Midterm vot­ing raises ques­tion: Has Tar­rant turned blue?

Star-Telegram (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY ANNA M. TINS­LEY AND DI­ANE SMITH atins­ley@star-tele­gram.com di­ane­smith@star-tele­gram.com

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.

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 politi- cal 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.”

BLUE GROWTH

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, pres­i­dent 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 Repub­li­can 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.

DI­ANE SMITH di­ane­smith@star-tele­gram.com

North­east Tar­rant County votes solid GOP, but Democrats gained some ground in the sub­urbs clos­est to Fort Worth. Signs for Demo­crat Beto O’Rourke were strate­gi­cally placed along Texas High­way 26, which trav­els through sev­eral sub­ur­ban cities.

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