Tarrant County, like the state of Texas, is still reliably red but midterm elections results show it may be taking on the hue of Fort Worth’s signature color: purple.
Democrats pulled off some remarkable victories locally and statewide, including Colin Allred’s defeat of long-time Congressman Pete Sessions in the Dallas area’s District 32 and Beverly Powell’s triumph over incumbent State Sen. Konni Burton in Fort Worth-based Senate District 10.
But even in defeat, Democrats managed to move the margin closer to the win column than at any other time in the past 24 years.
El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke lost to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz by a margin of less than 3 percent. And in Tarrant County, O’Rourke actually outperformed Cruz by a slim margin of 0.62 percent.
Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez, a self-employed businesswoman, outpolled Republican Ron Wright, the Tarrant County tax assessor-collector, by more than 5 percent in Tarrant County for the District 6 seat in the U.S. house. Wright won the seat by a margin of 53.1 to 45.4 due to strong Republican voting in redder Ellis and Navarro counties, which are also part of the district.
“Tarrant County is definitely a bell-weather,” said Tom Stallings, a non-partisan political strategist and a principal in Mosaic Strategy Partners, a Fort Worth advocacy, political consulting and communications firm. “What we have learned is that is that Tarrant County is now about 52 or 53 percent Republican when it used to be 57 or 58 percent.”
Stallings and other political observers say the dynamic of the midterms is likely due to a combination of factors, including overwhelming Democratic turnout because of the enthusiasm generated by the O’Rourke campaign and a “pink wave” fueled by a large number of female candidates and women voters reacting to President Donald Trump’s vitriol and his policies.
Equally persuasive are shifting demographics that are making places like Tarrant County as well as the suburbs of Texas’ largest cities more diverse and Democratic.
Tarrant County remains the largest urban county in the United States that is still red but whether it remains reliably so going forward has become uncertain.
Texas Christian University political science professor Jim Riddlesperger said he has long believed that Texas would flip to blue in 2024 as the state becomes majority Hispanic. Tarrant County, a microcosm of the state, would follow suit.
“Now I think it’s possible that it will happen by 2020 or 2022,” he said, noting that the vote margins between Republicans and Democrats have been gradually narrowing since 2012.
Democratic turnout in Tarrant County was high but Republicans turned out in even higher numbers to defend congressional, state and local seats. Republicans cast 226,769 votes or 53.9 percent to Democrats’ 191,239 or 45.5 percent.
Just as no Democrats prevailed in statewide races in the midterms, no Democrats won countywide in Tarrant.
A total of 630,919 votes were cast in Tarrant County, or 55.6 percent of the 1,1343,484 registered voters.
The margin between candidates in most countywide races closely mimicked the turnout for Republicans and Democrats.
Yet, Democrats pulled off upsets in district races with Republican incumbent Andy Nguyen losing the County Commissioner Precinct 2 seat to Democrat Devan Allen. Democrat Kenneth D. Sanders beat Republican incumbent Matt Hayes for Justice of the Peace for Precinct 7.
Both upsets were the result of a Democratic vote that was especially strong in the southeastern quadrant of Tarrant County, mostly rooted in Arlington and Grand Prairie.
“We’re seeing a distinct split between the eastern side of the county, which is mostly Democratic and the western side, which is mostly Republican,” Stallings said. “The eastern side is very diverse with a good mix of people of color, younger people and lower-income older people.”
Riddlesperger said the eastern part of the county identifies more with closely with Dallas County, which has shifted to be reliably blue.
“A lot of people who live in Arlington either work in Dallas or have moved over from Dallas,” Riddlesperger said. Housing tends to be more affordable in Tarrant County than Dallas County so that has become a draw for middle- and working-class people, he noted.
The biggest Democratic upset in Tarrant County was Powell’s defeat of Konni Burton in what is regarded as the only swing Senate district in Texas. Powell beat Burton 51.7 percent to 48.2 percent.
“It wasn’t even close,” Riddlesperger said.
That race has always been a nail-biter and would have been the marquee race in Texas had it not been for the O’Rourke-Cruz contest.
Burton was defeated in her first re-election bid. She won the seat in a contest against Democrat Libby Willis in 2014. It was open at the time because Democrat Wendy Davis opted to run for governor that year instead of seeking re-election.
Davis defeated Republican Kim Brimer in 2008 and held off Republican Shelton Mark Shelton in a nail-biter contest four years later.
Burton’s loss was another blow for Empower Texans, a conservative organization funded by several West Texas oil billionaires who pour large sums of money into candidates who will help carry out an agenda that includes outlawing abortion in Texas, property tax reform, school vouchers and legislation dictating bathroom use for transgender Texans.
State Rep. Charlie Geren again staved off a challenge from Empower Texans-backed candidate Bo French in the March Republican primary.
Besides Burton, Empower Texans’ endorsed Wright in the U.S. District 6 races as well as Texas House incumbents Jonathan Stickland, Matt Krause, Tony Tinderholt and Bill Zedler, all of Tarrant County. State Sen. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills was also re-elected with the endorsement of Empower Texans.
Stickland and Zedler were the most endangered of the Empower Texans-backed group, with both winning by small margins of about 2 to 3 percent.
Empower Texans candidates lost other key races in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including the Senate District 16 seat held by Don Huffines and the House District 115 seat held by Matt Rinaldi.
“It proves that money doesn’t always vote,” Riddlesperger said.
Powell, a businesswoman and long-time member of the Burleson school board, campaigned on a platform of revamping the state school finance system to improve public school.
In the last three months of the campaign, Burton outraised Powell more than 2 to 1, with Burton reporting raising more than $1 million and Powell reporting campaign contributions of $440,000.
Burton spent heavily on attack ads, accusing Powell of racking up tax liens for failing to pay her taxes.
Powell countered that her taxes were paid in full but acknowledged that she had to make tough decisions to keep her business afloat during economic downturns.