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Midterm results signal leftward shift for Tarrant County By Benton McDonald

Beto O'Rourke has turned his success in the 2018 Texas senate race into a presidential candidacy with momentum. He raised $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his campaign, the most among Democratic candidates.

O'Rourke is using his midterm strategy - visiting every county in Texas - to the national stage. In the first 10 days of campaign he visited Iowa, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Michigan and New Hampshire. The breakneck pace has quickly introduced him to voters in critical swing states.

This approach to swaying voters didn't get him a seat in the Senate, but it did show that GOP strongholds can be taken in an election. While he ended up losing to Cruz by less than 3 percentage points, O’Rourke flipped historically red Tarrant County.

Until last fall, Tarrant, which includes Fort Worth, stood as the nation's largest Republican leaning urban county.

O’Rourke won 49.93 percent of the vote in Tarrant County, edging incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz by less than one percent.

“The question is, is Tarrant County different somehow or is it just late to the party?” said Dr. James Riddlesperger, a TCU professor of political science.

The 2018 midterms certainly showed evidence that Tarrant might just be late catching up to the changing demographic and ideological trends of the state.

Democratic candidates received record high vote totals and saw many first time majorities in Tarrant County at the local, state, and national levels.

“Reading about all these elongated counts and looking at the results, I just get more and more excited and ecstatic,” said Elizabeth Marsh, chair of the Tarrant County Democrats precinct leadership committee.

Marsh attributed the midterm success to strong candidates, an increase in voter turnout, and the momentum of the Democratic Party nationwide.

The party took the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives after gaining 40 seats in the midterms.

More Democrats voted straight ticket than in any of the last three presidential elections, a sign of renewed voter enthusiasm that party leadership has spent the last two years rebuilding, according to Marsh.

“Our turnout was awesome,” Marsh said. “It’s like we say in Democratic circles, the more people vote the more Democrats win.”

Marsh said that the strategy of the precinct leaders was to find Democratic voters who don’t usually vote and get them to the polls.

“We were spending less time persuading people about the issues,” she said. “We were really persuading people that their vote mattered.”

An emphasis on the ground game worked, as the county saw record high voting turnout for a midterm election that rivaled the numbers of a presidential year.

While knocking on doors and encouraging voters helped, strong candidates running successful campaigns were the biggest factors in Democrats midterm success.

O’Rourke built up a national following during his bid for Cruz’s seat, including a response to the NFL’s national anthem controversy that garnered more than 44 million views online.

The El Paso native traveled to every county in Texas during his campaign, using social media to allow voters to be with him every step of the way.

O’Rourke’s ability to connect with voters across the state allowed him to wage the closest senate race the state had seen since 1988.

“The fact that he won Tarrant County is a real signature achievement for his campaign,” Riddlesperger said. “I think some of it had to do with candidate quality but also clearly there is a trend line, and the trend line is Tarrant County, which is in many ways a microcosm of Texas as a whole.”

The trend line lies in the changing demographics of the state and Tarrant County, which are adding more and more Democratic voters to the electorate.

Texas and Tarrant County are becoming more diverse. Tarrant's Hispanic population has more than double since 2000, compared to the white population which declined from 61.9 percent to 50.1.

A more diverse Texas stands to benefit Democrats, who have historically maintained a strong majority with non-white racial groups.

More than two-thirds of Hispanic voters supported O’Rourke statewide, due in part to a commitment by groups like the Tarrant County Democrats to building an infrastructure to serve the needs of minority groups, Dylan Lofton, a precinct chairman in Tarrant County.

Lofton said he focused his efforts on working with Hispanic organizations and showing them that candidates would work for their needs.

Both Lofton and Riddlesperger talked about the growing importance of the Hispanic vote and how increasing the turnout of these voters will allow Democrats to build on the success of 2018.

Lofton pointed in particular to the south side of the county, a hub for the Hispanic population.

U.S. House District 6 lies in this area and Democratic candidate Jana Lynn Sanchez won the Tarrant County portion of the district by five percent, but lost the race to incumbent Ron Wright.

O’Rourke and Sanchez’s gains in Tarrant County highlighted the changing voting patterns of the area, a trend that could grow even stronger in 2020.

Marsh said that the success of the 2018 midterms will allow the party to “supercharge” its efforts in 2020. The focus will continue to be on increasing voter turnout among Democratic non-voters in the nations 15th largest county, she said.

“I feel positive,” she said about 2020. “I think we’re going to have more people engaged because of the success of this election.”

For now, Marsh and other Democrats will continue to look at victories like the County Commissioners seat in Precinct No. 2. Democratic Devan Allen won the seat over Republican incumbent Andy Nguyen. Nguyen won unopposed in 2010 and won with 56 percent of the vote in 2014.

The 2012 map (left) shows State House District 92, which Republican Jonathan Strickland won with 80 percent of the vote. In 2018, Strickland earned just 49 percent of the vote and won the Tarrant County portion of his district by 2 percent. Photos courtesy: Tarrant County Election Archives.

They're also hoping to close the gap in places like State House District 92, where incumbent Republican Jonathan Strickland saw his margin of victory go from 61 percent in 2012 to just 2 percent this year.

His opponent, Steve Riddell had never run a political campaign before.

“This was Steve’s first race, he’s never done anything like this before, and look what he was able to do,” said Marsh.

Democrats will look for more candidates like Allen and Riddell as they slowly push the nations largest Republican leaning county to the left, a shift that could change the entire balance of Texas politics.

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Benton McDonald
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