In a bakery in North Fort Worth, Tarrant Together volunteer and retired writer Ken Shimamoto, a retired writer, says he’s been helping write letters since the summer to woo potential Democratic voters to the ballot box.
“The more people participate, the more our lawmakers will be motivated to hear us,” he said. “As opposed to just the folks who are writing checks to them every election year.”
Volunteer Julie Miller, an office manager, said she’s cautiously optimistic that people are getting more engaged, and the county could send more Democrats to the statehouse and other elected offices this year.
“I believed for too long that my vote didn’t matter, and I don’t believe that anymore,” she said. “I know too many people who also believe that their vote doesn’t matter. So I’m trying to get the word out that, you know, if we want change we ought to be a part of it.”