Deborah Peoples is chairperson of the Tarrant County Democratic Party. (Christopher Connelly / KERA News)
Thousands of Democrats will gather in Fort Worth starting Thursday afternoon for the Texas Democratic Party Convention.
They’ll debate and decide their platform of issues and Democratic leaders will rally the party faithful ahead of this fall’s midterm elections. For Democrats in Tarrant County, it’s not lost on them that their party’s show of strength is taking place in the biggest urban county in Texas where Democrats don’t dominate.
Upping their game
Tarrant County is bright red. In 2016, voters overwhelmingly picked Donald Trump for president. In the governor’s race two years earlier, they chose Greg Abbott over Wendy Davis by a lot, and she was a hometown state senator. Voters in the county elect about a hundred politicians in local partisan races, and only about 10 percent of them are Democrats.
Deborah Peoples, who chairs the Tarrant County Democratic Party, says Republicans drew district lines to make it harder for Democrats to win seats on commissioners court, in the state house or in Congress.
“These are single-member districts and they are gerrymandered to the moon and back,” Peoples said.
Peoples says Democrats are upping their game this year: They started working earlier, doing more outreach and coordinating with candidates and progressive groups. And the party recruited Democrats to run for more offices, and she thinks they’ll pair nicely with energetic campaigners at the top of the ballot like U.S. Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke.
“The biggest thing that we often hear in this office is that I go to the ballot and there are no Democrats to vote for,” she said.
Peoples says she hopes to see some gains this year. Top of the list: Texas Senate District 10, which includes some northeast Tarrant suburbs, big chunks of Fort Worth and Arlington and most of the southern part of the county.
Republican Sen. Konni Burton won the seat in 2014, after Democrat Wendy Davis stepped down to run for governor. Now, former Burleson school board member Beverly Powell is hoping to put the seat back in the Democratic column.
What makes Tarrant red
Still, nobody thinks Democrats will take over the county any time soon.
Tarrant County has stayed red when almost every other major urban county in the country has turned blue. In Texas, Dallas, Harris, Travis, Bexar and El Paso counties are all Democratic. A host of factors make Tarrant an outlier, according to Rebecca Deen, who chairs the political science department at UT-Arlington.
“It is demographics, it is geography, it is urban density, it is history,” Deen says.
Fort Worth has long been a moderate, business-focused city, and Tarrant County has a large military and defense industry. Politically, the county is home to very active, very effective Tea Party groups. Gerrymandering, Deen says, is also a cause.
Tarrant County also has a large suburban population, and suburbanites tend to vote for Republicans. And while Fort Worth is the 15th largest city in the country, Deen points out that huge swaths of the city are built — and vote — like suburbs. The denser, diverse urban core is relatively small.
While Tarrant County’s demographics are changing in a way that could favor Democrats, Deen says that doesn’t necessarily portend political gains for them.
“Just because they are there does not mean that they are going to be voters who will come out and vote for you,” Deen says. “And so you’ve got to have that partisan infrastructure to help get them out to the polls and help them cast the ballots.”
Local Democrats say they know it’ll take a long-term strategy to turn Tarrant blue. They’re not projecting huge gains this year, but they are feeling optimistic. Marc Veasey is the only Democratic member of Congress from Tarrant County.
“In the past, the biggest problem Democrats have had is just not a lot of enthusiasm going into midterms,” Veasey said. “Now, it’s completely opposite. If you look at the polling that’s out there, it’s consistently been that Republicans absolutely have no enthusiasm and that Democrats have all the enthusiasm and our people are going to turn out.”
Veasey says Democrats will be out in force leading up to the election. And he thinks their message is a contrast to a Republican party that’s become increasingly divisive.
“People that I grew up with, people that are longtime Republicans, they’re saying, ‘I don’t even know what I am anymore.’”
Hopefully, he says, that big-tent message will move the needle by bringing moderates into the Democratic fold. If nothing else, it’ll give the party faithful something to rally around at their convention.