Trump surge and lack of door-knocking cost Texas Dems, says party chair

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On Tuesday, the Signal spoke with Texas Democrats Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa about last week’s election results. President Trump won Texas by 5.7 percentage points and there was little to no movement in down ballot races. 

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation about what Hinojosa believes went right and wrong for Democrats, how the pandemic stifled door-knocking, why Democrats lost margins in South Texas, Biden’s lack of resources in the state, and Republican messaging on defunding the police.

What’s your overall takeaway from Election Day in Texas?

I think that with all the metrics that we had to meet, we succeeded in meeting them.

We wanted to make sure that we organized our portion of the voter registration campaign, where at the end of the day we reached 17 million registered voters in Texas. 

Obviously, the Republicans registered people too, but we pushed really hard.

We got maybe 25,000 short of 17 million registered voters. We felt that for us to be in the game and possibly win Texas, we needed to have at least 11 million votes cast. And I think we hit somewhere around 12 million in Texas.

It was important to us. Part of our campaign was to make sure that we got into competitive races, that based upon our 2018 experience for the statehouse and for Congress, were races that we thought we could win and ultimately flip the Texas House.

We did what we were supposed to do, but two things happened. We did not flip those statehouse seats for various reasons. But had we not done what we did, we probably would have lost all twelve statehouse seats that we picked up in 2018 and probably would have lost the two congressional seats that we picked up, plus maybe one or two more after that — we certainly would have lost Vicente González in the Valley, we would have lost Colin Allred in Dallas, we would have lost Lizzie Fletcher in Houston. And probably an additional one. 

Based upon the way the dynamics of this actual election occurred, we got ourselves into a position where, unlike a lot of other states, we came out even or maybe a little bit ahead of 2018, even in the sense that we held onto everything we had and improved our margins in the presidential election. 

The margins that we improved in Texas exceeded the margins of any of the swing states that were out there, other than Georgia and Arizona.

The post-election coverage has floated around a lot of ideas as to why Democrats came up short in their targeted races. If you had to point to one thing in particular, what would it be?

There was just an enormous upsurge of Trump voters that came out, that had not come out in 2016 and 2018, that came out to save Trump’s presidency. 

That’s really what happened here. Even though we came within five and a half points in 2020 (which was more than we had in 2016 percentage-wise) Trump had more votes in 2020 than in 2016 in Texas. 

So what happened was that there was just a lot more Trump voters out there than we imagined there was. And they came out in some areas, particularly in areas where we were fighting for those statehouse seats. We encountered this huge increase in Trump voters that substantially helped the Republican’s down-ballot.

The other thing that happened that we thought would be different because of what happened in 2018, is that all these races that we did not win were gerrymandered Republican districts. They were designed to elect Republicans based upon the way they had been drawn. 

The 2018 seats that we won, we were able to pick them up because we did not have the Trump factor then, but I think they were tighter districts in terms of margins for Republicans than what you saw for the districts we targeted in 2020.

Without this Trump upsurge factor that came into place, we might have been able to win them. This huge increase in Trump voters made it to where we couldn’t. We did well, just to survive with what we had before. 

We thought that because Trump had alienated so many people that was really the reason why you had this huge increase in turnout in Texas. With the early vote, for example, we had more early voters than we had in the entire 2016 cycle — we thought that those voters weren’t going to vote for him and vote for Biden instead because they were sick of Trump’s misbehavior in office. If we organized and we made our contacts and did everything we needed to do, we thought that it was going to help us pull more voters out to win these statehouse seats and congressional races.

In some places, it did that, but the surge of Trump voters I think overcame the deficits that they were experiencing as a result of losing people. At the same time, it helped their down-ballot races.

Finally, I think the other thing that I truly believe — I don’t know that it would have made a difference for all the elections for the Statehouse and Congress, but I think it would have made a difference in some of the elections — which was, we were not able to do in-person canvassing. That put us in a huge disadvantage with the Republican campaigns. They were doing door-knocking for three months. 

We didn’t finally break down and just violate the agreements [to not door-knock] that we had with the national party until probably a week to 10 days prior to the election.

I personally felt that hurt us a lot in terms of the margins either that we experienced, or whether or not we would have been able to pick up some more seats. Maybe not the full amount to flip the Texas House, but more than we actually got. I mean, we picked up one seat and lost one statehouse seat. 

That was something I had never done before. I’ve been in politics for two-thirds of my life and I had always been involved in campaigns where we did canvassing. This is the first time that we hadn’t. 

I just think that really made it very difficult. It’s like we were fighting a boxing match where we’re being pounded, and we could only defend ourselves with one hand because we had the other one tied behind us.

