For Hillary Clinton, Texas offers a potential refuge in a suddenly precarious primary season — a place where longtime relationships, years of campaign visits and a familiarity with state politics has delivered a bounty of loyal support from Democratic leaders.
Bernie Sanders, her opponent in the Democratic presidential primary, comes to Texas with an opportunity to show doubters that his populist message can generate enough enthusiasm in a racially and ethnically diverse state to chip away at Clinton’s support.
For both candidates, it will be a sprint to the March 1 primary, which comes only three days after a closely watched contest in South Carolina.
And although Texas has 222 Democratic delegates up for grabs — the biggest Super Tuesday prize — 11 other same-day Democratic primaries and caucuses are already competing for the candidates’ time, money and resources.
With early voting underway in Texas, Clinton was the first out of the gate with a Saturday night rally in Houston, to be followed by Monday events featuring former President Bill Clinton in Laredo and Dallas.
Sanders hasn’t yet committed to a campaign stop in Texas, where his last appearances was in mid-July, when rallies in Dallas and Houston cemented his status as a candidate on the rise by drawing a combined crowd of about 13,000, according to campaign estimates.
This year’s slow pace is a far cry from the attention lavished on Texas before the 2008 contest between Clinton and Barack Obama when the state’s primary was amid two weeks without the distraction of another primary.
Hillary and Bill Clinton and their daughter Chelsea campaigned heavily in Texas, propelling her to a 51-47 victory — although Obama received more delegates by excelling at the nighttime precinct caucuses that the Democratic Party later abandoned.
Clinton enters the Texas contest already ahead in the state delegate count thanks to support from 18 of the state’s 30 “superdelegates,” party officials and members of Congress who are free to choose whom they support.
The former secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady also is expected to win the primary itself, taking more of the 222 delegates who will be divided according to vote totals, said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor.
Jones said polls show Clinton with support from 55 to 60 percent of Democratic voters, with dominant support among African-Americans.
The pressure will be on Clinton to maintain or increase her lead, he said — and how she performs in next Saturday’s South Carolina primary can make a difference for Texans who skip early voting, which ends Friday.
“Clinton needs a clear-cut victory for symbolic purposes and for garnering delegates. She needs to rack up large margins in Texas to guarantee a majority in the Democratic National Convention,” Jones said.
“Sanders doesn’t need to win in Texas,” said Jones, who expected the Vermont U.S. senator’s campaign to focus more on the March 1 contests in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Virginia. “His goal is to hold Clinton to the narrowest margin possible.”
Clinton taps leaders
Clinton’s ties to Texas began in 1972 when she and then-boyfriend Bill Clinton registered voters on behalf of George McGovern’s presidential campaign.
She also campaigned in Texas on behalf of her husband’s presidential campaigns, as well as her own, building a network of supporters that longtime friend Garry Mauro, now head of Texans for Hillary, describes this way: “We’ve never had a candidate not born in Texas that has as many ties to Texas.”
“She has a lot friends here. She knows a lot about the state. It’ll be important for her personally to do well here,” he said.
More than 130 current and former Democratic officials have endorsed Clinton, including eight members of Congress and 43 members of the Legislature, and many are working with voters to build on that support.
“She has their long-standing loyalty because they know her really well,” Mauro said. “Now, Democrats are traditionally very independent. It’s surely not going to win the election for her, but it reinforces the idea that she knows a lot of the people here.”
With Clinton’s time stretched by contests in other states, supporters are filling in the gaps with smaller get-out-the-vote events, such as last Tuesday’s rally by Austin Tejano Democrats at Fiesta Mart and Friday’s early-voting opportunity with state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and City Council Members Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool at Austin City Hall.
“She has expertise in international affairs that isn’t shared by other candidates of either party,” Howard said. “Her experience worldwide, the relationships she’s built, has already put her in position to have more credibility with international leaders.”
Grass-roots for Sanders
“There are not a lot of ‘magic bullets’ to our program,” said Jacob Limon, Sanders’ Texas campaign director. “It’s tons of phone banking, tons of canvassers and volunteers.”
About 40 volunteer rallies, including an Austin event that drew more than 400 in January, have helped build a network of campaign workers who focus on making personal contact with voters, Limon said.
Responding to Sanders’ messages about affordable education, good-paying jobs and access to health care, college students have been a major source of support, Limon said, fueling a campaign focused on the state’s 31 Senate districts, where 145 delegates will be divided based on voting percentages.
“This program is exactly the way we planned it three months ago when we started hitting the ground,” he said. “We’re excited by the response we’ve gotten.”
Farrukh Shamsi, former Texas Democratic Party vice chairman, is an unpaid volunteer in Houston for Sanders’ get-out-the-vote efforts.
“When the campaign started, many people thought he was a fringe candidate — even maybe up to December. I think, after Iowa and New Hampshire, that has changed. Now people can actually visualize a President Bernie Sanders in the White House,” Shamsi said.
“If you look at how he has galvanized the youth especially, it’s just amazing how they are gravitating towards him and his message. I just love seeing that,” said Shamsi, 52.
Democratic delegates at stake in Texas
Total delegates: 252
145* — Divided based on vote in 31 state Senate districts
77 — Divided based on statewide vote total
30 — Superdelegates (party officials who are free to choose who to support)
*Delegates assigned to Senate districts are based on numbers of Democratic voters. The district that includes most of Austin, for example, has the most delegates to divide, 10, while the district centered on Amarillo has 2.
Upcoming Democratic primaries, caucuses
Saturday: South Carolina (59 delegates)
March 1: Texas (252 delegates), Alabama (60 delegates), American Samoa (10 delegates), Arkansas (37 delegates), Colorado (79 delegates), Georgia (116 delegates), Massachusetts (116 delegates), Minnesota (93 delegates), Oklahoma (42 delegates), Tennessee (76 delegates), Vermont (26 delegates), Virginia (110)