Five high-profile Democrats descend on Texas as 2020 spotlight on state grows

Through Sunday, the state will see visits from Stacey Abrams, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand and Beto O'Rourke. Their party, though still a minority in Texas, is becoming ascendant in a state once considered unshakably Republican.

Presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke spoke Saturday at the Paul Quinn College commencement ceremony in Dallas.
Presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke spoke Saturday at the Paul Quinn College commencement ceremony in Dallas.  Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

FORT WORTH — As Beto O'Rourke began to take audience questions at a rally here Friday evening, he offered a preface about the state that made him a star in 2018 but may not be as sure of a thing in 2020.

“I gave you my thanks earlier for being here for us in 2017 and 2018, for turning Tarrant County blue," O'Rourke said, "but I'll tell you this from the outset of this campaign: I do not take any of that support for granted going forward. I fully expect to earn it. We've got 20 — count it — 20 other people running for the Democratic nomination, so I want to make sure that I have a chance to listen to you tonight."

The timing of the statement was fitting. A half-hour away, one of O'Rourke's primary rivals, Pete Buttigieg, was preparing to take the stage at the Dallas County Democratic Party's 2019 Johnson Jordan Dinner. And the South Bend, Indiana, mayor — who has supplanted O'Rourke as the field's hottest candidate of the moment — brought a message tailored for the ascendant minority party in Texas.

"I'm particularly pleased to be among fellow red-state Democrats," Buttigieg said. "I'm someone who’s trying to remind everybody that there's more to Indiana than our vice president, and you know that there’s a lot more to the state of Texas than what you see in the political commentary that sometimes comes our way."

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The dueling events helped kick off a weekend in which Texas was set to be close to the center of the national political universe, with five declared or potential presidential candidates swinging through in a sign of the state's growing influence in the nominating process. In addition to O'Rourke and Buttigieg, the state received a visit Friday from Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial nominee who has kept the door open to a White House bid. And later in the weekend, two other declared candidates were scheduled to make stops: O'Rourke's fellow Texan, Julián Castro, as well as U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

For some of the Democrats, the weekend was first and foremost an opportunity to raise money in Texas, long an ATM for presidential contenders. But the addition of some less private events signaled that they are at least seeing the benefit of starting to build goodwill — or in the Texans' case, shore up goodwill — with the party faithful here 10 months before the state's primary.

"We have to earn them anew," O'Rourke said of Texans' votes later in the weekend. "We're going to have to work for it, and we're looking forward to it."

O'Rourke's Fort Worth rally was particularly wrought with political significance. It was his first visit as a presidential candidate to Tarrant County, the state's biggest reliably red county, which he flipped last year in his closer-than-expected loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

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Before launching into his 2020 stump speech, O'Rourke addressed a more urgent matter: the mayoral election Saturday in Fort Worth. Deborah Peoples, the chairwoman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, is challenging incumbent Betsy Price, one of the few remaining GOP big-city mayors. She is vying for an unprecedented fifth term.

Peoples spoke before O'Rourke at the rally, hailing him for having "delivered us from the wilderness," and then joined him onstage as he began his remarks by touting her mayoral candidacy.

“It had been 24 years since this county had gotten behind a Democrat, and so many people here [helped], but Deborah Peoples, from Day 1, when no one knew who we were, invited us … and made it happen," O'Rourke said, "and she’s going to be our mayor."

O'Rourke was not the only prominent Democrat looking to boost Peoples before polls close Saturday evening. Castro, the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, promoted Peoples' candidacy at a get-out-the-vote rally Saturday afternoon — so much so that she had to give him a nudge to plug his own campaign to the friendly crowd that had gathered inside a Mexican restaurant.

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Deborah Peoples, chairwoman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party and mayoral candidate, and presidential candidate Julián Castro spoke to the press Saturday in Fort Worth.
Deborah Peoples, chairwoman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party and mayoral candidate, and presidential candidate Julián Castro spoke to the press Saturday in Fort Worth.  Patrick Svitek/The Texas Tribune

Speaking with reporters afterward, flanked by Peoples, Castro touted the political change that Tarrant County has been experiencing — at one point predicting it could be in play in the 2020 presidential election — and pitched Peoples as exactly the kind of candidate Democrats need to harness the shifting landscape. The two then embarked on a block walk together.

O'Rourke's initial reason for being in North Texas this weekend was not overtly political. He was the commencement speaker Saturday morning at Paul Quinn College in Dallas, the oldest historically black college west of the Mississippi River and a place he visited multiples times during the Senate race.

