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Democrats eye more gains after Texas stars on Super Tuesday

AUSTIN, Texas – Democrats' plans to win Texas in 2020 sharpened into focus Wednesday amid the familiar uncertainty of whether the party's presidential nominee will work as hard in the giant red state in November as on Super Tuesday.

Former Vice President Joe Biden's Texas win over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders helped revive his campaign and shaped how rejuvenated Texas Democrats will plot their own comeback this fall. For Republicans, the risk of surrendering the Texas House for the first time in 20 years is real enough, although a loss for President Donald Trump there remains a longshot.

A pivotal U.S. Senate runoff was finalized Wednesday in a race where whoever emerged will also be an underdog against Republican incumbent John Cornyn.

But any path back to power for Texas Democrats depends on historic turnout. And despite expressing elation over a primary that cast more than 2 million Democratic votes — at least a 45 percent increase over 2016 — there are also worries about whether Bernie Sanders or Biden are now all but done focusing on the Lone Star State.

Trump won Texas by 9 points in 2016, and the daunting odds here often leave Democrats drawing up easier paths to the White House.

“I don't have confidence in that," said Zack Malitz, a Democratic strategist who was field director for Beto O'Rourke's narrow Texas Senate loss in 2018 and is backing Sanders. “That’s a real question that Texans should be asking the eventual nominee is whether they’re going to run a real battleground operation."

One question that was finally answered a day after Super Tuesday was who would emerge in the marquee Texas Senate race. Royce West, a longtime state senator, edged into a runoff against Democrat MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran long seen as a front-runner to challenge Cornyn in November.

West beat out liberal activist Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who has been endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal firebrand from New York. Had she prevailed, it would set up an ideological clash at the top of the ticket over what kind of Democrat in Texas could win a Senate seat for the first time since the 1970s. But West has scoffed that running left is a winning gambit in Texas, while Hegar has campaigned on building a coalition with disaffected Republicans.

Whoever wins will likely have their work cut out against Cornyn, who is seen as a heavy favorite and has never faced a serious reelection challenge since joining the Senate in 2002.

Like elsewhere, Democratic voters in Texas were driven by beating Trump, with more than 8 in 10 voters saying they considered it highly important, according to an AP VoteCast survey. But it's in the Texas Capitol where Democrats feel they have their best shot, needing just nine seats to claim a majority in the House chamber for the first time since 2001.

The stakes to win control of statehouses is high across the country, with the ability to redraw voting maps next year on the line in November.

State Rep. Celia Israel, who is leading the efforts by Texas House Democrats to flip the chamber next year, expressed optimism Wednesday that the national party and presidential nominee would spend money this year to boost candidates further down on the ballot.

“The message I'm getting is they're not going to gloss over Texas like they have in the past," she said. “They're not just going to come and drag the bag, fill it with money and take that money to the Midwest."

Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, who also suspects the GOP is facing a rare but real threat in the Texas Capitol, doesn't see it.

“Trump is going to win Texas," he said. “There's going to be a lot more other places where they need to deploy resources."

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