Above: Bernie Sanders’ ascendance in Texas has prompted widespread backlash from the state’s Democratic establishment.
2018 offered a spark of hope for Democrats in Texas: Beto O’Rourke ran a competitive Senate campaign, and Dems flipped several reliably Republican congressional and legislative seats. Hoping to build that momentum in 2020, national groups have swooped in and put considerable resources into campaigns up and down the ballot. Now, a series of competitive Democratic primaries between insurgent progressives and the party establishment could shape the future of the party and determine who wields power in Texas.
The Democratic Party’s top goals are to take control of the state House and win more congressional seats. Both of those efforts are centered in Texas’ shifting suburbs, which establishment Democrats caution will require moderation. But progressives are eagerly pushing an aggressive vision—policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and sweeping criminal justice reform—statewide and down the ballot.
The biggest test of the movement’s power, of course, will be in the presidential primary. While Joe Biden was long seen as the favorite, in recent weeks, Bernie Sanders has become the Democratic frontrunner in delegate-rich Texas. After a commanding victory in the Nevada caucus, Sanders barnstormed across Texas, holding huge rallies last week in El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, and Austin.
Heading into election day, Sanders leads the field with just under 30 percent of Texas primary voters, according to FiveThirtyEight, with Biden at just over 24 percent. Sanders’ rise is fueled in part by a surge of support from Latinx voters: According to a new NBC News Marist poll of likely Democratic voters, Sanders had a commanding 46 percent of support from Latinx people. He’s also made significant inroads with the state’s black voters, with 24 percent support to Biden’s 30 percent. (Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer’s drop-outs are likely to help Biden.)
The democratic socialist’s emergence as the frontrunner is heartening for progressive groups like the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) and the Workers Defense Project, which have in recent years successfully built up political power at the local level by mobilizing black and Latinx people in low-income and working-class communities. Both groups have endorsed Sanders and are canvassing voters for him.
“We are really trying to engage a new section of the electorate who have been ignored,” says Chris Chu de León, a Houston native who is leading Sanders’ Texas operation. “In order to bring someone into our movement, we have to ask them to join and give them a reason.” He says the campaign—and its 1,000 Texas volunteers—has prioritized turning out unlikely voters in communities of color. Although early voting turnout has surged across the state, a smaller share of first-time Democratic voters have cast ballots: 6.4 in 2020 compared to 9 percent in 2016.
The Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by John Cornyn will be another key race in measuring the progressive hold in Texas. MJ Hegar, a combat veteran who narrowly lost her congressional bid in a strong Republican district in 2018, is the frontrunner and has the backing of national Democrats. She was the first candidate to get in the race, running as a moderate with an aim to peel off suburban swing voters. Her approach is typical of red-state Democrats, but it’s been tried in Texas before—think of Houston Mayor Bill White’s gubernatorial campaign in 2010 and Wendy Davis’ in 2014. O’Rourke, meanwhile, ran a much more liberal campaign, one unencumbered by conventional wisdom, and came closer to winning than any other Democrat in a generation.
Progressive organizers want to build on that, not go back to the middle. So last summer, a small group of progressives, wary of ceding the field to a Washington-backed candidate, recruited Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez to run. Tzintzún Ramirez helped build the Workers Defense Project into a powerful labor organizing force and then founded Jolt, a group focused on voter registration of young Latinx Texans.
She has adopted a progressive platform and is trying to make the case that she can win statewide by mobilizing the same emerging electorate that Sanders’ campaign is targeting. However, since Tzintzún Ramirez launched her campaign, the field has ballooned to more than a dozen candidates, including Dallas state Senator Royce West, former Houston congressman Chris Bell, and Houston city councilor Amanda Edwards. Polls show Hegar consistently leading the field, but she’s failed to consolidate support among primary voters. That means a runoff is almost guaranteed, and Tzintzún Ramirez is among three or four candidates competing for the second slot. In the homestretch, she got the support of a super PAC financed by the national progressive group Way to Win and the Communications Workers of America.
Notably, however, she hasn’t been able to count on the support of the progressive movement from which she emerged. Both TOP and Workers Defense decided not to endorse a candidate. But they have gotten involved in other down-ballot races. Workers Defense is supporting its former executive director Jose Garza in his primary challenge against the Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, who has faced scrutiny for her handling of sexual assault cases. Garza is running on a progressive prosecutor platform and has pledged to dramatically reorient how the office operates.
Over in Harris County, former prosecutor and member of the Democratic Socialists of America Audia Jones is challenging incumbent District Attorney Kim Ogg with support from TOP. Just four years ago, TOP was instrumental in getting Ogg elected as a reformer. But in a show of how quickly the conversation around criminal justice reform has shifted, Ogg has become a top target of the organization. Another former prosecutor, Carvana Cloud, is also running against Ogg from the left. Both Garza and Jones are backed by the Real Justice PAC, a group that has gotten criminal justice reformers elected to major DA offices around the country
Down in South Texas’ 28th Congressional District, conservative Democrat and entrenched incumbent Henry Cuellar is facing a primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, who is backed by the group that helped Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez win her primary race. Her progressive platform has also earned her the support of a broad coalition of national and state groups, including several state labor unions, TOP, and the Working Families Party. She’s also won endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. The South Texas battle has become the most high-profile congressional primary in the nation and has attracted huge donations from outside groups: unions and progressive groups on one side; the Koch brothers and the Chamber of Commerce on the other.
Cisneros is undoubtedly an underdog. She’s running in a region that has long elected more moderate Dems and where Cuellar is a household name. But if she can pull off an upset—or even come close—Cisneros will have dealt a significant blow to the prevailing Democratic powers in the borderlands. A similar primary battle has played out in the Rio Grande Valley with veteran state Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr., the most conservative Democrat in the Legislature, facing a serious primary challenge from two competitors.
These primary challenges have certainly scared individual incumbents. But only Sanders’ ascendance in Texas has prompted widespread backlash from the state’s Democratic establishment. Elected officials are sounding the alarm that he would kill their chances with suburban swing voters and thus the chance to pick up additional congressional seats and win the state House.
“Bernie has no coattails,” says Marc Veasey, a Democratic congressman from Fort Worth who endorsed Biden. “It’s going to be Bernie and his cause taking the party down with him.” In Houston, some are concerned that support for the Green New Deal would prove politically toxic in an area heavily dependent on the energy sector.
But for progressives, the hemming and hawing from old-guard Democrats holds little weight. “This happens to be the same generation in which Democrats have not won statewide since 1994,” Zack Malitz, who ran Beto O’Rourke’s field operation in 2018, told the Texas Tribune. He is an advisor to Tzintzún Ramirez and helps run the Real Justice PAC.
“It should make you question the conventional wisdom, when that conventional wisdom is coming from those people who don’t have a track record of winning,” Malitz says.