Looking back, do you feel like you would have advised campaigns to do otherwise? I know a lot of campaigns stopped door-knocking and in-person organizing. Obviously, it’s a tough choice to make, right? You want voters to feel safe and your electorate to feel safe, but at the same time, as you said, it’s something that’s really important and essential to campaigning. Looking back, would you have advised campaigns to just be safe about it, or do you think Democrats made the right choice in playing it safe and taking into concern public health? 

Early on, I advocated that we go do in-person campaigning. I saw the way the Republican Party was doing it — not like they do anything safe with their rallies — but I thought that you could do it safely: where you could knock on the door, step back and keep your distance of anywhere between six to ten feet, wear a mask, and have no touch-contact with the voter whatsoever. I thought we could do that, I had suggested we should be able to do that, but the national campaign felt there were too many risks. I’m not saying that they were right or wrong. But we were very concerned that this was going to create problems for us, early on. 

We’re talking like five, six weeks before the election where I finally said, this is not going to work, this is too risky. I’m not going to tell you who I spoke to, but I did speak to some high-level people about this and the response was, “the campaign’s not going to budge on this issue.”

And so we just did what we could with what we had. I mean, we ran out of phone numbers to call. Together with Beto’s group of people [Powered by People], we made somewhere around, shit, over a hundred million phone calls or more. I think Beto’s group did somewhere around 78 million phone calls; we were working closely to make sure we weren’t stepping over each other — not that we were coordinating or anything but we wanted to make sure we covered as much territory as possible. 

We called everyone and texted everybody in the whole state and made contacts, and that had a lot to do with what you see in terms of the huge increase in voter turnout. 

But it’s very difficult, particularly with Latinos, to persuade people when you’re talking to them on the phone. I’ve been campaigning in Latino neighborhoods for — my first election was at the age of 30, I’m 68 right now, so 38 elections. We’ve always done door-to-door campaigns and I know you just really have a hard time being persuasive over the phone when you talk to a Latino family. They expect you to go see them. And we were not able to see them.

Leading up to the election, you made public calls for Joe Biden to visit the state. You told the Associated Press that Biden not traveling because of the pandemic was a “pretty lame excuse.” How important was that Biden visit to the state?

I thought it was critical. [Laughs]. The statement I made actually got me…  they were not very happy about that. 

I don’t remember what the AP reporter said, but he said, the reason that they’re giving [for not visiting Texas] is that because of the pandemic it’s not safe to travel by plane to Texas. 

And I said, that’s a pretty lame excuse, I mean it’s not like he’s flying commercial. He’s flying in his own plane. That’s what I meant by that.  

The reason why they didn’t come to Texas, is because I think their whole strategy that they figured out was that they needed to spend time in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and maybe some in Florida, but not in Texas. That’s why they didn’t come here. But certainly, it’s something that we needed to happen. This was the largest battleground state in the nation, it’s something that’s been trending blue for a very long time. 

Touring aside, how else did you feel about Biden’s operations in Texas? 

Obviously, you always want more, right? There’s no question they didn’t put the resources in Texas that they put into other swing states. And you know, they made that decision. They had their own information, I think that they felt it was more important to invest in the other swing states.

Certainly, it affected us. We didn’t have any canvassing money in South Texas — they gave us $15,000 for Cameron and Hidalgo County. Do you know how many people there are in Cameron and Hidalgo County put together? Something close to 1.3 or 1.4 million people live in those two counties alone. $15,000 is not a lot of money to do canvassing and we didn’t get that until very late.

So, obviously, they didn’t put the resources in the state with the intent of winning in Texas. They put far less resources in this state than they did Ohio and Iowa. And our margins in Texas were better than Iowa in 2016 and about the same as Ohio’s in 2016.

And I think we did better than either one of those states this time around. With our own resources, basically. 

One thing that surprised everyone about this election was that Democrats actually lost seats in the U.S. House. In Texas, the DCCC was targeting 10 districts. I’ve seen some criticism of how they handled these competitive races, including that there was too much focus on TV ads and not enough focus on door-knocking and organizing. What do you think?

Well, there was no focusing on door-knocking. Period. The DCCC had a strict rule that you could not do person to person canvassing. 

And even though they targeted 10 congressional seats, they didn’t fund 10 congressional seats. I don’t even think they funded half of those seats. They funded the two that they protected, the Lizzie Fletcher seat and Collin Allred seat, and maybe another four that they helped fund. But I don’t believe they were providing substantial funding on most of those targeted seats.

Now, we spent a lot of resources, Texas did, by calling all those districts. I mean, we called all those districts a lot. We didn’t have the resources to do canvassing, we barely had the resources to cover the entire state in calling, and we did that. But there was no money, zero money for canvassing, there was actually a prohibition on that — well, I take it back, they gave us $15,000 in the Valley. 