In a passionate speech to graduates, O'Rourke discussed the progress the country has made toward racial equality but emphasized that the "work is far from over."

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"The legacies of slavery, of segregation, of Jim Crow, of suppression, in every single part of this country, now in the year 2019, is alive and well," he said, alluding to a concentration of wealth in the country that has become a growing focus of his presidential bid. "Because power and privilege in this country will continue to accumulate more power and privilege. There is an inertia there that cannot be stopped unless we choose to stop it.”

O'Rourke filled his speech with stories of civil rights activists whom he regularly brings up on the campaign trail. But he also offered a few more examples rooted in Texas, like the 2008 voting rights march at Prairie View A&M University, the 2011 movement at Paul Quinn to stop the dramatic expansion of a landfill close to the campus and more recently, the push by a City Council member in nearby DeSoto, Candice Quarles, to offer paid family leave to city workers.

Dallas also has a mayoral election Saturday, and voters there are choosing among nine candidates to replace term-limited incumbent Mike Rawlings. He introduced Buttigieg on Friday night, and the South Bend mayor lauded his Dallas counterpart as a nationally venerated figure among city leaders.

From the start of his speech, Buttigieg emphasized the need for Democrats to be able to express their values in a way that wins over Republicans. Democrats in red states have an advantage, he explained, saying they often have developed “a better vocabulary for making those values better understood and making those values understood by more people, and I believe that is especially needed in a moment like this.”

Buttigieg, who is gay, was interrupted multiple times by protesters, at least some of whom appeared to be shouting anti-gay messages. Buttigieg took the interruptions in stride, including one outburst that came while he was recalling getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan. "See, at that moment, when I was packing my bags for Afghanistan, for the purpose of defending that gentleman's freedom of speech," Buttigieg said, gesturing toward the disruption.

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O'Rourke denounced the protesters later Friday night, tweeting that Texans "don’t stand for this kind of homophobia and hatred" and welcoming Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, back to Texas again soon.

The weekend's jam-packed political schedule began early Friday afternoon in Houston, where Abrams headlined a luncheon for Annie's List, the group that works to elect Texas Democratic women who support abortion rights. In a defiant speech, Abrams spoke at length about her run last year for Georgia governor, which she lost but has refused to concede, claiming that the Republican winner, Brian Kemp, used his powers as secretary of state to suppress the vote. He has denied any wrongdoing.

After the election, Abrams formed a group to fight for voting rights and considered a run for U.S. Senate in Georgia next year. She announced Tuesday she was passing on that opportunity, but at the Annie's List luncheon, 2018 was clearly still on her mind.

"I'm here to tell you a secret that makes Breitbart and Tucker Carlson go crazy: We won," Abrams said to loud applause before teasing a potential second bid for governor down the line. "I am not delusional. I know I am not the governor of Georgia — possibly yet."

"But I do know what we set out to do," Abrams added, touting how her campaign moved the political needle in Georgia, suggesting a parallel to O'Rourke's in Texas.

Abrams came up hours later at O'Rourke's rally, where an audience member lamented her loss while asking him about voter suppression. O'Rourke said he had coincidentally been talking to her on his way to the rally, welcoming her to Texas and thanking her for her work on voting rights. He brought her up again after reiterating his campaign promise to spearhead a new Voting Rights Act.

"As president of the United States, if she's willing to do it, we'll put Stacey Abrams in charge of this effort," O'Rourke said to cheers.

Republicans were monitoring the flurry of 2020-related activity in Texas, with the Republican National Committee blasting out statements on some of the candidates' trips, portraying their policies as detrimental to border security and harmful to the booming Texas economy. RNC spokeswoman Christiana Purves predicted Texans would "run in the other direction when they see the price tag of Buttigieg's costly support of the Green New Deal and government-run healthcare."

The presidential contest was not the only 2020 election that factored into Friday's events. Abrams helped rally Annie's List supporters to flip the Texas House — where Democrats are nine seats away from the majority — as the group made a push to raise $50,000 for the cause at the luncheon.

The audience included Amanda Edwards, the Houston City Council member who might run for U.S. Senate in 2020. She told reporters before the luncheon that she was still exploring a potential candidacy after MJ Hegar's entrance into the primary last week and the decision Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio to forgo a campaign. Edwards did not specify a timeline for announcing her decision but said she was "feeling encouraged" as she mulled a bid.

"I think that change is on the horizon in Texas," she said, "and I think the 2020 election cycle is when it will take place."

Disclosure: Annie’s List has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.