Why Kamala Harris’ visit shows Tarrant County is key in 2020 presidential race

When the Democratic presidential primary rolls around in 2020, there’s one place many people will be watching: This large urban county in North Texas that has long been considered a Republican stronghold.

“We think Tarrant County is key to winning in 2020,” said Deborah Peoples, who heads the Democratic Party in Tarrant County.

Peoples was encouraged by last year’s election, when Democrat Beto O’Rourke came close to edging out Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — and did beat the incumbent in Tarrant County.

“Tarrant County is the last large urban county that was reliably Republican,” she said. “In 2018, we smashed that myth by delivering it for Rep. O’Rourke. We know there are a lot of Democrats who bought into that theory that we were red. ... We are working every day to reach out to the Democrats who didn’t vote for that reason.

“We believe we will be able to deliver great results in Tarrant County.”

So Peoples is inviting all Democrats who are running for president to come to Tarrant County and talk to supporters.

The first to accept: Kamala Harris, a California senator, who showed up Friday night at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in Grapevine.

“Thank you Tarrant County Democrats, for everything you do every day,” Harris told a crowd of more than 400. “There’s a lot to do and we will get it done.”

She drew cheers and a standing ovation when she said how she plans on beating Republican President Donald Trump in 2020. “I do know how to prosecute the case against Donald Trump,” she said.

Political observers note that Harris may be the first — but likely not the last — 2020 presidential candidate to head to Tarrant County.

“Tarrant County is in play,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “I think both parties know that.

“Given the results of the 2018 elections and the likely competition of the 2020 year, Tarrant County becomes a significant battleground, both in Texas and as a testing ground for national campaigns.”

Maybe so, but Republicans say they aren’t planning on giving up any ground.

“The 2018 election was a surprise, closer than we thought it was going to be,” said Darl Easton, who heads the Tarrant County Republican Party. “But we are going to be working hard to reverse that trend.”

And if President Trump campaigns in Texas — or if he draws a GOP challenger who campaigns here — then Easton hopes they will come to Tarrant County as well.

At least two other Texans have thrown their hats into the presidential race as well: Democrats O’Rourke and Julian Castro.

Kamala Harris

The Dunbar High School Marching Band performed and local leaders ranging from state Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, to Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks addressed the crowd.

Then Harris took the stage and was greeted with a standing ovation.

She first said she wanted to address Friday’s big news — the fact that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had finally presented his report about possible Russian interference in the 2016 election to the Justice Department.

“That report needs to be made public,” Harris told the Tarrant County crowd. “The American people have a right and a need to know. The underlying evidence that supports that report should be made public. ... And the White House should not be allowed to interfere in any way.”

She went on to talk about issues ranging from the need for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path toward citizenship to the need to raise the minimum wage across the country. She mentioned the opioid crisis and the need to make sure every American citizen has access to health care and health insurance.

And she praised Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain, who before his death voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act known by many as Obamacare.

“He and I didn’t agree on everything,” Harris said, adding that she was in the Senate the night of that vote. “The late, great John McCain put country above party ... and said, ‘No, I’m not going to take healthcare away from millions.’”

During her Texas stop, Harris also attended a private fundraiser in Dallas.

There, at the home of Jill Louis, a partner at K&L Gates’ Dallas office, and businessman Randy Bowman, she spoke for about 20 minutes to a crowd of around 100 that included former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk.

“Her message was that she wants to bring truth back to the White House,” said Jason Smith, a Fort Worth attorney who attended the fundraiser.

Harris heads to Houston for a Saturday rally at Texas Southern University.

Texas-sized impact

Tarrant County, one of country’s largest urban, conservative strongholds, has supported every GOP presidential nominee in recent history.

Trump won with 52 percent of the vote here in 2016.

Last year, Cruz won re-election by a much smaller margin than many expected, with just over 200,000 more votes than O’Rourke. In Tarrant County, O’Rourke won by 3,869 votes.

“We have to win Tarrant County to win,” O’Rourke said repeatedly before the 2018 election. “As Tarrant County goes, so goes the state.”

In another high-profile local race last year, Democrat Beverly Powell ousted incumbent Republican Konni Burton — 52 percent to 48 percent — in a fiery race for the local Texas Senate seat.

“Tarrant County has been the epicenter for conservatism, but changing demographics have put it politically in play,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “That Democrats are wiling to fight for Tarrant County shows they are serious about going anywhere to prime the vote.

“If Tarrant County flips, it is a pretty good signal that Texas is turning blue,” he said. “It is a clear bellwether for where the state is politically.”

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

More than 200 delegates are up for grabs here.

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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.