Fort Worth

Why Bernie Sanders is the third Democrat heading to a ‘new’ battleground in Texas

Texans won’t head to the polls to weigh in on the presidential races for nearly a year.

But U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday will be the third Democrat this year to stump for votes in traditionally conservative Tarrant County, which, like the state, supported Republican Donald Trump for the White House in 2016.

Democrats say they see opportunity for the 2020 election since the once dependable red barrier didn’t hold last year in Tarrant County, where Democrat Beto O’Rourke beat Republican Ted Cruz, although Cruz won re-election to the U.S. Senate across the state.

“Tarrant County is a relatively new battleground, so every candidate is going to want to plant their flag there,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Tarrant County has a mix of independents, liberals and conservatives, making it home ground for the large ideological range of Democratic candidates to court.”

Sanders will be in Fort Worth Thursday for a rally at noon that could draw thousands to Burnett Park.

He follows Kamala Harris, who visited Tarrant County in late March, and John Hickenlooper, who spoke in Fort Worth earlier this month.

“It’s a ‘swing county,’ one in which the Republicans have been dominant for three decades, but Beto O’Rourke won in 2018,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “Democrats want to test their messages here.”

They also hope to raise money here, as they have in the past.

Tarrant County

Even though Tarrant has supported every GOP presidential nominee in recent history, including Donald Trump in 2016 with 52 percent of the vote, Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairwoman Deborah Peoples reached out to all Democrats in the 2020 presidential race and invited them to visit.

“We think it’s critical that Fort Worth and Tarrant County are in play,” Peoples said. “The candidates are getting that.”

Tarrant County, which has remained red through the years as nearly every other major urban county has gone blue, is believed to be key in elections.

Many believe it’s a bellwether that serves as a guide to any political shift that might happen in Texas. The percentage of Tarrant voters backing Republicans in presidential elections matched the statewide results in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

“Given the spoiler role Texas can play in the election and the importance of Tarrant County in winning Texas, we are likely to see many more visits by presidential contenders,” Rottinghaus said.

“As more contenders see the value in coming to Texas and Tarrant County, others will soon follow hoping to capitalize on a new battleground or to blunt the momentum of their competitors.”

Super Tuesday

Texas has long been considered a crown jewel for Super Tuesday, when, next year, voters in 10 states head to the primary polls on March 3.

Another Democratic presidential candidate, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, will be in North Texas on Friday for a private fundraiser in Dallas. Tickets range from $500 for an “advocate” to $2,800 for a host.

“Right now, the Democrats are simply trying to keep their names current,” Riddlesperger said. “One can easily get lost in the shuffle. So candidates are working on name recognition in some cases and on maintaining a high profile in others. Democrats are weighing their choices at this point — very few are committed to a single candidate at this point and won’t be making real choices for several months to come.”

“Democrats think Tarrant County is in play,” he said. “And they dream that Texas might be too.”

But as Democrats continue trying to make gains here, and throughout the state, Republicans are expected to push back.

“Texas is ‘the’ critical state for Republicans,” Riddlesperger said. “They have taken it for granted since Reagan won here in 1980 and electoral math demonstrates its significance.”

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.