A Mexican eatery in a neighborhood dotted with taquerias seemed an unlikely gathering spot for some of Houston’s most ardent conservatives, many who consider halting the flow of illegal immigrants their top priority.
But that’s where they gathered on a recent Wednesday, chuckling at an opening prayer to keep President Barack Obama safe “because he recruits more Republicans than anyone.”
Speaker after speaker warned of Democratic voter fraud, trumpeted Republican crackdowns on immigration and urged skeptical conservatives — this is ground zero for supporters of Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz after all — to line up behind Donald Trump.
“Most of us are Cruz supporters, but at this point we have got to unite,” said Mark Ramsey, a member of the state GOP’s executive committee. “I finally put a bumper sticker for Trump on my car. It was time to cross that line.”
Texas is virtually assured to give its 38 electoral votes to Trump this November. But the same purply stew brewing in Georgia — a shrinking white majority and a fast-growing segment of minority voters — is magnified in the Lone Star State.
Mix in demoralized Cruz supporters and other anti-establishment voters at constant war with the state’s Republican hierarchy and it’s no wonder why some Republicans are worried about the party’s direction.
“It’s not the way we hoped we could go,” said Mary Lane, a Texas tea party activist who said she tries not to think about the presidential race and beyond. “We have to go with who we have, and I hope folks will get behind Trump, but I’m not really that confident.”
Democrats are realistic about their slim hopes to flip Texas in November, but they salivate at their long-term chances. If Democrats can seize Texas, it will give them a nearly insurmountable Electoral College advantage. And the party’s rising leaders are trying to leverage Trump — who is trailing Clinton in some polls of younger Texas voters — to press their case.
“Young Texans don’t align with Trump or the typical conservative ideals of today’s GOP,” said Celia Morgan, the president of the Texas Young Democrats. “Our generation is tech-savvy, inclusive and understands that we need a level playing field now more than ever. We’re poised to make significant changes here at home and across the country.”
A fleeting moment
Like their Georgia counterparts, Texas Democrats have had little to cheer in recent years.
Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat to win the state four decades ago, and no Democrat has won a statewide office in Texas since 1994. Their latest hope — former state Sen. Wendy Davis — was crushed by Republican Greg Abbott in the 2014 governor’s race despite a wave of national attention.
That’s why many state partisans took the tighter-than-expected polls, the surprise Clinton endorsement by the conservative Dallas Morning News and Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump at the GOP convention quietly in stride.
Trump’s poll numbers have largely stabilized since then, and Cruz, with an eye on a potential 2020 bid, announced in September that he would vote for Trump. Texas Republicans are rallying, if reluctantly, around the GOP nominee.
Which is why Texas Democrats will be closely watching two other numbers in November: the turnout of Hispanic voters – and how many of them will vote in the blue column.
Hispanics make up arguably the state’s most influential voting bloc — some analysts say Latinos could become the majority in two decades — and some election officials are seeing a surge in voter registration applications.
All told, Hispanics could make up one in five voters in November. If they top that mark, and continue voting reliably for Democratic candidates, expect to hear plenty more about a swing-state Texas in the next decade.
“It would mean we’re starting to have a shift,” said Joshua Blank, the manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. “And if 70 percent of them vote Democratic, Republicans will have more challenges in a shorter time.”
Consider Ernest Rosales, a student studying the oil business, among a rising class of Hispanic Texans hoping to challenge the GOP hierarchy. He grew up in Venezuela before moving to Texas, and he fears similarities between Trump and Hugo Chavez, that country’s now-deceased populist leader.
“Chavez was pretty much the same as Trump when he started — look at the YouTube videos from 20 years ago — and I don’t want to see the same thing happen here,” Rosales said. “It’s not the right way to treat us immigrants. And I’m telling you, there’s going to be a big rise in immigrant voters because of that.”
But it’s far from a uniform bloc, and many immigrant voters are leaning toward the GOP.
Cris Kay, an immigrant from Spain, said there’s no chance she’d vote for Clinton. But she’s also skeptical of Trump’s plan for a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and his pledge to deport the estimated 14 million people in the U.S. illegally.
“I came here legally, and we’re all paying through the nose to support millions of illegals,” Kay said. “But the wall won’t stop them from finding other ways to come here. And we should give the good people who have been here a long time a chance to stay.”
‘I came the right way’
And some immigrants are willing to overlook Trump’s rhetoric because of his take-no-prisoners style. Sidnei Amaro, a musician who moved to the U.S. from Brazil in the 1990s, said he will either vote for Trump or skip the election.
“I am an immigrant, and I came the right way,” Amaro said. “There’s something about him. He’s a crazy guy — but he’s different. And Hillary just seems corrupt. Still, there’s no easy answer.”
That sentiment — there’s no easy option — seems to echo among GOP activists.
Trump and Cruz were unusually bitter rivals in the Republican primary, and Trump insulted Cruz’s wife, suggested that his father was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy and implied the senator had a history of infidelities. Some of his loyalists are still seething.
“How am I feeling? Cruz is our hometown boy and we’ve been supporting him forever. We’re really torn,” said Norma Jeter, a Houston activist who sends a daily email blast to about 1,000 Republican subscribers.
“But at the same time, I like the things that Trump says he is for, and we can only hope and pray that he means it.”
Elvie Kingston, an influential tea party leader in east Texas, also still laments Cruz’s defeat, but she said “more and more people are getting Trump-icized because they know what the alternative is.”
Besides, she said, she reminds Texas conservatives they’ve been in the same predicament before.
“I tell people to hold your nose and vote for him,” Kingston said. “After all, we did it for John McCain.”