Can Democrats in Tarrant County replicate the success they had in 2018 and 2020?

The Tarrant County Elections Administration building in Fort Worth, TX on July 22, 2022. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

FORT WORTH — Eight years after voting for Gov. Greg Abbott, Angela Martinez found herself waiting in line Tuesday to snap a photo with Democrat Beto O’Rourke, Abbott’s challenger in this year’s nail-biting gubernatorial contest.

Martinez, a 33-year-old marketer for a pediatric home health agency, has never identified as strictly liberal or conservative, she said, and sometimes feels like “a walking contradiction.” If there’s a spot for her on the traditional political spectrum, she hasn’t found it. When she voted for Abbott in 2014, Martinez identified with what she saw as the then-attorney general’s Christian family values.

But since then, Martinez has soured on Abbott. She feels Abbott didn’t do enough in the wake of the deadly winter freeze in February 2021 to prevent the state’s electrical grid from collapsing should a similarly catastrophic weather event hit Texas in the future. As someone who values “the sanctity of life,” Martinez is uneasy about the state’s blanket ban on abortions that took effect after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year.

“My mother had the freedom (to seek an abortion), my aunts had the freedom,” Martinez said while waiting to meet O’Rourke at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. “Why shouldn’t we?”

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Voters in Tarrant County, the state’s last major urban county dominated by Republicans, just barely broke for Democrats at the top of the ticket in the last two elections — O’Rourke won there during his 2018 Senate bid and so did President Joe Biden two years ago — stoking Democrats’ hopes that the path to the governor’s mansion, and the end of their decadeslong exile from statewide office, goes through Tarrant. Boosting those hopes is infighting this year among Tarrant County Republicans — who insist the party is united.

The year that O’Rourke carried Tarrant during his near-miss bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Abbott won the county by more than 66,000 votes and nearly 11 percentage points — outperforming every other statewide Republican on the ticket.

Four years later, Abbott’s team is “confident” the governor will win Tarrant County once more, Abbott’s chief strategist Dave Carney told reporters last week while acknowledging the county is competitive. “It’s going to be a battle,” Carney said.

At his campaign stop at the UNT Health Science Center, O’Rourke expressed optimism that 125,000 people who have been added to the county’s voter rolls since he ran in 2018, combined with discontent over the power grid failure during last year’s winter storm, the state’s abortion ban and Abbott’s response to school shootings would help deliver him the county.

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“Abbott has given us a huge, huge opening” in Tarrant County, O’Rourke said. “So many people are looking for the common ground and the common sense that’s been missing from our state government.”

But as Democrats express optimism because of O’Rourke and Biden’s victories, Republicans continue to dominate down-ballot races in Tarrant County — a sign of the GOP’s enduring dominance here.

“They have now a little bit of history that suggests that Democrats might be able to win in Tarrant County,” said James Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University. “On the other hand, there has not been a countywide Democrat elected for county office in Tarrant County in this century.”

Earlier in the year, Democrats looked primed to beat expectations that a president’s party gets pummeled during the midterm elections — bouyed by surprisingly high poll numbers in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights earlier this year. But that lead evaporated amid high inflation and Biden’s persistently low approval ratings.

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That bodes well for Republicans’ chances to hold onto Tarrant, said Rick Barnes, Tarrant County Republican Party chair.

“It’s not a good time to be a Democratic candidate, therefore not a good time for Beto in Texas,” Barnes said.

“My savings just keeps getting smaller and smaller”

Jaynell Sharum, a 73-year-old retiree who last worked for a Fort Worth law firm, said she and her husband have had to make sacrifices as the cost of gas and food have gone up — for which she blames Democrats. Sharum and her husband don’t go out to eat as much as they used to, she said, and at home have cut back on how much meat they buy from the grocery store.

Though the United States isn’t the only country experiencing rapid inflation, economists have laid some of the blame on federal stimulus funds that helped overheat the economy.

Sharum plans to vote Republican up and down the ballot, though she fears a “hard landing next year” for the economy even if Republicans meet projections and retake the U.S. House.

“I think what they (Democrats) are doing is just making it worse,” Sharum said at a Republican Women of Arlington meeting last week. “We’re going to have to cut back, the government’s going to have to cut back on their spending and it’s gonna be hard on everybody. But if we don’t bite the bullet now, I don’t know what it’s gonna be like in another year — except that my savings just keeps getting smaller and smaller.”

