Texas Democrats think the unthinkable: Can they win deep in the heart of Trump country?

By almost any measure Chandha Parbhoo is far from your typical Texan. She doesn’t live on a ranch or wear a Stetson. She likes her turmeric fresh and her chai homemade. 

But Parbhoo, a daughter of South Asian immigrants in suburban Dallas, has set her sights on breaking more than just Texas stereotypes; she’s hoping to help turn the state’s politics on its ear. 

She’s a Democrat in a place that hasn’t elected a Democrat in a statewide vote since 1994 but where the party is now daring to dream that may soon change.  

Say so many Texas Democrats: Thank you, Donald Trump.

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Chanda Parbhoo founded the group South Asian American Voter Empowerment in an effort to galvanize her community in the wake of the 2016 election. (Jason Burles/CBC)

Turnout by Democrats in this week’s primaries — a key indicator of party enthusiasm — hit its highest level in a midterm election since 2002 and bolsters Democratic hopes for a breakthrough in November.

“I think we all lived as closet Democrats for so long,” Parbhoo says of herself and her suddenly emboldened friends. 

Then came Trump’s surprise win, and a president Parbhoo and her friends say they couldn’t stomach. She says they quickly realized that merely complaining about Trump wouldn’t be enough.  

“We started becoming precinct chairs and registering people to vote,” she says.

Something ‘unprecedented’ happening

Parbhoo is emblematic of Texas Democrats who are no longer willing to sit on the political sidelines. She started a group called South Asian American Voter Empowerment and is now a local fundraiser for the party.

One morning not long ago she hosted an official fundraiser for one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars in Texas, Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, a congressman from El Paso challenging Republican Senator Ted Cruz.

O’Rourke has a quick wit, is fluent in Spanish and played bass in a punk rock band. He was profiled in Rolling Stone magazine last year. 

More significantly, he’s been out-fundraising Cruz throughout Texas, raising some $ 2.3 million in the first six weeks of 2018 — roughly triple the amount raised by Cruz. No small feat for someone taking on a former presidential candidate.

not all Texans

A local headline serves as motivation for volunteers and staff at the Collin County Democratic Party’s offices in Plano, Texas. (Jason Burles/CBC)

“There’s something amazing and absolutely unprecedented happening in Texas,” he told CBC News after Parbhoo’s fundraiser, where South Asian Texans had lined up to take selfies with him.  

“They recognize that everything that they care about in their lives and their communities for this state and for the future of our country is on the line,” he says.

But is it all just Democratic dreaming?

Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, says the party has a steep hill to climb, but it’s doable. 

“The principal driving force is the Trump presidency,” he says. 

Democrats ‘coming out of the woodwork’

Jones says antipathy for Trump has made it easier for Democrats to recruit quality candidates who oppose his politics. In the past, he says, it was “like pulling teeth” for the Democratic Party to get people to run. “And when they did … it was often [whoever] was willing to pay the filing fee. This time around, we’re seeing Democrats coming out of the woodwork to run for Congress.”

Diane Treider, communications director for the Collin County Democratic Party, says Trump’s positions on a range of issues present a window for Democrats in the state, not least when it comes to minorities. 

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When not cutting hair and running her salon, Diane Treider volunteers as the director of communications for the Collin County Democratic Party. She says she ‘dares to hope’ this year’s election could change things for Democrats in the Lone Star State. (Jason Burles/CBC)

“You’ve got a guy in Washington sitting there telling them they’re not wanted, they come from ‘shithole’ countries and this other nonsense.” 

One effect of that?

“People have figured out if I want to have a say in this, I’ve got to show up. And they’re not just showing up voting, they’re showing up to run.

“He’s been a great advertisement for us,” she says.

Lifelong Republican quits party

The state’s changing population is another wildcard, says Jones. With rapid growth in recent decades, Texas now has around 11 per cent of the country’s immigrant population — tied with New York for second largest — and most are either of Mexican or of South/East Asian descent, according to the Pew Research Center.

Still, it’s all much easier said than done. Latinos in Texas remain notorious for staying home on voting day. In the 2016 presidential election, turnout among eligible Texas Latinos was just 40.5 per cent. 

Even with a president promising to build that wall. 

But there is another factor emerging in this state that Democrats are keen to exploit: disaffected Republicans. 

Retired entrepreneur Larry Strauss, of Plano, Texas, was a Republican his whole life — up until a few months into the Trump presidency. 

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Larry Strauss, of Plano, Texas, says he was ‘disgusted’ with Trump and the Republican Party after the president’s response to the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last summer.

Everything changed, he says, when a group of white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Va., in a race-tinged demonstration last summer that started out ugly and then turned deadly, as a counter-demonstrator was killed when a car slammed into a crowd at an intersection. 

When Trump seemed to defend the white nationalists, saying there were “very nice people on both sides” of the demonstration, that was it for Strauss.

“I was not only disgusted with President Trump but the Republican Party,” he says. “And that’s when I started my transformation.” 

Even though many of Strauss’s friends remain Republicans, Strauss quit the party, joined the Democrats and, like Parbhoo, now helps organize events for Democrats. 

“I feel more accepted than ostracized,” he says. “I realized how many Democrats there are who were my friends that I didn’t know were Democrats until I switched.” 

At a recent all-candidates panel for Democrats, organized by Strauss, one of those seeking to take on Republicans is herself symbolic of a resurgent party in a state seemingly edging out of its political comfort zone — Lupe Valdez, an openly gay female former sheriff in Dallas County who’s now eyeing the governor’s office and unafraid of defying expectations in longstanding conservative jurisdictions.

Texas Governor Race

Lupe Valdez, an openly gay former sheriff in Dallas County, is now eyeing the governor’s office — a position not won by a Democrat since 1990. (Louis DeLuca/Dallas Morning News/Associated Press)

She too points to the Trump presidency. 

“What I hope is that he’s the best thing that ever happened to Democrats.”

Valdez is headed to a runoff election against Houston investor Andrew White for the nomination, on May 22.

Lost on no one is what’s at stake. Texas has more electoral college votes than any other state won by Trump in 2016. Republican support remains strong statewide, especially so outside the big cities. 

Still, there’s no denying that Democrats here are energized for the first time in years .

After a planning session with Democratic friends to organize some neighbourhood door-knocking in support of the party, Parbhoo had her own outlook on the new politics of Texas. 

“I feel at home,” she said. “I feel like this is what Texas should be, and this is who we really are.”

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