Bernie Sanders speaking at a campaign rally in El Paso.
AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio

A Democratic Socialist Damn Near Won the Texas Primary

It took a small army of politicians and pundits to stave Bernie Sanders off.


Let’s take a step back. 

Despite all the talk and portents of a Democratic Spring, Texas remains a red state. Just ask anyone who’s run statewide since Forrest Gump was a hot new film. The common wisdom—as every two-bit pundit will leap to affirm—is that to crack this GOP stronghold, Democrats should run Republican-lite campaigns. They should go easy on oil and gas, attune themselves to the racial and economic anxieties of the suburbs, and often keep things very, very vague.

Some observers will look at Vice President Joe Biden’s narrow victory in the Texas primary as further evidence that the road to winning the Lone Star State is paved with pro-business centrism. Their ideological complacency deepening, they’ll tell young Texas progressives: “We told you so.” But they shouldn’t feel so comfortable. 

Even with a last-minute Biden offensive from seemingly every elected official in the state, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders came within a few points of taking Texas. 

In the weeks leading up to the primary, Sanders suddenly took the lead over Biden, who’d been the longtime front-runner. Pundits and Biden campaign surrogates panicked—or feigned panic—that the Vermont senator would wreck down-ballot races in Texas. That months-old Biden talking point was dutifully laundered by political reporters. Did the commentators have a record of knowing how to win statewide? No. Did they muster any hard evidence? Negatory. But, you know, it all felt like common sense. 

On Monday came the real putsch. Ex-congressman Beto O’Rourke—still popular and influential in Texas—joined other presidential dropouts and nearly the entire political class of Dallas to send a message: Give it up, y’all; it’s Biden. Sanders was only ever able to draw endorsements from a smattering of local officials in the state. The Democratic establishment made its choice. 

One can imagine an alternative scenario. In mid-February, as Sanders was drawing crowds of 13,000 in Austin and 7,000 in Houston, Biden hadn’t visited Texas in over a month. Partly replicating the “distributed organizing” model of O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate race, Sanders supporters had been canvassing for months as Biden’s ground game remained nearly non-existent. Sanders had the backing of important progressive groups in Texas: the Workers Defense Project, the Texas Organizing Project, Jolt, and local chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America—groups made up of the young, the Latinx, and the working-class. The ostensible future of the Texas Democratic Party was speaking for anyone willing to listen.

The crowd at an Austin Bernie Sanders rally in February.  Gus Bova

Imagine if O’Rourke—who ran in 2018 on a fairly progressive platform and was never the party’s first choice, who raised a grassroots army and campaigned with an outsider’s swagger—had rallied behind Sanders weeks ago and pushed him over the edge. After all, O’Rourke had admitted before that America could “do far better” than Biden. In 2018, O’Rourke’s campaign was partly built by Sanders 2016 organizers, and in the wake of his Biden endorsement, a legion of O’Rourke’s former staffers took to Twitter to condemn his move. A former bandmate even called him out on Instagram. Alas, O’Rourke has finally decided to turn in his punk rock credentials, and a beaming Biden has confiscated his skateboards. 

On Tuesday, according to exit polls, Sanders won a familiar coalition: He dominated with voters under 30 and won voters under 50, and he ran away with the Latinx vote. He predictably won the liberal Austin area, but he also won every populous border county, including the entire Rio Grande Valley. He won heavily Latinx Bexar County too, along with Brazos, Lubbock, and Denton—all counties with university towns. These are the voters the Democratic Party says it’s been waiting for. 

But older voters, along with black voters over 30, were having none of it. Per one exit poll, voters over 65 actually increased their share of the electorate over 2016. They went for Biden. 

Biden won a suite of states Tuesday and, despite a Sanders win in California, appears to now be the delegate leader. Nate Silver’s 538 projects Biden to win the plurality of delegates in the Democratic primary, but not enough to win on the first round of voting at the nominating convention. That could take Democrats to their first brokered convention since 1952, and, in theory, anyone could emerge. In the worst-case scenario, a brokered convention rips the party into embittered factions, depressing November turnout and propelling Trump to a second term. That’s no guarantee, but it’s a risk

If Biden ends up with the nomination, let’s hope the pundits and politicians—and the voters they persuaded—are ready to work as hard as Sanders’ army of young volunteers would have worked for him. And if Biden once again mixes up which office he’s running for, or retroactively rewrites his role in world historic events, let’s hope no one is listening. As the Biden-Trump debates melt the American brain, let’s hope most of us still remember to vote. 

Regardless, progressives should take heart. Recent polls suggest the majority of Texas Democrats already approve of both socialism and single-payer health insurance. These trends should continue in the years to come. So whatever happens, let’s remember: A socialist damn near won the Texas primary.

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