Some conservatives who have chafed at some of Abbott’s moves said they still plan to vote for him. Kaye Moreno, a member of Fort Worth Republican Women, said she disagreed with how long Abbott kept in place measures like mask mandates and occupancy restrictions for businesses intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 — rules that were deeply unpopular among the Republican base.

“There may be some things that I’ve disagreed with Abbott on here and there, but not enough to say that I would never vote for him,” Moreno said. “I’m pretty happy with him.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are betting they can peel off enough moderate Republicans disaffected by the party’s rightward shift in the last four years to break their decadeslong exile from statewide office — and perhaps countywide office in Tarrant as well.

Scott White, a 55-year-old former managing director for Accenture who lives in Grapevine, said in the past he consistently voted Republican with few exceptions: He voted for the Libertarian Party candidate rather than former President Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and for Biden in 2020.

But this year, White said he voted straight Democratic — a reversal sparked in part by his opposition to the state’s total abortion ban, which he called “beyond appalling.” And he thinks Abbott, who he has voted for twice, has grown too obsessed with “pulling stunts” rather than working to address issues head-on — referring to Abbott’s busing of migrants to so-called sanctuary cities like New York City and Chicago.

“They (Republicans) used to be a party of moderate conservatives that had a radical right that was pretty much under control,” White said. “That’s pretty much flipped now and the moderates no longer have any power and it’s just this radical right crowd and the propaganda machine. That’s what they’re left with.”

GOP civil war?

Part of Democrats’ hopes rest on a perceived rift between the county’s traditional class of more moderate, business-friendly Republicans and the party’s right wing.

Voters in a contentious GOP primary for county judge, the county’s top elected position, passed over Betsy Price — who served as Fort Worth mayor for 10 years and is considered more of a centrist — for Tim O’Hare, the former Farmers Branch mayor who in 2008 ushered in an ordinance forbidding landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants, which a federal court later ruled unconstitutional. O’Hare, who drew the backing of Trump, also co-founded Southlake Families PAC, which successfully opposed a plan to address racial discrimination at a school district in northeast Tarrant County.

But the county’s top Republicans haven’t solidified behind O’Hare. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, a Republican who is not seeking reelection, is not backing O’Hare as his would-be successor — and Price has implored fellow Republicans to not just vote for candidates because they have an “R” next to their name on the ballot. However, Whitley and Price have not endorsed O’Hare’s Democratic opponent — Deborah Peoples, a retired AT&T executive and former chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party.

“I truly believe that Republicans, independents and even moderate Democrats are more focused on the issues that impact them on a day-to-day basis,” said Whitley, who has backed Democrat Mike Collier in his bid to unseat Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. “That’s property taxes, that’s education, that’s the economy. They’re not as concerned about (critical race theory) and the various issues that the extremes want to focus on.”

For O’Hare, talk of stark GOP divisions in Tarrant County are overblown.

“Yeah, there was a contentious primary and people picked their sides,” O’Hare said. “But we came out on top and we won Fort Worth outright. We won the rest of the county outright. The idea there’s some civil war, I think, is just not accurate.”

That hasn’t stopped Peoples from trying to pick off Republicans potentially turned off by O’Hare.

Peoples gained the backing of Steve Murrin, a well-known Republican and businessman known as the “mayor of the Stockyards.” She’s sought to cast herself as a business-friendly Democrat who can shepherd the county’s growth via expanded public transit and infrastructure — and portray O’Hare’s involvement with the Southlake Families PAC as a potential hindrance for attracting new businesses to Tarrant.

“Companies value diversity,” Peoples said. “So when you have somebody who’s saying ‘I don’t value diversity,’ that kind of smacks in the face of what many of these companies are trying to do.”

O’Hare, who also has campaigned on cutting property taxes and boosting public safety, dismissed Peoples’ assertion as “a false narrative, which is pretty much her specialty” and touted endorsements from Fort Worth real estate developer Mike Berry and prominent lawyer Dee Kelly Jr.

O’Hare has trounced Peoples, who twice ran unsuccessfully for Fort Worth mayor, in fundraising — collecting nearly $602,000 from July 1 to Sept. 29, according to his latest campaign finance report. That’s nearly six times the $102,000 Peoples raised in the same period.

“The Fort Worth business community — the ‘downtown crowd,’ sometimes they’re called — they’ve gotten behind me big,” O’Hare said. “We’re very confident that Republicans are behind me in significant numbers.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.