Will Texas stay red or turn blue? Forget the polls. Just look at Tarrant County

On Election Night, keep an eye on Tarrant County.

That’s one point on which Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke are likely to agree.

The candidates for the U.S. Senate have long acknowledged that the votes in Tarrant County are crucial because they serve as a guide to any political shift that might happen in Texas. Tarrant County, with a population of 2.05 million, has remained red through the years as nearly every other major urban county has gone blue.

“Tarrant County is indeed a bellwether,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “It is an urban county that votes similarly to the state as a whole. The other urban counties lean Democratic while non-urban areas are solidly Republican. So Fort Worth is something of a microcosm of the state as a whole.

“Fort Worth could flip of course, and that reflects Beto’s strategy of getting more Hispanic and young voters out,” he said. “Cruz counts on continuity of Tarrant County patterns. Continuity is always the best bet, but political hope by minority parties always is that this is the year of change.”

Cruz and O’Rourke have paid several visits to Tarrant County recently, working to rev up the enthusiasm — and votes — from supporters.

Polls show Cruz is well positioned to win his re-election bid in this reliably red state. But the money pouring into O’Rourke’s campaign, as well as the mass of yard signs declaring “Beto” planted in yards across the state, give some pause.

“Republicans want to defend (Tarrant County) as much as Democrats want to flip it,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “The Cruz campaign is hungry to get the base out in the state’s largest urban Republican county and the O’Rourke campaign is fighting for swing voters and to activate Democrats who only vote in midterms.

“Tarrant County can flip if and only if Republican turnout is lackluster and Democratic turnout is blockbuster,” he said. “The elements are in place for this to happen in a surprisingly competitive midterm election, but Tarrant flipping blue is more likely in a presidential election year. “

Early voting runs through Nov. 2.

Blue wave?

Some local voters aren’t sure what will happen in Tarrant County during this year’s midterm election.

“I’m just a little worried,” said Denise Wehrli, a 57-year-old Arlington woman who recently attended her first Cruz rally. “But I think the build-up for the blue wave probably is not accurate in Tarrant County (or) across the state.”

Roseann Giambro, who recently showed up at an O’Rourke rally in Fort Worth, said she’s not paying attention to the polls.

“I don’t let polls influence me, whether it’s going to the movies, reading a book or voting in elections,” the 70-year-old Fort Worth woman said. “That’s a way to give up, to stay home, say ‘Why bother?’”

Some say they’ve seen Tarrant County changing, as new people move into the area and younger Texans become eligible to vote.

“I think Fort Worth is a different place than it was even five years ago,” said Wendy Dyba, a 47-year-old Benbrook woman who grew up in El Paso. “And the polls showed Trump would lose. I don’t think polls take into account the average Beto supporter.”

Many agree that nothing can be taken for granted in this year’s midterm election.

“I don’t think it’s a shoo-in,” said Emmett Hickey, a 67-year-old Arlington man who co-owns the Arlington Music Hall, where a Cruz rally was held Thursday. “Beto has done a great job fundraising and rallying the troops. But this is still a conservative state and I don’t think Beto represents the conservative issues.”

Reliable red suburbs

If Tarrant County shifts, political watchers said the formula must include Northeast Tarrant County, where the Tea Party has a stronghold. Two years ago, Trump carried precincts in cities such as North Richland Hills, Hurst, Colleyville, Southlake and Grapevine.

Now, two years later — after high-performing schools and jobs have drawn new families here — some say they’re seeing such an increase in a Democratic presence.

Along Boulevard 26, a thoroughfare that once was mostly rural, “Beto” yard signs are planted next to signs touting Cruz and other GOP candidates.

This week, the scene outside Keller Town Hall showcased both sides of grassroots politics in action.

Signs greeted early voters. Candidate volunteers passed out fliers and stickers. Cruz supporters wore T-shirts, carried red, white and blue signs and stood ready to explain why Cruz should be re-elected.

Josie Contreras, Republican chairwoman of Keller’s Precinct 3040, said voters are ready to keep the state red.

“My experience has been, this time, that the people are very anxious to get out here and vote,” Contreras said. “They are all riled up, ready to vote for Cruz.”

On the other hand, O’Rourke’s volunteers urged voters to take their pictures next to a “Beto” sign and a cardboard picture frame that stated: “I voted!”

O’Rourke volunteers said they get thumbs ups, thumbs downs and even the middle finger. Still, they are encouraged by voters who come up to talk or hug them.

Rachel Mahmood, a volunteer from Keller supporting O’Rourke, said the Democratic candidate has inspired so many people, especially moderate Republicans and Democrats who haven’t been politically active but are hopeful for a winning chance.

“I don’t know what is going to happen, but this has been — this has been amazing for a lot of us here,” she said. “He’s been inspiring and I don’t know if Tarrant County will ever necessarily turn blue, but maybe purple.”

Shifting colors?

A shift in the partisan color of Tarrant County — because of the U.S. Senate race, competitive races in the U.S. House or local races — could signal big changes for Texas.

“Given the traditional advantages that Republicans have had in Tarrant County then, yes, a move here toward blue could signal something big,” said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, who heads the political science department at the University of North Texas in Denton. “Cruz and O’Rourke are wisely visiting places like Tarrant County frequently because this is where the voters are.”

The key to a successful race in the days before any election is this, he said: “You have to maximize your time and energy.”

“You mobilize Democrats (and maybe some Independents) in Tarrant County, and you more efficiently increase the chances that you might be able to win,” Esbaugh-Soha said. “Cruz is visiting to counter O’Rourke.”

Wehrli, of Arlington, dismisses the number of yard signs posted across the state — and the number of people at rallies — as any sign of how Texans will vote.

“A person like me, who can’t make rallies because I work, there’s tons of us out there. We vote Republican,” she said. “We don’t necessarily say a lot, but we vote.”

Cristina Chancellor of Fort Worth said she believes the U.S. Senate race will be close in Tarrant County and statewide.

“I have hope it will change. I have hope Texas eventually will go purple, if not blue,” said Chancellor, 42, who recently attended a rally for O’Rourke. “I just don’t know if it will be this year.”

Staff writer Hanaa Tameez contributed to this report.
Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley
Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram