Can Democrats continue their gains in Texas when Trump isn’t on the ballot?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Geneva, Ohio.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Geneva, Ohio. AP

Donald Trump is struggling in red-state Texas.

His lead over Hillary Clinton is shrinking, some news outlets are calling Texas a toss-up and Trump said machines in Texas were flipping votes – even though his party oversees elections in the state.

There’s a slight chance Clinton could win Texas in this year’s presidential election, but it’s not clear whether likely gains by Democrats on Nov. 8 will translate into long-term change when Trump isn’t on the ballot. A Democrat has not won statewide office in Texas since 1994.

“My sense is that Trump advanced things for the Democrats about four to six years,” said Richard Murray, a University of Houston politics professor and pollster. “We’ve seen a surge in overall registration growth and now we’re seeing quite a dramatic jump in early voting. I’ll be watching to see if the state tops 9 million in voting or even reaches 10 million.”

Just under 8 million Texans cast ballots in 2012, when Republican Mitt Romney defeated Democrat Barack Obama by almost 16 percentage points in the state.

“Democrats are a lot better off with higher turnout across the board, but Republicans mop up in vote by mail,” Murray said.

Early voting numbers across Texas are breaking records, as 339,531 Texans cast their ballots on the first day. Through the first six days of early voting, 253,245 people had voted in Tarrant County, compared with 190,934 in 2012.

“My dream is to have Tarrant County go blue, but I would like to see Tarrant County go purple,” said Deborah Peoples, the chairwoman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party.

Murray said overall turnout was the biggest indicator of success for Democrats in Texas, but it will be hard to determine Democratic success in down-ballot races since few statewide offices are up for grabs in 2016 and most of Texas’ congressional districts are uncompetitive.

“Clearly this has been a year where we have seen a bit of Republican reluctance,” said Jim Henson, a University of Texas pollster and politics professor. “There’s nothing else going on the Texas ballot to balance Trump.”

Democrats typically focus on running up margins in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin, but Murray said suburban counties in the Metroplex area were the places to watch on Election Day. Voters there might switch parties because of Trump and are more likely to vote in midterm elections than urban voters.

Denton and Collin counties, two high-growth suburban counties north of Fort Worth, are filled with voters traditionally associated with the Republican Party. But Trump’s candidacy will test the allegiance of suburban voters. Trump is performing badly with suburban women and college-educated whites, two groups that traditionally support Republican candidates.

“If Denton and Collin go 6 or 8 percent less than they were in 2012, that’s a big difference in the margin of Republican victory,” Murray said.

Romney captured 65 percent of the vote in Denton County and 67 percent in Collin County in 2012.

“I’d expect a Republican to win Texas by 8 to 12 points,” Texas Wesleyan politics professor Trevor Morris said. “If the margin is less than 10 percent, that would be reflective of ‘Trump effect.’ ”

Beyond the numbers, experts say Democrats must improve their organizational capabilities and messaging to be competitive in future elections with lower turnout.

“The Democratic Party lacks the galvanizing issues the Republicans have, particularly in terms of immigration and anti-Washington sentiment,” Henson said. “Before you start talking about mobilizing independents and Republicans, you need to mobilize your base.”

Henson said Democrats needed to start working behind the scenes for 2018, when Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott will likely seek re-election. The pool of potential Democrats outside of U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro and his twin brother, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, is considered thin.

“The Democrats don’t have a perfect candidate right now, one who is already well-known . . . and has the right experience,” Henson said. “Ideally you have a shortlist of active candidates the day after the general election . . . and ready to announce by summer” in 2017.

Texas Republican Party communications director Michael Joyce said 2024 was a “realistic goal” for a time in which Democrats could expect to be competitive statewide, due to the 2020 census and changing demographics.

“Democrats are trying to make noise anywhere they can, trying to push that date up faster,” Joyce said.

But Murray said Texas Republicans in 2016 were experiencing problems Democrats running statewide have faced for years – their candidate Trump has failed to unify the party beyond his ultra-conservative base.

“Trump has failed miserably,” Murray said. “If he’s elected president it’s probably the end of the Republican Party as we know it.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty