AUSTIN, Texas – The whispers about Texas are picking up again.
Polls are unusually tight. Political money is piling up. Millions of new voters are on the rolls, and Jill Biden flew in this week for an 800-mile campaign swing that stretched from El Paso to Houston. Taken together, all signs point toward November's election being the closest in America's biggest red state in decades.
But that is no high bar given a long trail of blowouts. And with early voting already underway, the surprise of Democrat Joe Biden appearing viable in Texas so late in the game is making some party leaders and supporters impatient for the former vice president to go all in.
“They've stuck their toes in the water and they figured out that it's pretty warm,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the longtime chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. “They're going through the strategic thinking process to determine whether or not to make the additional investment."
They're not alone in trying to figure out Texas — as sure a bet there was for the GOP for a generation — with less than three weeks before Election Day. It's a mixed picture. Republican Sen. John Cornyn is in the first real reelection fight of his career. Democrats have made the Legislature a tossup. And Texas is just one Sun Belt state where Biden is making an unusual late push.
Texas is the rainbow Democrats have chased for years, confident that shifting demographics and a booming population will eventually hand them the state's 38 electoral votes and leave Republicans with virtually no path to the White House. No Democratic presidential candidate has won Texas since 1976, and although President Donald Trump's 9-point victory here was the thinnest margin in a generation, the race was no squeaker.
There is no question that what Biden has sunk into Texas is practically historic for a Democratic presidential nominee — even though that's not saying much after decades of token efforts. Biden's ground game includes more than 60 staffers and $6 million in television airtime.
Republicans have dismissed the investment as unserious, designed to whip up headlines and little else while Biden himself has not visited Texas since becoming the nominee but has hit Arizona and Florida.
Losing Texas would amount to an existential moment for Republicans, who have won every statewide race here over the past 25 years. But warning signs abound: Their majority in the Texas House, which over the last decade has rammed through some of the nation's toughest immigration crackdowns and abortion restrictions, is in jeopardy. Congressional seats held by Republicans are also in play as more women voters peel away from Trump and the suburbs turn purple.
Trump hasn't held a rally in Texas since July and has scaled back on television, which Democratic strategists see as a sign of vulnerability but Republicans say shows he's not worried.
But even among some GOP insiders, Biden's investment in Texas is not viewed as insignificant.
“My point of view is that they’ve placed enough chips in the game to be at the table," said Steve Munisteri, a former Texas GOP chairman who served in the Trump White House for two years.
“They’re concentrating in areas where there are a lot of competitive state, House and congressional seats,” Munisteri said of Biden’s strategy. “If he has enough money to run in the other swing states where he can still put some money into Texas, it makes sense to do that.”
Munisteri is now an adviser to Cornyn, who among red-state Senate Republicans seeking reelection has spent much of this election year in better shape than others. But Democrat MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who narrowly lost a U.S. House race in 2018, raised nearly twice as much money Cornyn in the latest fundraising period — raking in nearly $14 million — while a Democratic super PAC focused on flipping the U.S. Senate also announced a big television ad buy in Texas.
Texas has added more than 1.5 million voters since 2016, a surge driven by the growing and rapidly changing suburbs where Democrats are staking their party's chances. Beto O'Rourke, the former Democratic congressman who came within 3 points of ousting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, said Biden doesn't need to spend tens of millions of dollars because outside groups are pouring money into other races in Texas and mobilizing Democratic voters.
“I just want to encourage them to do more of it. It is helping their case," O'Rourke said of Biden's spending in Texas.
He added, “There’s a certain inertia that is born of 44 years of, you know, losing Texas and our Electoral College votes. It’s totally understandable to not know that this is now a different electorate."
Days before Jill Biden's arrival in Dallas, Phyllis Smith joined a car rally for Biden in nearby McKinney, one of the suburbs where any path to victory for Biden in Texas runs through. She moved here five years ago from New York, one of the millions of newcomers that Democrats say are swinging the state in their direction.
She said she was never political until Trump was elected. Now she is signed up to be a poll watcher on Nov. 3.
“I never really talked politics until now. It’s never been part of the conversation," Smith said. “Now I don’t have a conversation where it’s not part of the conversation. “
Associated Press Writer Ellen Knickmeyer in Plano, Texas, contributed to this report.
AP’s Advance Voting guide brings you the facts about voting early, by mail or absentee from each state: https://interactives.ap.org/advance-voting-2020/.