By Ernest Scheyder and Joseph Ax
HOUSTON (Reuters) - While 10 Democratic presidential contenders debate in Houston on Thursday, the party is eyeing gains farther down the ballot in Texas next year in races for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislature, party strategists and political experts say.
Texas has not elected a statewide Democrat in three decades, and Republican President Donald Trump remains the odds-on favorite to win the state in the November 2020 election.
It is not clear the national Democratic Party is willing to devote the financial resources an all-in statewide effort would require, given Texas' sheer size and the presence of more promising targets like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Instead, Democrats see an opening in the Texas state House of Representatives, where they flipped 12 seats in the 2018 elections, mostly in suburban areas where voters have soured on Trump's divisive rhetoric. The party needs to capture nine more seats next year to take control for the first time since 2002. The state Senate is expected to remain in Republican hands.
Taking over the state House would allow Democrats to block Republicans from drawing a decade's worth of friendly state and federal district maps after the 2020 U.S. Census.
"Texas is shaping up to be one of our top targets in 2020," said Jessica Post, chairwoman of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
The group has committed $100,000 in early money, out of more than $2.5 million for battleground states, to help the state party build a digital fundraising operation and recruit candidates, Post said. It plans to spend more than $50 million nationwide in 2020, five times the 2010 budget.
"Donald Trump puts Texas into play for Democrats. He's a liability for Republican candidates," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Houston's Rice University. While he and other analysts do not expect Trump to lose the state next year, which he won by 9 points in 2016, they forecast a wave of Republican losses in smaller state races.
In what Democrats have gleefully termed the "Texodus," five Texas Republican U.S. House incumbents have announced their retirement, including Representative Will Hurd, the only Republican to represent a district on the U.S. border with Mexico.
The Democratic speaker of the U.S. House, Nancy Pelosi, has said Texas is "ground zero" for her party in 2020, and the party's congressional campaign arm opened a field office in Austin, the state capital.
The independent electoral analysts at the Cook Political Report already rate one vacant seat as likely to flip to Democrats, with two other suburban Republican-held districts considered toss-ups.
Erica DiBella, a Houston-area librarian, is the kind of voter Democrats are hoping to sway. A married mother of two, she has been a registered Republican since her teenage years.
But she is opposed to Trump’s education and immigration policies and said she ranked candidates by their affiliation with the president.
"For most candidates that say they align with Trump, that's going to be a red flag for me," said DiBella, 43.
Discontent with Trump in Texas' suburban areas, once a Republican stronghold, coupled with the state's fast-growing Hispanic population and an influx of college-educated liberals from other states, is paving the way for Democratic gains, a dozen party officials, political strategists and academics said in interviews.
"Because Texas Republicans are currently too lackadaisical ... it is the down-ballot Republican officeholders who will likely suffer most in 2020," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist and a Texas native.
In an ironic twist for Republicans, analysts say Texas is attracting liberal state voters because of its low cost of living - it has no state income tax, a feature long prized by conservatives.
The Texas secretary of state estimates 525,000 people have moved to the state annually over the past eight years. The Democratic-leaning Dallas and Houston metropolitan areas have each added more than a million residents since the 2010 U.S. Census, according to government estimates, more than any other cities in the country.
Some long-term demographic trends also appear to favor Democrats.
The rapidly growing Latino population will represent the majority of the state's residents by 2022, state officials estimate. Only 20 percent of the state's Hispanics identify as Republican, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.
Republicans are mobilizing to push back against Democratic inroads.
The Republican State Leadership Committee said earlier this month it would launch multimillion-dollar investments in Texas and other states to retain control of state legislatures.
"If our friends at the DLCC believe that $50 million will buy them legislative majorities in states they've been unable to win for the last decade, we're confident we'll outraise them, outwork them and beat them," said RSLC spokesman Dave Abrams.
Republicans say Trump, far from acting as a drag on his party's fortunes, will energize base voters to come out in force.
Republican donors have formed Engage Texas, a super PAC focused on registering new Republican voters. The group has raised more than $9.6 million, according to federal elections records.
On Monday, the state Democratic Party said it would seek to register 2.6 million new voters in 2020.
Democrats can win by focusing on "kitchen table" issues, including jobs and the economy, as well as criminal justice reform and climate change, said Lina Hidalgo, who holds the top administrative post in Harris County, the state's largest county.
Hidalgo plans to meet with Democratic presidential campaign staff members the day after the debate to share strategies from her 2018 race, when she ousted a popular Republican.
"If you show folks what government can do, they'll come out to vote," Hidalgo said. "And it just so happens that the party addressing people's needs is the Democratic Party."
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder and Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Tim Reid in Los Angeles; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)