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Republicans dominate Texas politics despite the state's changing demographics

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In Texas, early voting is well underway ahead of Tuesday's primary election. Democrats from around the country, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been campaigning there. And the New York congresswoman recently repeated a long-held political prediction.

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ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Texas turning blue is inevitable...

(CHEERING)

OCASIO-CORTEZ: ...Inevitable. The only question is when, Texas.

(CHEERING)

OCASIO-CORTEZ: The only question is when.

MARTINEZ: But NPR's Wade Goodwyn asks, is that the only question?

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: How long has it been since a Democrat was elected statewide in Texas? I'll give you a hint.

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ANN RICHARDS: Poor George. He can't help it.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARDS: He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.

(LAUGHTER)

GOODWYN: That was Ann Richards at the Democratic National Convention in 1988, joking about the first President Bush, George H.W. Three years later, she was elected Texas governor. But after she was beaten for reelection by the joke victim's son, George W. Bush, in 1994, not another Democrat has been elected statewide. No other state has gone longer.

MATT RINALDI: We've been hearing since 2002, with the dream team of Ron Kirk and Tony Sanchez, that Democrats were going to take the state, and they didn't do it then.

GOODWYN: Matt Rinaldi is the chairman of the Texas Republican Party.

RINALDI: And then we heard again with Wendy Davis that Democrats were going to take the state, and they didn't do it then. And then we heard with Beto O'Rourke, and they didn't that time, either. So we've been hearing this over a period of about 20 years, and it's never played out.

GOODWYN: It's not that there hasn't been progress for Texas Democrats. In the 2014 governor's race that Rinaldi mentioned, Democrat Wendy Davis was routed by Republican Greg Abbott by more than 20 points. Four years ago in the U.S. Senate race, Beto O'Rourke only lost to Ted Cruz by just over 2 1/2 points - quite promising, if nonetheless disappointing for Democrats. But last year, Joe Biden lost Texas to President Trump by nearly six points. That's closer than the margin Trump beat Hillary Clinton by in 2016. But in politics, it's still getting stomped. Here's GOP chairman Rinaldi again.

RINALDI: Political relocations are greater than ever. We're actually importing Republican voters from other states - California and New York - coming here. And we saw that reflected in the Ted Cruz race. Ted Cruz won a majority of transplants, while Beto won a majority of native Texans.

GOODWYN: Republicans have made progress with Hispanic voters on the Texas border. In the last election in both McAllen and Laredo, President Trump improved his share of Hispanic voters by more than 23 points, though he still lost those towns. While Democratic activists were calling Hispanic voters on the phone during the last election because of the coronavirus, Republicans were going door to door, connecting to conservative Hispanic Catholics and evangelicals - generations who may have well grown up hunting birds with friends and family along the largely rural border.

Joanne Green is a political science professor at TCU.

JOANNE GREEN: Issues like abortion, definitely Second Amendment issues, economic issues, oil and gas industry - many of them, when asked by academics, identify as white - so very much part of the Texas culture.

COLIN ALLRED: Well, listen, I understand some of the skepticism around Texas turning blue.

GOODWYN: Colin Allred is a Democratic congressman in Dallas. Allred says that although Texas hasn't turned blue as fast as was predicted, he still believes it's inevitable that there are a lot more liberal Hispanics in the cities than conservative Hispanics along the border.

ALLRED: Then we have to remember that these are gerrymandered districts that were drawn so that they could not be flipped. And it is true in the most recent round of redistricting, both at the congressional level and the State House level, that we're not going to have as many competitive elections early on in the decade. But that happened last decade as well, and later in the decade we saw all of these districts flipping.

GOODWYN: Early voting in the Texas primaries have started. The latest fundraising statistics from Transparency USA show Texas Republicans outraising Texas Democrats by 3 to 1. Beto O'Rourke, who's running for governor against incumbent Greg Abbott, is currently down by seven to 10 percentage points, according to the latest polls. But there's still a long way to go. The November elections this year and then again in 2024, will tell us a lot.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERNESTO JIMENEZ'S "MAR EN CALMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.