Who is on the ballot in Texas?
It’s not a do-over.
But this year’s midterm election in Texas is more than ever a referendum on the president and his party.
Voters have flocked to early voting at near-record numbers — as more than 30 percent of the state’s voters have already cast ballots — culminating two years of activism after Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton for the White House in 2016.
“This cycle is a referendum on an energy drink because of the strong opinions on both sides of the political divide,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “The fire and fury of the 2016 election has yet to wear off for those opposed to Donald Trump.
“Although Republicans took a little longer to coalesce around the president, they are tight as bark on a tree as the 2018 election rolls around.“
Some may never forget how they felt the morning after the election two years ago, when they learned that Trump had won the presidency.
Republicans were delighted. Democrats were disheartened.
As the days and weeks went by, both sides regrouped.
The GOP found a new energy with Trump, after eight years of a Democratic president. Their enthusiasm rose, finding victory after victory, most recently seeing Brett Kavanaugh confirmed as a Supreme Court justice.
Now they want more.
Democrats, meanwhile, said they “got woke.” They started attending marches and protests. Grassroots protest movement groups, such as Indivisible FWTX and Indivisible TX-24, spawned across the country and Tarrant County.
People began tuning in to decisions being made in their state legislatures and Congress. They started calling and sending postcards to weigh in. And millions of women across the country joined in newly created Women’s Marches in 2017 and 2018.
At the top of the ballot is the U.S. Senate battle between Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.
“Republicans and Democrats are energized this election, with President Trump serving as the lightning rod, creating both fervent supporters and opponents of his policies and Tweets,” Nancy Bocskor, the new director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at Texas Woman’s University, said by email.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The activism and enthusiasm can be seen easily on both sides — Republicans recently hanging signs stating “Cruz for Senate” from a highway overpass; Democrats turning out for more marches and rallies in the past two years than many attended in their entire lives.
Yard signs supporting O’Rourke in his Senate bid were set out early, and in mass, prompting a reply from Republicans who began asking for and ordering Cruz signs for their yards. In solid red Tarrant County, the O’Rourke signs also turned up in suburban GOP strongholds such as Keller and Southlake.
“Clearly, President Trump has motivated, and polarized, the electorate over the last two years,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “All presidents do that to a degree, and their performance is always one of the motivating factors in elections. But President Trump has been particularly polarizing.
“That motivates voters who do not think he is doing a good job and, more recently, voters who support him.”
Both Cruz and O’Rourke have drawn sizable crowds here in Tarrant County, which has remained red through the years as nearly every other major urban county has gone blue.
“I’ve always been interested in current events,” said Denise Wehrli, a 57-year-old Arlington woman who attended her first rally for Cruz recently. “This is my football game.”
After two years of Trump being in the White House, Cristina Chancellor, a 42-year-old Fort Worth woman, said she found hope in O’Rourke.
“It gives me a lot of hope, the kind of person he is,” she said, as she attended her first-ever political rally for O’Rourke recently. “I knew I needed to vote. But I wanted to participate in something with Beto this year as well.”
Kris Savage, who founded a local chapter for Indivisible FWTX, said the number of local people getting politically involved has been exciting.
“Dozens and dozens of us are actively contacting voters at the door, on the phone, by text and on the street,” she said. “Enthusiasm for our great progressive candidates is mixed with a determination to vote for change in this historic election.
“How will this be reflected in the election on Nov. 6? Hard to pin down,” Savage said. “But turnout is double or triple that of 2014, most noticeably in areas where turnout hasn’t been great in the past.”
Republicans and Tea Party members — who began organizing in opposition to government bailouts and the stimulus package shortly after Barack Obama became president in 2009 — are expected to turn out in potentially stronger than ever numbers.
“We are working really hard,” Julie McCarty, president of the politically powerful NE Tarrant Tea Party, told the Star-Telegram in an email. “Absolutely we have a large group of very motivated volunteers. I think it helped that the Left was on full display during the Kavanaugh hearings, and nobody liked what they saw!
“All the Beto signs have helped motivate Republicans as well. Nobody is taking this election for granted, and that is translating into more voters and more volunteers both. Most of us feel pretty confident that the Republicans in Texas will hold their ground, but we don’t want to give any indication to the Democrats that they have even a toehold to work with next time around.”
Both sides say they see new voters — and younger voters — heading to the polls this year.
“Along with heightened activism has come a sizable and noticeable increase in civic awareness,” Savage said. “Folks who didn’t have a clue who represents them now understand how our local, state and national governments work. That’s good news for democracy in Tarrant County!”
John Davis, a 31-year-old Fort Worth man who recently attended a Cruz rally in Arlington, said he believes the GOP will again prevail in Tarrant County and Texas this year.
“I believe it’s going to go Republican all the way,” he said. “The tide has changed.”
‘Getting ready for 2020’
Josie Contreras, Republican chairwoman of Keller’s Precinct 3040, has long worked to help the GOP. This year, she knocks on doors and puts up Cruz signs.
“I just say, ‘I’m a Republican precinct chair, here’s your list for the schedule,’ Contreras said. “They immediately start telling me, ‘We are anxious to get out and vote. We got to keep our state red.’”
Contreras points to long lines of early voters and sees votes for Cruz, who supports Trump’s agenda of a border wall and focus on jobs.
“I really admire Trump,” Contreras said. “He is really working hard for America and he shows that he loves this country.”
It’s into this political landscape that suburban Democrats are getting activated.
Many are women who woke up Nov. 9, 2016, with the realization that Tarrant County red doesn’t represent their views. They are self-described political progressives who moved to North Texas for schools and jobs.
“Most of us never even had a political sign in our yard,” said Inna Dietrich, who has lived in Southlake for six years. “After the 2016 election, everything changed. We all wanted to get involved. We all wanted to make a difference so we are slowly coming together figuring things out.
“We are all newbies, so right now, we are the most disorganized at our level because we have never done this before. We have a huge learning curve, but we are anticipating getting ready for 2020.”
When these Democrats knocked on doors, they found other Democrats who had never aired their political views before.
Some have become precinct chairs with the aim of laying a grassroots network for future Democratic candidates.
Throughout early voting, they have worked in shifts standing in front of the Southlake Town Hall. Southlake rules don’t allow political signs to be planted on the town square, so volunteers have held up O’Rourke signs.
O’Rourke signs are also across Northeast Tarrant, largely because of Dietrich, who figured out that skunk spray and Vaseline protect signs from vandals.
“I put them all over. Boom. Boom Boom,” Dietrich, describing her grassroots activism. “Especially, if we see other people putting signs out.”
Dietrich and her team of suburban women are the female voters that pundits said can make a dent in Trump’s red wall.
“Our Democracy is in danger,” she said, adding that many suburban women don’t like the direction the administration is taking the country. “They are very motivated to make change and the way to make change is at the ballot box.”
Anyone with election questions should call the Tarrant County Elections Center at 817-831-8683.