In rural Texas, it’s no secret; blue votes are hard to come by.
As the state’s urban centers become increasingly more Democratic, West Texas, the Panhandle and East Texas remain overwhelming Republican, giving GOP candidates enough of a cushion to offset losses in Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth and their suburbs.
It’s how Sen. Ted Cruz won reelection in 2018, when he edged Beto O’Rourke by winning some rural counties with more than 75% of the vote. As the race for governor tightens, O’Rourke will need to perform better in places like Cleburne and Decatur to defeat Gov. Greg Abbott and distinguish himself as Democrat President Joe Biden loses popularity across the nation and state.
O’Rourke made stops in Johnson and Wise counties on Wednesday and Thursday as part of his 5,600-mile tour across the state.
Johnson and Wise counties, in particular, are the lands of vast open spaces, roadside sunflowers and cattle nested under shady trees. They’re solid red, and subsequently, it’s hard to see a Democrat win.
Juanita Browder of Cleburne said it will probably take a lifetime to undo the Republican tradition in Johnson County, which hasn’t voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since Jimmy Carter won there in 1976.
Could that unraveling start with O’Rourke?
O’Rourke attracted flocks of eager onlookers during his North Texas stops.
Inside a tiny Cleburne gymnasium, they sat in a circle without central air as their faces gleamed and they fanned themselves with “Beto for Texas” signs left on metal folding chairs. Hundreds of others who couldn’t get in waited outside in the rain for O’Rourke to come to them. And when he emerged after his speech, O’Rourke went through the entire line, shaking hands and taking pictures with each of them as the area’s first rain in ages dripped down and further drenched his already sweat-soaked signature white button down.
And in Decatur, supporters packed into a steamy conference room as others stood the halls to watch him speak.
It was here O’Rourke told the crowd he didn’t know the last time Gov. Greg Abbott, his opponent, came to Decatur to hold a town hall and answer questions. He was met with cries of “zero” and “never.”
“My impression is that he’s sleeping on you all,” O’Rourke continued. “He thinks these votes are in the bag.”
The same sentiment was shared in Cleburne.
“They want someone who’s gonna fight for them,” O’Rourke told the Star-Telegram after his Cleburne speech. “So I feel so lucky that I get to do this, and we’re working for everyone and working to earn these votes. And when we win, we’re going to work so hard to make sure that we deliver.”
O’Rourke realizes the power of the rural vote but he is under the impression that Abbott thinks he doesn’t have to show up to win voters over.
In both counties, O’Rourke hit on his usual talking points: Medicaid expansion, expanding veterans’ services, the legalization of marijuana, raising of the legal age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21, and fixing the immigration system so people who want to come here legally can do so faster.
At both appearances, the biggest cheers came when O’Rouke mentioned fighting for reproductive health care and his support for teachers, especially abolishing the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test.
“I think Abbott is underestimating women and this abortion issue,” said Sherri Edwards of Tarrant County. She attended the Cleburne event with her husband, Robbie.
Ahead of Wednesday’s town hall, Robbie felt better about O’Rourke than he did a month ago.
“I just think that he is gaining some traction,” Robbie said. “And to be honest with you, I think Abbott is losing a lot of traction because of who he associates with, and the people that he is protecting, instead of the people of Texas.”
Robbie said he didn’t expect O’Rourke to win outright in rural areas, but there was something to be said about the votes gathered on the road. To him, it was all about supplementing the votes in larger areas like Houston and Tarrant County.
“He doesn’t need to win Pampa, Texas,” Robbie said, referring to the Panhandle city of 17,000. “He just needs to win 60 people in Pampa, Texas, and 50 people in Canadian, Texas.”
Pat Elliott of Grandview knows the area is as red as can be and that Johnson County in particular was “Trump Country,” but she hoped the overturn of Roe v. Wade would bring people to the polls. That happened earlier this month in Kansas, where voters overwhelming voted to protect abortion rights in the state’s constitution.
Brower thought O’Rourke’s chances in Johnson County were good, mentioning issues like the power grid and property taxes.
“Texans are fed up,” Brower said.
Maddison Black of Johnson County believes the tide is changing there — an area that’s historically been conservative, she said, is starting to rid itself of the stigma of liberal candidates being bad. That and people are starting to see it’s OK to stand up for what you believe in and enact change themselves.
She hoped to see some changed minds after O’Rourke spoke and answered questions.
O’Rourke has hammered Abbott on property taxes, public education and the power grid.
“These are not Democratic or Republican Party issues,” he said. “They’re issues that matter to people in Cleburne and we’re talking about them, and we’re working on them together.”
As event goers filed into a room in the Decatur Conference Center, Mike and Jill Costanzi sat in the back of the circle of chairs set up around the space O’Rourke was set to speak. They say they moved here from Illinois to get away from its liberalism. Wise County was where the couple landed.
They were in opposition of O’Rourke, but wanted to see where he was coming from in a way that came from O’Rourke himself and wasn’t mediated by the press. They weren’t interested in having Texas become like Illinois or California, Mike said.
Thursday’s event in Decatur took place in a conference hall that was half blocked off by room dividers. When the Wise County GOP held an event in January, its chair Mike Drury said the whole room was packed without the divider. What keeps the county so red, to him, is its connection to the grassroots and its values as a whole.
Drury said the local GOP was flattered O’Rourke chose Wise County as a campaign stop — it shows just how strong the Republican party is in the area.
“That just inspires us, quite frankly, to work harder, longer to ensure that we keep good solid Republicans in office,” Drury said.
After living 25 years in the area, Robert Clinesmith said it was lonesome at times having more centrist views. He thinks the biggest roadblock to a Democratic victory in Decatur was the area being built on those with more conservative ideals.
Graciela Martinez, who has lived in Wise County for 22 years, said it was hard to say whether O’Rourke would do well in the area. She knew there was room for improvement, and like Brower in Cleburne, pointed back to the influence of tradition on the way people vote.
Judy Russell, who sat nearby, said Wise County didn’t used to be as red as it is. The shift began around when Ronald Reagan took office and hasn’t gone back since. With the area’s growth, she was hopeful younger people might move in and wash away some of the conservative influence.
Even as Democrats like O’Rourke try to make inroads in these communities, Republicans are making sure the opposite party knows — there’s still resistance to be met.
Protesters gathered outside in the parking lot after the Decatur event, clad in red caps and hoisting American flags.
One chanted: “Move to a blue state if you want to live in one!”