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Texas Holds Super Tuesday Primary Amid Democratic Party Changes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The 14 states voting next week on Super Tuesday include the biggest one, California, and the second-biggest, Texas. Democrats in Texas are holding their primary election during a period of change for the state. The electorate is becoming younger and more diverse. In 2018, Democrats won elections in areas of the state that had been previously dominated by Republicans, partly because of new support from suburban voters. As Ashley Lopez of our member station KUT reports, all this makes the outcome of this year's elections hard to predict.

HANNAH HUGHES: Did y'all do five also?

JORDAN ALARCON: No, we didn't.

HUGHES: OK. Let's just start knocking on five.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Hannah Hughes, Jordan Alarcon and Yulissa Chavez are students at the University of Texas in Austin. They recently spent their Saturday morning knocking on doors at a sprawling apartment complex filled with college students in southeast Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

HUGHES: So we've already been to half of these. So we just wanted to finish up the other half.

LOPEZ: This is part of a larger statewide effort this year aimed at registering 300,000 voters between the ages of 18 and 30. Texas is a young state. People under 30 make up more than 40% of the population. So one of the biggest pools of new voters are those just coming of age. Hannah Hughes says that just in Austin, they've been adding a bunch of new voters to the rolls.

HUGHES: I think even just in the past, I believe, month, our organization has registered already, like, 5,000 college students, and that's only one month.

LOPEZ: And making Texas' electorate younger is also making the electorate more diverse. More than 60% of Texans under 30 are people of color, mostly Latino. And Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, says there's another big factor that's been changing the electorate. He says that's the state's explosive population growth.

BRANDON ROTTINGHAUS: Texas is booming in a way that is changing the political dynamics.

LOPEZ: In the past decade, Texas has been home to many of the country's fastest-growing cities. A lot of that growth is coming from people moving here from other states, including California, New York, Illinois and Florida. Jim Henson is a pollster with the Texas Politics Project at UT Austin.

JIM HENSON: Despite what Texans often want to think, we are part of the rest of the country. The national political shifts that we've seen happen elsewhere in the country are happening in Texas a little bit late.

LOPEZ: For example, Henson says he polled Texas Democrats, and a majority across different age groups say they think leadership in the state's party is not liberal enough. Texas Democrats have historically been more moderate than other state Democratic parties, but Henson says that's been slowly changing.

HENSON: And to some degree, I don't think that means that the Texas Democratic Party is going to become Bernie Sanders' party.

LOPEZ: In 2018, Democrats came close to winning a U.S. Senate race, and they flipped several congressional and state House seats. And they did that with the help of some of these new young and diverse voters, but also with the support of voters in Texas who have historically supported Republicans, Rottinghaus says.

ROTTINGHAUS: These are places that are suburban Texas, that have been the haven for Republicans for so long. But now we're shifting because the state has become much more ethnically and racially diverse, and you've got swing voters who are willing to cross the line and vote for Democrats instead of voting for Republicans.

LOPEZ: One of those voters is 75-year-old Dorothy De La Garza (ph).

DOROTHY DE LA GARZA: This is my first Democratic primary. I'm a Republican who wants Trump out of the White House.

LOPEZ: De La Garza says this year, she's voting for a moderate Democrat. In particular, she says she's backing former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. De La Garza was among a handful of supporters who attended a small gathering held by the campaign during ongoing early voting in the Texas primary. She says she's surprised to see herself picking up the Democratic ballot.

DE LA GARZA: Well, I've worked in Republican politics when I was young and then became a schoolteacher. And I had no idea that I would ever be disappointed in a Republican president the way I am in this one.

LOPEZ: And De La Garza says she thinks Texas Democrats can make a lot of inroads with new voters by focusing on moderate voters like her in the state.

DE LA GARZA: Moderate Republicans are an audience that has not been tapped fully yet.

LOPEZ: With all these new additions to the party, Brandon Rottinghaus says it's going to be interesting to see where most Democrats land. He says right now, it's almost impossible to anticipate where things will end up.

ROTTINGHAUS: There are so many things happening right now in Texas and so many changes that are going on that it's really hard to predict virtually anything.

LOPEZ: Whether it's more moderate or young and progressive wings of the party, Rottinghaus says Democrats in Texas are ultimately working toward one larger goal.

ROTTINGHAUS: All Democrats agree that they want to turn Texas blue. Exactly what shade of blue is still in question.

LOPEZ: Democratic-leaning groups in Texas say they plan to continue adding more progressive and moderate voters to their ranks straight through to the general election in November.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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