AUSTIN, Texas — Putting up Hillary Clinton yard signs in Texas eight years ago was like playing a game of whack-a-mole.
“They would get stolen. It was real horrible,” said Bonny Krahn, 60, a precinct chair and two-time convention delegate for Clinton. “Obama stickers were keyed off my car. I mean just really bad stuff.”
“But I haven’t seen any of that this time around,” she said with a wide smile.
Democrats say something is shifting in deep-red Texas. In a state with the second-largest Hispanic population in the country, Clinton’s Republican opponent, Donald Trump, has galvanized Latino voters in a way rarely seen. While few believe Clinton will win Texas this year, they are bullish that she will perform better than any recent Democratic presidential contenders.
That makes Texas, along with a growing list of red states where Clinton and her allies are investing time and money, fertile ground to raise money, expand the party’s strength, elect new candidates down the ballot and perhaps win a governing majority in one or both houses of Congress.
A two-day swing this week by the party’s vice presidential nominee, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, adds to the evidence that the campaign is seeking to expand the party’s reach into new, more hostile corners of the electoral map.
Standing on a wooden crate in the middle of a sweltering, converted barn that serves as the Democrats’ Travis County coordinated campaign office, Kaine stated it plainly to campaign volunteers: “We’re serious about Texas. We’re very serious about Texas.”
That trip coincided with several other forays into red states this week. Campaign aides told Democratic leaders in Arizona and Georgia on Monday that they would begin sending money to pay for organizing staff. And in Utah, Clinton published an opinion piece directed at Mormons in a church-controlled newspaper.
Texas Republicans scoff at the idea that Democrats will be competitive this year, or that Clinton’s campaign is doing more than sandwiching campaign events in between high-dollar fundraising stops.
“Their actions are nothing more than AstroTurf,” said Michael Joyce, communications director for the Republican Party of Texas. Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush “is doing a fantastic job running our victory effort this year, and our grassroots activists are working hard across the state to keep Texas red for election cycles to come.”
Indeed, a real financial investment by a Democratic presidential nominee in Texas – in television ads and staff – would be unprecedented in the modern era of billion-dollar campaigns. And so far – beyond national cable television buys – the Clinton campaign has not shelled out for ads. Nor has it invested much in funding field organizers outside of its recently installed state director, Jaclyn Uresti.
And Clinton officials cautioned not to read too much into Kaine’s itinerary in particular, which will stray more regularly from the battleground map than Clinton. Among other reasons, he is likely to accept more invitations from interest groups, including a speech to a Baptist gathering in New Orleans on Thursday, to free up Clinton to focus on the contested states.
Still, Democrats insist they see real targets in Texas. And with Kaine as messenger, the Clinton campaign is sending a clear signal that they are see opportunities to put their thumb to the scale.
As chairman of the Democratic Party during President Barack Obama’s first term, he gave special attention to Texas, eyeing a time in the future when the state’s demographics made the state ripe for statewide and national democratic candidates.
“We always look at Texas in the Democratic family,” Kaine told Clinton’s volunteers on Tuesday. “When I was Democratic Party Chairman, the first meeting we did we brought it to Austin to show, hey, we’re going to go after Texas.”
Fluent in Spanish, Kaine is also credited with successfully leveraged Virginia’s growing Hispanic population to hasten that state’s left-ward shift.
At Taqueria Chapala in Austin on Tuesday afternoon, Kaine small-talked his way through the room until he arrived at a man who identified himself as Carlos, sitting alone hunched over a platter of food.
Kaine launched the conversation in Spanish. Quickly, Carlos invited him to sit at the booth. For two minutes, he and the man talked about immigration reform and worry.
“He says Mexicans sell drugs,” Carlos told Kaine, referring to Trump. “My people work.
“My people work,” he repeated.
“More than anybody else, he understands the potential of Texas because of his ties to the Hispanic community in Virginia,” Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said of Kaine. “He was as able to drive up Hispanic turnout and solidify Virginia as a blue state.”
Among the goals in Texas are a competitive U.S. House race, where Pete Gallego seeks to retake a seat he lost in 2014 to Republican Rep. Will Hurd. And there are a dozen other state house seats, and more county judge posts and sheriff elections that could benefit from the attention.
“Because Trump is increasing interest substantially in this election, the presidential race is helping us in down ballot races significantly,” said Hinojosa. “It comes down to this: If we can get Hispanics to vote in this state, it would be impossible for the Republicans to elect anyone.”
Democrats have been promising a Latino voting juggernaut in Texas for years, but it has yet to materialize. Latino turnout is low in the state and nationally. Democrats claim, as they have before, that there is evidence of a turnaround on the horizon.
In the heavily Latino border district where Gallego hopes to retake his seat, his campaign said that voter registration data from January to May shows a 25 percent uptick in registration compared to 2012.
Trump’s controversial comments calling Mexican immigrants “murderers” and “rapists” are at the core of the antipathy toward him by Texas Latinos.
“With the presidential election itself, I would feel pretty good,” Gallego said in an interview. “But if you add in the Trump phenomenon, its gets exponentially better because Mr. Trump has stirred the pot significantly along the border to the point that he has become a local issue.”
According to the campaign, Kaine’s exploits in Texas are the demonstration of their commitment to a true 50-state strategy, which rests on a commitment from Clinton to rebuild the Democratic Party infrastructure top to bottom.
Even while Democrats have held onto the presidency and managed to keep the Senate for six of the eight years of Obama’s presidency, the party has been decimated at the state and local level.
Democrats control only 11 state legislatures nationwide – down from 26 in 2009. The party holds 18 governor’s mansions compared to 28 in 2009.
In Trump, Democratic operatives cautiously see an opportunity for the Clinton campaign to exploit the potential for a wave election, where the presidential ticket could help lift all boats.
John Wagner contributed to this report.