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Welcome to Texas, where we dominate elections even without being a swing state | Opinion

Texas is headed for sleepy, anticlimactic presidential primaries. Democrat Joe Biden has no serious opposition, and Republican Donald Trump will cruise to victory here on a Super Tuesday that will end the GOP battle, if it’s not already over. And no one expects Texas to be a Trump-Biden battleground.

But the 2024 election still runs right through our state.

On top issues such as abortion and the border, Texas is a major player. Sen. Ted Cruz’s re-election fight will draw significant interest (and lots of campaign money). And the Union’s largest red state is always an avatar for conservative governance that some will denigrate and others celebrate.

Look no further than a new Biden ad featuring a Dallas doctor who tells her story of having to leave the state to obtain an abortion when it was clear her baby could not survive birth. It’s one of the first ads of the general election campaign, and it seeks to lay the blame for Texas’ strict abortion ban at Trump’s feet.

On the same issues, there’s also Kate Cox, the Dallas woman who sued to try to obtain an exception to the abortion ban when she found that her baby suffered from a usually fatal genetic abnormality. She’s been invited to sit with first lady Jill Biden at the state of the union address in March, another sympathetic case that puts Republicans on the defensive after Roe vs. Wade was overturned.

Democrats badly want to campaign on the issue, sensing an advantage even among some right-leaning voters. They blame Trump, who nominated three conservative Supreme Court Justices in his four years. They’re less enthused to have the border and illegal immigration as a top issue, but with millions of people coming to the country illegally under Biden, they won’t have much choice.

Gov. Greg Abbott makes sure of that. His policy of busing migrants, for free and with consent, to cities that brag about their “sanctuary” policies has changed the terms of the debate. Even Democrats are starting to talk tough, with Biden pledging — put down your drink here or risk a spit take — to close the border with Mexico if necessary.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference as Texas Army National Guard troops deploy from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Monday May 8, 2023, to the Texas-Mexico border.
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference as Texas Army National Guard troops deploy from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Monday May 8, 2023, to the Texas-Mexico border.

It’s unclear whether Abbott’s confrontation with the federal government over razor wire at certain border areas will work as well as his busing business. But Republican governors are uniting behind him, and for all but the most dedicated open-border enthusiasts, the logic is simple: The federal government is not addressing a problem of mammoth scale, so Texas will.

That brings us to Cruz. Democrats thirst to beat him in normal times; this year, he’s probably the only Republican incumbent they have a chance, albeit a small one, to unseat.

Cruz is less vulnerable than he was in 2018, when the backlash to Trump’s presidency and Beto O’Rourke’s hard, smart work forced Cruz to sweat out a close win. Some Democrats think they have the second coming of Beto in U.S. Rep. Colin Allred of Dallas, but he’s got a contested primary on his hands and has yet to demonstrate the broader appeal he’d need to win statewide.

The money will be there for whoever the Democratic nominee is, as Democrats nationwide throw a few bucks in every time Cruz irritates them (often by being right about things such as the border). Cruz will have plenty of cash, too. If the race seems close, expect a horde of national political reporters to once again descend for tired stories about “whether Texas is ready to turn blue.” They haven’t learned from 30 years of Republican dominance, but then, if you could come eat the world’s best tacos for a week on an expense account, wouldn’t you?

Trump is the wild card here. For all of Texas’ deep-red coloring, Trump lags other Republicans here. He won by just 5.6 percentage points in 2020, while the next biggest statewide race saw Sen. John Cornyn cruise to re-election by 9.6 percentage points.

And what if there’s a serious third-party surge? It’s been years since the country was so ripe for one, given the broad concern over the candidates’ ages and mental states. A tighter presidential race, even ultimately won by Trump, makes Cruz’s job a little harder.

Texas Democrats would love to believe that all this attention adds up to better odds for their candidates. But years of neglect in building party infrastructure, funding and candidate recruitment leaves the party out of position to take advantage of unexpected opportunity.

That is one Texas election story that won’t be a surprise in 2024.

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