Seizing on a spike in Covid-19 cases under a Republican governor and Donald Trump’s sliding poll numbers, Joe Biden is venturing into once reliably red terrain — Texas.
The former vice president’s campaign is going up on air with TV ads in Texas — a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic nominee in 44 years — a sign it’s eyeing an expansion to its electoral map beyond the six battleground states where it is already spending ad money and building organizing infrastructure.
Without mentioning Trump or Gov. Greg Abbott by name, Biden, in the Texas-specific spot, positions himself as a leader who “won’t abandon” voters. In a move that seems to troll Trump, Biden urges Texans to do simple things like wash their hands, socially distance and wear masks.
The Biden campaign wouldn’t disclose the size of the ad buy, saying it was part of a multi-state expenditure that was in the mid-six figures. In a state as massive as Texas, Republicans called the buy a ploy for free media and even Democrats say an ad buy of that size won’t even make a dent.
Still, Democrats pointed to the symbolic value of the move — a signal that Biden was actually within striking distance of Trump in the massive state that serves as the cornerstone of the Republican electoral coalition.
The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Biden and Trump in a dead heat in Texas.
“It’s sending a message,” said Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa. “The message is that the Biden campaign recognizes that Texas is a state that is different now, that they see it as a battleground and intend to make a play for Texas.”
Biden’s campaign previously told POLITICO it viewed Texas and Georgia as “expansion targets” beyond the core battleground states. In an interview Tuesday, Biden’s deputy states director, Molly Ritner, said that while in previous cycles Texas seemed out of reach for Democrats, the campaign for months has seen the state as within its purview of places to compete.
“To me, this is not only an opportunity for the Biden campaign, it’s a chance to go on the offensive,” Rep. Colin Allred said in an interview. The Dallas-area congressman said he’s been pushing the Biden campaign to play in Texas, noting that Democrats desperately need to take control of its state House if they want to have a seat at the table in drawing congressional maps that will be in effect for the next decade.
“They hear me and they’re receptive to it,” Allred said. “They’re trying to figure out what they’re able to do.”
Texas Republicans — and even some Democrats — view Biden’s ad as an attention-getting ruse, rather than a serious effort to compete against Trump in the Lone Star State.
“It’s a $500,000 head fake to see if the bear responds,” said Dave Carney, a top adviser to Abbott. “It’s a fundraising tool in my view.”
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh made a similar argument.
“This isn’t a serious buy and is only designed to trick CNN into writing a story and running the ad for free. These are ads that no one in these states will actually see,” Murtaugh said. “But we do encourage Biden to spend money in states like Texas, which President Trump will most assuredly win, because it’s money he won’t have to defend states like Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Nevada.”
Democrats, though, make a similar case; If Trump is forced to defend himself at all in Texas, that’s less money spent on key battleground states like Wisconsin and Michigan.
The mere fact that the media is entertaining the notion that Biden could be competitive in traditionally red states like Texas and Georgia is a troubling sign for Trump, Democrats say.
“If the Biden campaign’s play was not to move polling numbers but to generate earned media, I got bad news for the incumbent — it worked,” says Texas-based Democratic strategist Chris Lippincott. “The reason it’s worked is because Trump’s in trouble in places where he shouldn’t be in trouble. People think he’s doing a bad job.”
Yet the prospect of Biden pouring resources into Texas makes some Democrats skittish, evoking memories of Hillary Clinton’s attempts to snag states like Arizona in 2016 while skipping — and ultimately losing — Wisconsin to Trump.
“That was the problem with the Clinton campaign, their eyes got big,” says Democratic strategist Pete Giangreco. “I don’t want to hear about expansion plans or this other bullshit. Eyes like a laser beam. What they need to focus on is 270 [electoral votes]. It’s not Joe Biden’s job to win the U.S. Senate and state legislatures.”
The campaign pushed back against the notion that an expanded map would mean it is diverting its focus from core battleground states. They’re pushing for as many paths to 270 electoral votes as possible, Ritner said.
“We see an opening in Texas based on Trump’s mismanagement of this pandemic and voters in Texas unfortunately having to live the day to day of what that means for their lives,” Ritner said. “That is the one singular goal — 270 in November.”
Republicans remained unconvinced of Democrats’ chances in Texas, however, even in the face of competitive polls and a coronavirus crisis that has had Abbott backtracking on his policies.
“Biden is obligated by his party and the leftist movement to spend money here because they are dying to tell the Texas story in their narrative that they can turn this place blue if they just dump enough money here,” said Jessica Colon, a Houston-based Republican strategist. “What people forget, or if you’ve never been to Texas, is that there is a whole lot of Texas. And dropping into an urban area or two does not a Texas make.”
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Jeff Roe, who advised Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential and reelection campaigns, said, “Biden is shadow boxing himself. They can do all the head fakes they want, this race is coming down to three states and everyone knows it.”
Right now, Roe said, he believes the three real tossup states the election will hinge on are Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin. He sees Georgia, Arizona and Iowa as leaning toward Trump and Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota as lean Biden. Recent public polls show Biden leading in all those states.
One reason for Biden’s relatively solid standing in Texas is his ability to avoid staking out public positions that would inflame conservatives, said Carney, the adviser to Abbott.
For instance, when Texas Sen. John Cornyn released a recent reelection ad that attacked one of his opponents, state Sen. Royce West, for being too liberal, the Republican compared West to progressive Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and two of Biden’s primary opponents, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Biden wasn’t in the ad.
“Biden isn’t anywhere near Pelosi-Warren-Beto-AOC-crazy,” Carney said. “Biden is moving left. But people don’t know that. He’s not out there saying all this stuff. He’s staying in the basement and sending out policy statements that signal to the hard left, letting them know, ‘I’m with you.’ But he’s not riling up folks.”
Carney credited Biden for making a “well done” ad.
“It’s calm. And that’s where his base is,” he said.
But in the end, Carney said, that doesn’t win in a conservative state like Texas. “There’s not much middle in Texas.”