In June during y’alls state convention, Texas Democrats adopted a new platform that includes support for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and canceling student debt. It’s a very progressive platform, presumably the one y’all believe Texas will turn blue on. 

At the same time, the DCCC, under its Chair Cheri Bustos, who stepped down on Monday and who had previously clashed with the party’s left on some of those very same issues, steered the DCCC away from talking about those issues. Their ads, at least from what I saw, focused on protecting the Affordable Care Act, protecting coverage for pre-existing conditions, and the GOP’s failure in responding to the outbreak. 

Is there a conflict with the platform of Texas Democrats that includes those progressive issues and how national Democratic groups approached these congressional races with their messaging?

In terms of Medicare for All, as I understand it, we have a public option, which is exactly what the Biden campaign had.

Medicare for All, the traditional definition as Bernie Sanders advocated, was Medicare for All, period. That’s it, no public option. 

What our platform says is very similar to what the Biden platform is, which is, we should have expanded healthcare, such as what you have in the Affordable Care Act, for everyone, but you have a public option; you have the ability to keep your own insurance and the ability to buy into a Medicare system as well. That to me is what the Biden program has. If you call it Medicare for All, it really isn’t Medicare for All. So our design of healthcare plank on the platform was almost identical to the Biden campaign design. 

[The Texas Democrats platform includes support for both a public option and Medicare for All.]

The Green New Deal, essentially, is an effort to put resources into climate change and use those resources to create jobs in a responsible way. I don’t know that the Green New Deal lost us a single vote in that description. I don’t really believe those were the issues that negatively affected any voters in Texas.

What affected us, in terms of issues, was this whole concept of defunding police departments. The party was not in favor of that. But one of our communities in the state did it, or they didn’t do it but did something similar to that which was characterized as defunding the police department by some of the people that tried to get it done, even though it was a modified form of that. The Republicans effectively used that against us and campaigned on that basis very strongly against us. 

Again, because we couldn’t canvass, we couldn’t respond to it adequately. All our advertising outside of the congressional districts that had TV money was done through digital or radio, and it was very difficult to communicate those kinds of messages in that capacity because with Latinos you don’t reach a whole bunch of them digitally. And so that was really one of the things that hurt us a lot.

The other thing that hurt us more than anything else in South Texas was this whole concept of fracking. I grew up in South Texas. My mom married my father who was not a farmworker, but her entire family was. And they used to go work in the fields up north. That’s how they supported their family, there were no other jobs but those jobs. That’s kind of gone in the Rio Grande Valley. So where people are working now to support their families, a large part of it, particularly since you’ve had all the problems in Mexico and the retail industry has gone down substantially, has been in the oil and fracking businesses. 

Large numbers of South Texans go to West Texas to work, and they make good money. When the Republicans took out of context some of the statements made by Biden, and some of the discussions about eliminating fossil fuels, that was effectively used against us by the Republicans to make people believe that we were going to destroy fracking in Texas and eliminate the fossil fuel industry, thereby eliminating all their jobs. 

We lost a lot of support because of that and that hurt us tremendously. Those really were the two main issues that affected us. 

The other thing was the whole pandemic shutdown of the economy. When you shut down the economy in a city like New York City or a large metropolitan area outside of South Texas, a lot of people still have jobs and they work out of their houses or their apartments and so forth (and the service industry people continued to work as well, although they were exposed to the coronavirus). But far more people work in that economic environment than what happens in South Texas. 

You shut down the economy in South Texas and people have no work and have no food. All they’re getting is a stimulus check signed by Donald Trump and boxes of food being handed out by churches and evangelical churches and organizations associated with churches, with letters from Donald Trump. All that stuff was what people were hearing and seeing and talking about that also affected us in terms of messaging with folks down here.

Those were the policy issues that affected us more than anything else, on top of the abortion issue, because the churches, especially the Catholic churches, really made a big deal about that.

So issues like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All, I don’t think we lost any votes on those. It’s this other stuff that’s more tied into the economy that people have a direct effect on where we were adversely affected. 

When you hear lawmakers or pundits, there’s a lot of infighting about the results. You know, moderate Democrats say progressive Democrats cost them the election, and then progressives say moderates cost them the election. You don’t think that played a particular role in Tuesday’s results? 

No. I did not. Not outside the context of defunding the police department. But no one in the party was really taking the position that we should defund police departments. This was outside of the party that this happened, but these Republicans effectively used that in order to be able to convince people that we were for defunding police departments. 

So, you believe Gov. Greg Abbott’s gambit worked then. He was all about that.

Yes, we believe it did. It was something that carried with certain communities in Texas that affected people who might have otherwise considered voting for Democrats because they hated Donald Trump so much.  

Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

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