SAN ANTONIO — Early in the election cycle, as Democrats were still narrowing their choices for a presidential nominee, Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez proclaimed that Texas was a battleground.
Few wanted to believe him then, but in the days before Election Day, he was making final get-out-the-vote rounds in South Texas, the Rio Grande Valley, Austin, its neighbor Williamson County and North Texas.
Polls have been confirming Perez's early declaration that Texas is in play, generating high anticipation of Democratic upsets up and down the ballot. But there is some caution, because Republicans have controlled the state for decades, and Jimmy Carter in 1976 was the last Democratic presidential nominee to win.
Perez said he was willing to declare Texas a battleground state so early because a big part of Democratic success in 2018 was the high Latino turnout nationally, with 800,000 more Latinos voting in Texas in the midterm elections than in 2016.
"I am confident if Latinos show up in force, Joe Biden can win, M.J. Hegar can win, we can take the Texas House of Representatives," Perez said. Hegar is the state's Democratic candidate for the Senate.
"Success is about continuing to invest in infrastructure, doing it every year and doing it everywhere," said Perez, who is Dominican American and is the first Latino to serve as chair of the Democratic National Committee. "I think people here in Texas are sick of being last in children's health insurance, last in so many metrics you don't want to be last in."
The numbers appear to back Perez up in terms of Latino voters.
By the end of three weeks of early voting, Latino Texans had cast 1.877 million votes, surpassing their 2016 number of about 1.778 million votes, according to an analysis of the Democratic Party's voter database by the Texas Organizing Project, a progressive group that organizes low-income Texans in Dallas, Bexar and Harris counties.
Crystal Zermeño, the Texas Organizing Project's electoral strategy director, said: "I think what's good for us is they are 19.6 percent of the vote at this point. That's higher than we've ever been coming out of early vote. In 2016, it was around 17 percent."
Thus far, 39 percent of Latino Texans who voted early this year did not vote in 2016, and 434,083 didn't vote in 2016 or 2018.
But more than 700,000 Latino Texans who voted in 2016, in 2018 or in the 2020 primary have not voted yet, so the Texas Organizing Project is broadening its strategy from unlikely voters to include those voters, she said.
Nationally, 8.2 million Latinos had cast early votes, more than half of the 14.6 million Latinos projected to vote this year, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.
Republicans in Texas have been able to count on at least a third of the Hispanic vote, more in some elections. In his campaign message, Perez said Republicans have failed to improve the lives of Latino Texans since they have been in charge.
"Republicans have controlled the state of Texas for close to two decades. Their record on so many metrics is abysmal. ... The strategy for winning for Republicans is to continue to suppress the vote, because they can't win on the issues," he said.
Perez, who headed the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department during the Obama administration, was referring to a Republican challenge to toss out more than 127,000 ballots that were cast in drive-thru voting booths. A judge rejected the challenge.
"Now we don't even want validly cast votes to count," Perez said. "This is voter suppression on steroids."
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Over the weekend, the Trump campaign criticized Perez's visit to Texas.
"Tom Perez dropping into the Lone Star State will do nothing to change the reality on the ground," Samantha Cotten, the campaign's regional communications director, said in a statement. The state will "reject Joe Biden and his five decades of failed leadership and re-elect President Trump and his 'Promises Made, Promises Kept' agenda," she said.
Trump's campaign planned to conduct phone banks and to continue knocking on doors through to the election, Cotten said.