As Democrats eye Texas, Marfa takes a front seat

MARFA — Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has started running its first general election television ads in Texas, and Presidio County plays a starring role.

One of the first ads, released earlier this month, opens with a scenic shot of Marfa. And as coronavirus cases climb across the state, it’s part political ad, part public health advisory.

“The virus is tough, but Texas is tougher,” Biden says in the ad, entitled “Tough.” “We can stop the spread, and it’s up to all of us to do it.”

He goes on to lay out precautions against the coronavirus, including social distancing and regular handwashing. Another Texas version of the ad, released just days later, includes much of the same stock imagery but instead opens with a shot of an 18-wheeler on a highway.

The Biden campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the ads, including where the ads will be run or why the campaign chose to feature Marfa. But CNN reported the ads are part of a six-figure ad blitz in Republican-leaning and swing states with climbing coronavirus case counts, including Florida, North Carolina and Arizona.

Those ads, which are also called “Tough,” offer the same health guidance and the reassuring message that “we’re all in this together.” The campaign is airing them in “top markets,” a spokesperson told CNN, including online and with subtitled versions on Spanish-language stations like Univision.

The ads come as voter opinion shifts on several aspects of the Donald Trump presidency, including its coronavirus response and confrontational approach to protests over police brutality.

At press time, more than 141,000 Americans have died of the disease — a figure far higher than any other country. Meanwhile, national outlets reported last week that unmarked federal agents were using rental cars to abduct Portland protesters. Faced with such scenes of death and civil unrest, Trump’s support has started to slip even among key supportive demographics, including evangelicals and the elderly.

Likewise, Texas has long been a key part of the Republican coalition. Republicans control all three branches of state government, and Trump beat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by nine percentage points in 2016.

For years, mostly liberal outside observers have hoped that Texas would soon turn purple and have put money in Texas Democratic races with little success thus far. Take pro-choice advocate Wendy’s Davis’ 2014 gubernatorial campaign, or Beto O’Rourke’s nail-biting Senate campaign in 2018 against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. O’Rourke ultimately lost in that race by just around 2 percentage points.

Still, there are signs that, for Texas Democrats, tides could shift in 2020. For months, Biden has been virtually tied with Trump in Texas polls, including a University of Texas at Tyler poll that showed Biden leading by five points and another last week that showed Trump leading by just two percentage points. That latter poll was sponsored by the rightwing news outlet One America News Network.

And while Democrats so far haven’t had much luck breaking into state-level Texas politics, they have gained footing at local levels. For example, the 2018 midterm elections in Houston saw the criminal courts go from 15 Republicans and one Democrat to 15 Democrats and one socialist.

Finally, there’s the sheer number of newly registered Democrats. The number of early Democratic voters in Houston surged from 33,000 in 2018 to over 80,000 this year. The Big Bend Sentinel has asked the Presidio County clerk’s office for a by-party breakdown of early voting trends in 2018 and 2020 and is awaiting that data.

When it comes to Texas political prognostications, it’s worth remembering that Texas has always been a politically diverse state. It’s something of a patchwork, where deep-red sections like the Texas panhandle are offset by bright blue ones, like the Rio Grande Valley and most major cities. Presidio County has also been reliably blue for decades, which may have factored into the Biden campaign’s decision to highlight Marfa.

“I’m proud that Presidio County remains a blue island in a sea of red,” said Clark Childers, the Democratic Party chair in Presidio County. Childers said he hadn’t heard from the Biden campaign about the ad and wasn’t sure why Marfa was chosen, but nonetheless said the town’s appearance was a “beautiful shot” and that he was glad that “our little town was chosen to represent Texas as a whole.”

So, what is Childers’ take on the political futures of Texas? “I won’t hold my breath,” he said. Still he stressed that “the shift” in state politics “is real” and that “I hope that it is enough to turn Texas blue.”

“It’s also been nice to work with local Republicans in the last two elections,” Childers added. “I think we are a great example of a community that hasn’t been impaired by partisan politics, and I hope we’ll stay that way.”