Longtime Republican bastion breached by huge Democratic turnout during primary
By THEODORE KIM - The Dallas Morning News - Saturday, March 8, 2008
PLANO – Dallas' northern suburbs have long been Republican fortresses. But Tuesday, for the first time in nearly a quarter-century, Democrats showed muscle.
Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton received more than 72,000 votes in Collin County's presidential primary – the most outside of Texas' major urban centers and 20,000 more than the Republican candidates combined despite record GOP turnout.
The numbers were as dramatic in neighboring Denton County, where the overwhelming edge went to Democrats even though both parties set turnout records.
The enthusiasm was hardly limited to those two counties. Overall, about 2.9 million Texans cast votes in this year's Democratic primary, up from about 840,000 in 2004.
Still, the results are startling in this part of the state, which before the GOP dominance was once the base of operations for powerful Democratic U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn.
Democrats say the results offer hope for a party that has been all but irrelevant here. They say the political complexion of Dallas' suburbs is changing, a trend evidenced by the numbers.
National experts say the statistics point to a broader Democratic energy and GOP malaise evidenced in vote totals, fundraising and attendance at political rallies.
Republican observers disagree. They say the up-for-grabs Democratic primary helped fuel artificially high vote totals, drawing independent and Republican voters who saw their own primary clinched by John McCain.
"Tuesday's race had nothing to do with the general elections as far as our turnout and Democrat turnout," said Kathy Ward, chairwoman of the Collin County Republican Party. "People were just energized that Texas was even on the [primary] map."
No Democrats hold partisan elected offices in Collin and Denton counties, and party leaders often struggle to find viable candidates.
Meanwhile, Republican Mike Huckabee, who ran as the standard-bearer for diehard evangelical conservatives, did well in Collin County and almost beat Mr. McCain in Denton County – a sign of evangelical conservative strength here.
But Democratic leaders say they saw a surge Tuesday.
In Collin County, voters seeking to cast Democratic ballots formed long lines at many precincts, creating a shortage of voting machines in places, said Dan Dodd, the county's Democratic chairman.
In fact, more Collin residents voted in Tuesday's Democratic primary than the 69,000 who voted for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 general election. The total is staggering given that primaries typically draw far fewer voters than general elections. About 6,500 people voted in the party's primary four years ago.
"People were at the polls [Tuesday] looking around and saying, 'I'm not the only Democrat here,' " Mr. Dodd said.
Denton County also showed signs of Democratic momentum. Precincts across the county, even those in staunch Republican areas, witnessed high Democratic turnout, said Neil Durrance, the county's Democratic Party chairman. Nearly 55,000 people voted Democratic versus almost 39,000 in the GOP races.
Some national analysts say the high turnout is a reflection of a general shift.
"The numbers of people identifying themselves as Republican are down," said Charlie Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report. "The public preference for the GOP holding the White House has dropped, and GOP enthusiasm is down. Primary turnout is a reflection of all of these things."
The battleground for that shift is in affluent, brisk-growing suburbs like Collin and Denton counties, experts say.
Since 1990, the combined population of the two counties has more than doubled to 1.3 million. While the counties have skewed Republican for years, growth has brought diversity and more diverse politics.
"The conventional wisdom has been: 'If you move to Collin County and you drink the water, then you become a Republican," said Michael McConachie, a political science professor at Collin College in Plano. "I don't think that's necessarily true anymore."
The numbers seen here mirrored the Democratic turnout in suburbs across Texas, such as Williamson County near Austin, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties near Houston and Comal County near San Antonio, said Democratic strategist Matt Angle.
Similar shifts have occurred recently in GOP-leaning suburban communities elsewhere, such as in parts of North Carolina and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., Mr. Angle said.
"These are people who are raising families, making mortgage payments and paying utility bills," he said. "They quickly relate challenges of their own life to the political leadership. We're finding out these are households that are willing to look at the two parties."
GOP leaders dismiss the notion that the political terrain is changing. On the whole, they say Dallas' northern suburbs remain overwhelmingly Republican and will stay that way for years to come.
President Bush, for instance, captured nearly 175,000 votes in the 2004 general election in Collin County – more than double the total that Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton received in the primary combined.
Longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, who is running for re-election in the 3rd Congressional District, said he expected Collin County to vote heavily Republican in the general election.
He believed many Republicans had voted in the Democratic primary and would switch back in November. He pointed out that a large number of people who voted for Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton in Collin County did not continue down the ballot to vote in the local races – evidence that voters crossed party lines.
"I think you'll see the same result in the general [election] that you saw last time," Mr. Johnson said. "People will support John McCain."
Democratic organizers disagree, saying the high turnout is a sign of successes to come.
Mr. Durrance noted the Republican Party in Denton and Collin counties and many other places saw record primary turnouts just as the Democratic Party did. If many Republicans voted in the opposite primary, GOP turnout probably would have dipped, he said.
"This is a definite rising Democratic tide," he said. "What we're seeing is a shift in the public electorate."
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the general election in November would make clear whether the Democratic turnout is a blip in history or evidence of a trend.
"Will it last until November and beyond?" he asked. "As we all know, human enthusiasm can wane rather quickly."
Compared with recent primaries, Collin and Denton county voter turnout in Tuesday's election skyrocketed, particularly among Democrats:
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