Many eyes were on Tarrant County on Election Day.
Texans know this county, snuggled between Dallas and Parker counties, has been the last major urban county to remain red.
“We have to win Tarrant County to win,” Democrat Beto O’Rourke told the Star-Telegram during the campaign. “As Tarrant County goes, so goes the state.”
Apparently not this year.
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In the fierce battle for the U.S. Senate, O’Rourke actually won Tarrant County by 3,869 votes in his bid to unseat Republican Ted Cruz.
The state, on the other hand, delivered a narrow victory to Cruz, who received about 200,000 more votes than O’Rourke to claim a second term in the U.S. Senate.
But don’t get out that paintbrush to change Tarrant County to the blue column, political observers caution.
“Tarrant County was red on Monday. It was purple on Tuesday,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at SMU. “And it’s red again (Wednesday).
“I think Tarrant County will be more and more susceptible to Democrats doing well,” he said. “It’s red now, but it’s not as red as it used to be and it’s got a purple future.”
Something was different Tuesday.
Donald Trump won Tarrant County with an 8.6 percent margin in 2016, but voters this week chose O’Rourke while they “booted out a Republican state senator and a Republican county commissioner,” said Emily Farris, an assistant political science professor at TCU.
“This may have been a Beto effect, his coattails helping down ballot Democrats, and/or a changing demographic in Tarrant County,” she said. “Probably a little bit of both.”
Many describe Tarrant County as, for the most part, reliably red.
But the city of Fort Worth has long been a center of blue votes.
In previous elections, the blue city has been surrounded by a sea of red in suburban and rural Tarrant County.
This week, however, O’Rourke expanded the blue outer limits of Fort Worth into traditional red suburban areas flipping small precincts from red to blue, sometimes just by a few votes. Sometimes, they created purple results, voting for O’Rourke and the GOP down the ballot.
“We did have an amazing candidate in Beto O’Rourke,” said Deborah Peoples, Tarrant County Democratic Party chairwoman. “We also had amazing candidates down the ballots.”
Peoples said Tarrant County’s blue gains were the result of a grassroots ground plan that began several years ago. It meant paying attention to demographic shifts, finding Democrats to run in local races and knocking on doors across the county. It also involved reaching out to voters disappointed with President Donald Trump.
Peoples said that strategy helped Democrats put Tarrant County in O’Rourke’s corner and netted other seats. Republican incumbent Konni Burton lost the Senate District 10 seat to Democrat Beverly Powell. In southeast Tarrant County, County Commissioner Andy Nguyen lost his Precinct No. 2 seat to Democrat Devan Allen and the Justice of the Peace post for Precinct 7 went to a Democrat.
“I will miss Konni,” said Mark Hanson, president of the Arlington Republican Club. “I knew that was going to be a close election.”
Hanson said he was surprised by Nguyen’s loss and added: “This was just a Democratic year.”
Hanson said a younger electorate turned out, similar to 2008 when some Republicans in Arlington were “wiped out.” He said dislike of Trump was a motivator.
“They don’t like his tweets,” Hanson said, adding that Tarrant County is still red.
Election Day results show support for O’Rourke in precincts throughout far north Fort Worth, Haltom City, North Richland Hills and southwest Arlington — areas that supported President Donald Trump in 2016.
Take for instance, Precinct 2520 in west Arlington, a traditional red stronghold. But this area near U.S. 287 and Interstate 20 showed up blue in the U.S. Senate race. Two votes in that precinct — O’Rourke won 586-584 — flipped it. In 2016, President Donald Trump carried it 702-544.
But in the race for Texas Senate District 10, there is a different political story on the map. Burton beat Powell 612-558.
And look at Precinct 3364 in North Richland Hills, where O’Rourke won by 12 votes. In 2016, that precinct went for Trump 323-222.
These newly blue areas, which observers note may only temporarily be blue, are nestled in suburban school districts such as Birdville, Crowley, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw and Keller, where communities see evolving demographics.
In the Birdville school district, which includes Haltom City and North Richland Hills, 41.3 percent of the 23,767 students last year were Hispanic, compared with 40 percent the year before, state data shows.
“Tarrant is more white than Texas as a whole, but it experienced a more significant drop in its share of white residents recently compared to the state,” said Farris, of TCU. “Demographics aren’t destiny though. Good candidates and party outreach are necessary too.”
In far north Fort Worth near Fossil Ridge High School, Precinct 4452 showed blue gains too. O’Rourke won there by 56 votes. That area was also carried by Trump in 2016.
Playing the long game
Before the 2016 Presidential election Karen Grissom had been merely a voter. Now, she’s chairwoman of the Tarrant County Party’s Precinct 4070 in southwest Fort Worth. She helped flip it from red for Trump to blue for Beto.
When she started knocking on doors she found a community of progressives ready to roll up their sleeves.
“My precinct probably leaned somewhat blue anyway, but people were just not participating as much as they should have,” Grissom said.
Grissom plans to stay in the ground game. She’s not alone. Several newly activated volunteers said they are looking ahead to the 2020 presidential election.
“We have to keep moving,” she said. “I don’t think it is going to be easy.”
Some of O’Rourke’s support didn’t come from Democrats.
Kim Markle, a Fort Worth resident who lives near Texas 10 in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district, said she is politically independent. She connected with O’Rourke’s political message and civil tone. In the end, she block walked for him in her neighborhood, which is part of a voting precinct that flipped blue in the Senate race.
“I want people to represent us who are honest, hard-working people — who are for the people and not for PACs, interest groups, corporations and essentially themselves,” Markle said, adding that she planned to stay active by supporting candidates who aligned with this philosophy.
Just days after the midterms, Republican leaders were fine-tuning a grassroots battle plan that includes reminding GOP neighbors to get involved and selling new residents their message of conservative values and lower taxes for working families.
Hanson, presidnet of the Arlington Republicans, said they want to reach out to younger voters. Those plans might involve investing in more political yard signs — a strategy he said O’Rourke used to his advantage. “Once you put a sign in somebody’s yard, you establish a personal relationship with them,” Hanson said.
Tarrant County voters will likely get wooed by Democrats and GOP volunteers as the 2020 election approaches.
“We are not going to surrender,” said Darl Easton, chairman of Tarrant County’s Republic Party.
Still a bellwether?
Despite this year showing a different U.S. Senate result than the state, Tarrant County still serves as a bellwether for Texas, said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU.
Look at the countywide seats on Tuesday’s ballot, he said.
They were all won by the GOP.
“All of the countywide Republicans won and they won by around 6 percent of the vote in competitive elections,” he said. “Once again, that shows that Tarrant County really is a bellwether for Texas as a whole. Republicans won by similar margins statewide.”
Harold Clarke isn’t so sure.
“Tarrant County is perhaps now less of a bellwether than a glimpse of the future of Texas politics,” said Clarke, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas’ School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences.
“But, one should not read too much into the results of a single race.”
Clarke said Cruz won Texas because he focused on issues that appeal to moderate and conservative Texans, which remains a large group. Cruz also “contrasted his positions with those of O’Rourke who he characterized as a liberal — out of step with many Texans.”
O’Rourke focused on energizing the Democratic base and activating minorities and young people with the help of an “enormous infusion of campaign funds,” Clarke said. This formula could have worked outside of Texas.
“In the end, Texas was just too conservative for him,” Clarke said.