By Patrick Svitek
Is Texas in play? A pair of high-profile presidential campaign rallies Thursday night in this area offered starkly different answers to a question that is getting more and more attention.
But even before President Donald Trump stepped onstage at the American Airlines Center — where he declared Texas is "not in play" — his campaign had given Democrats — and some Republicans — all they needed to know with three days of political activity in the state. The rally itself was already his second one this cycle in Texas, over a year out from Election Day.
"Make no mistake about it," Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins told reporters hours before the rally. "Donald Trump would not be doing one of these campaign rallies, on this scale, in Dallas, in Texas, if he was not scared or he did not know that the biggest battleground in the United States this year is Texas."
Trump carried the state by 9 percentage points in 2016, the smallest margin for a Republican presidential nominee here in two decades. His approval rating typically comes in only several points above water here, and recent polling has shown him trailing a number of potential Democratic nominees in the state.
While his Republican allies in the state exude confidence that he will carry it again next year, his margin can have a serious effect down ballot, where Democrats are targeting U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, working to capture six U.S. House seats and aiming to flip the state House.
"The president is focused on Texas, and this goes for Texas ... and all over the country: The organization here is better than it ever was in 2016," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Trump's Texas campaign chair, said in a radio interview Thursday morning. Patrick predicted Trump will "outperform Texas over last time" due to what he described as an increasingly extreme Democratic Party.
Still, the Trump campaign had a presence in Texas this week that at the very least suggested it was not taking the state for granted. It began Tuesday afternoon in San Antonio, where the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., headlined a public event, and it continued Wednesday in Dallas, where Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale attended a volunteer and organizer training.
To be sure, the three-day stretch included a more traditional activity for White House campaigns in Texas — fundraising — but the other events were notable.
Shortly before the Dallas rally, Trump's campaign explained its approach to Texas in 2020.
“You want to give love to people who helped get you elected in the first place,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh told The Texas Tribune. “I mean, of course we’re going to spend time in Texas just like the president spends time in Florida and North Carolina and will spend time in Georgia and other states that he won and we expect to win again in 2020.
“You campaign where you know you have supporters, it’s natural,” Murtaugh added. "On the other side of the coin, Hillary Clinton thought she had Wisconsin in the bag and did not go there, and she lost. So, we don’t by any means take anything for granted in Texas which is why we’re devoting attention to it, but we fully intend to win it.”
Trump’s visit to the state came at a particularly fraught time for Texas Republicans, who are dealing with the fallout from the Tuesday release of a secret recording of state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. The tape captured Bonnen offering media access to a prominent conservative activist while suggesting he target certain GOP members, but there was also a Trump angle.
The president is “killing us” with urban and suburban voters, Bonnen said at one point.
Murtaugh told the Tribune that he had not heard of the secret recording but disagreed with the sentiment, saying the campaign is “going to do very well in Texas across all demographics and all regions.” At the very least, though, Bonnen’s comment has given fresh fodder to Democrats to emphasize GOP anxieties about 2020 in Texas.
“Even Dennis Bonnen said, ‘Trump is kicking our asses … all over suburban areas,’ and he’s not wrong on that,” state Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, told reporters hours before Trump’s rally in Dallas.
As they waited in line outside the American Airlines Center, Trump's supporters weighed the conflicting signals about Texas' competitiveness next year.
“I’ve heard [Texas could be in play], but I’m not worried about it," said Shelly Gish from Hallsville. "I think Texas is going to stay red. I really do,”
Asked why, Gish waved her arms around as a way to highlight the thousands of Trump backers around her.
“Well, look,” she said. “Yeah, there are some Democrats here — especially in these big cities — but I still believe that we will stay Republican. And I pray we do."
The mood was more boisterous at Trump's rally in Dallas as well as his son's appearance in San Antonio, which also featured a few other surrogates. Aside from briefly mentioning Cornyn’s reelection bid and knocking O’Rourke, the cast did not talk much about Texas but made a more general pitch for reelecting the president.
“In 2016, my father said something very serious,” the president’s son said. “He goes: ‘What do you have to lose?’ And he was right. So America, you gave him a chance and he has delivered on those promises. Now, what do you have to lose? A lot.”
It was a raucous scene as the president’s son tore into Hunter Biden and Elizabeth Warren, receiving chants of “2024!” — “Let’s worry about ’20 first, c’mon!” Trump Jr. replied — and traded flirtatious quips with his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle. The former Fox News host spoke before he did.
“The left is losing it," she said. "I mean, I'm not a doctor, but it seems like there's no known cure — although Junior likes it every once in a while when I play nurse, but keep that between us."
Alex Samuels contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared at the Texas Tribune.