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Wanted: Texas Republicans need new voters in 2020, and fast

February 13, 2020 GMT
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In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 photo, canvassers with Engage Texas, a political super PAC, seek to sign up voters while set up outside a driver's license office in San Antonio, Texas. With their base not expanding and their margins of victory getting thinner, Texas Republicans have begun spending big on finding more conservatives to vote. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 photo, canvassers with Engage Texas, a political super PAC, seek to sign up voters while set up outside a driver's license office in San Antonio, Texas. With their base not expanding and their margins of victory getting thinner, Texas Republicans have begun spending big on finding more conservatives to vote. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

PFLUGERVILLE, Texas (AP) — It’s normal to target new voters ahead of Super Tuesday. Think volunteers holding clipboards at street festivals, malls or outside grocery stores. Democrats in Texas have made it a perennial focus, hoping they can end decades of losses by rousing more voters to the polls.

Republicans here, meanwhile, never really needed to bother — but now that’s changing as worries deepen about their grip on the state in 2020.

With their base not expanding and their margins of victory getting thinner, Texas Republicans have begun spending big on finding more conservatives to vote. And they’ve taken a different approach to it ahead of the Texas primaries on March 3.

Hired canvassers to stand outside driver’s license offices, pushing a petition on gun rights by asking, “Do you have a moment to support the Second Amendment?” People who stop are nudged to identify themselves as liberal or conservative. Finally, things cut to the chase: they’re offered the chance to sign up to vote.

But if a reporter arrives, they scram — abruptly sweeping voter registration forms into boxes, taking down signs, and heading for their cars.

“We’re instructed to break down whenever press is here,” says a man with Engage Texas, the political super PAC coordinating the effort, declining to explain why or provide his name.

The effort is another sign of the intense partisan struggle underway in a state that’s been the GOP’s largest and most important asset but also is key to Democrats’ hopes for future electoral dominance.

Despite the canvassers’ nothing-to-see-here retreat, many conservatives acknowledge that the ground seems to be shifting after a generation of lopsided victories on Election Day. Party activists are looking beyond just motivating registered voters who sometimes don’t get to the polls. They’re spending big, putting up more than $12 million so far, searching for those who aren’t on the rolls at all.

The GOP’s electoral base, mostly aging and white, has delivered around 4.5 million votes in every presidential year since 2004, but that number has scarcely budged even as Texas’ population has boomed. In 2018, Democrats surpassed 4 million votes for the first time, and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz survived reelection by a mere 215,000 votes.

The sprawling metropolitan suburbs that have started turning purple have put Democrats in reach of flipping a handful of congressional districts and given them an outside chance at winning a majority in the Texas House. The GOP holds a 23-13 edge in the congressional delegation and are fighting to retain half a dozen districts it narrowly hung onto last cycle.

Sending out clipboard holders — equipped with a line of questions that screens for likely Republicans — shows a willingness to take up even the unglamorous grind of signing up new voters.

“We’re buying an insurance policy,” said Steve Munisteri, a former White House adviser under President Donald Trump who now leads a separate campaign to turn up new Republican voters in Texas. “I feel like we can go anywhere from losing by a smidgen to winning by a comfortable margin.”

Democrats, who accuse Republicans of waging a decade-long campaign of voter suppression ranging from ID laws to shutting down polling locations, say the irony isn’t lost on them.

“If I’m a Republican and my path ahead in Texas is in registering a lot of voters, I’ve run out of other options,” said Cliff Walker, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.

Walker would not say how much Democrats are spending, but the party says it will have 1,000 people on the ground this cycle to sign up new voters.

Texas enters Super Tuesday having surpassed 16 million voters for the first time, and voter registration in recent years has outpaced population growth. A core belief among many Democrats is that higher turnout generally favors their side — but already in 2020, lower-than-expected attendance in the Iowa caucuses and a defeat in a Texas legislative special election are raising warning flags about enthusiasm.

Trump may have a cushion here in the presidential race after winning Texas by nine points in 2016, but there is still no other outfit in the country that compares to Engage Texas. It has raised nearly $12 million exclusively from major GOP donors and groups. Among them are Dallas-based Energy Transfer, whose CEO is billionaire Kelcy Warren, and Dallas oil tycoon Ray Hunt. Although it is not the first political action committee singularly dedicated to registering new voters, there appear to be few parallels on this scale.

Leaders of Engage Texas said unfair press coverage toward Republicans is why their employees packed up and left at two driver’s license offices after being approached by an Associated Press reporter.

“Republican-build efforts don’t always get a fair shake. They’re going to be a bit skeptical,” said Chris Young, the executive director of Engage Texas.

Young, who was the field director for the Republican National Committee in 2016, would not provide data on how many voters his group has registered or his targets. But he said “hundreds” of paid staff were working largely around Texas’ big cities and booming suburbs.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber