In the Texas suburbs, voters feel apathy and desire for a uniter

Here in a well-trimmed neighborhood of Tarrant County, the mass shootings of the past few months feel unnervingly close for Amanda Crump. First, it was the gunman who killed 22 people at an El Paso Walmart. Then it was the seemingly haphazard rampage of the shooter from Odessa who killed seven people in West Texas and injured at least 22 others.

The 32-year-old knows that the Democrats running for president have offered policy prescriptions to assuage the fears of suburban moms like herself, from universal background checks to an assault weapons ban. But to her, the shootings are the product of something much deeper and darker with no easy fix: a culture of hate in America that she says is being fostered at the top.

When the 2020 Democratic candidates debate in Houston Thursday night, she won’t even bother to turn on the television. To her, it will be just another round of Democrats fighting while playing “the blame game” with President Donald Trump.

“Ever since Trump got elected, I don’t watch the news anymore, because it’s all just bull,” she said with a note of resignation as she picked up her children at an elementary school on a sunny afternoon this week.

“People will say it’s Trump’s fault, but it’s not,” said the independent, noting the slashing tweets and social media posts targeting Trump from celebrities and Democratic politicians alike. She yearns for a candidate — from either party — who would “bring people together and not push them away from one another.”

Next year’s presidential election will be fought in the rapidly-growing suburbs of places like Tarrant County, the kind of place where red precincts that voted for Trump lie alongside blue ones that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Trump won here with nearly 52% of the vote in 2016, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, narrowly beat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz two years later.

The key demographic here will once again be women, who have been notably drifting away from Trump and the Republican Party.

As a stay-at-home mom to three children of mixed race, Crump said the political debate feels like a toxic churn of clashes pitting Americans against one another.

“Why does one race discriminate against another race? I mean, it was a white guy who went into Walmart and shot all those Mexicans,” Crump said, referring to the El Paso shooter’s admission to authorities that he was targeting Mexicans. “It’s just not right.”

She pointed to the children around her on the sidewalk.

“Look at these kids,” she said. “They coexist, different cultures, different ethnicities, and they’re not fighting. They’re not arguing … We need to just coexist and be better.”

The pickup opportunity for Democrats nationally is clear in polling as Trump’s approval ratings among women continue to slide. In CNN’s most recent national poll, only 33% of women approved of how Trump is doing his job. When looking ahead to his reelection prospects for 2020, about 29% of white college-educated women said Trump deserved another term, compared with 47% of non-college-educated women. In 2016, Clinton beat Trump among women nationally 54% to 41%, according to exit polls.

Democrats have a chance to capitalize on that drift, but interviews here in Tarrant County suggest that their messages — which may resonate with the supercharged activist based determined to turn Trump out of office — are not yet piercing through and the candidates themselves often are not connecting with average voters.

Who can break through?

While there is pronounced fatigue with Trump’s tone and his tweets among female voters, the 2020 Democrats clearly have a long way to go in persuading average voters that they’ll be effective in breaking Washington’s deadlock on what to do about an issue as complex as gun violence.

Even with an issue that has been so top of mind in recent weeks, voters here said it was hard to see much difference among the Democratic candidates, and difficult to determine whether any one of them would be a better champion — even for widely-backed ideas like universal background checks.

With all of the conflict around the Trump administration, many voters readily admit that it’s easier to tune out the presidential race than tune in. Perhaps because of that, the pack of Democratic candidates remains something of an amalgam, with many voters saying there are still too many to keep track of.

Surya Barrow, a 46-year-old Democrat from Tarrant County, said she sat down and read a story in The New York Times focused on each candidate’s position on gun control. Though that issue is among her top concerns, no one candidate stood out.

“I was kind of like, well, I’m going to wait and see who comes out of the primaries,” she said.

In part, that’s because she described the El Paso shooting as a “complete failure of the system” that goes far beyond the solutions being proposed. She noted, for example, that the mother of the 21-year-old shooting suspect called police to express her alarm about her son owning an “AK”-style firearm.

“We have a major problem — there is this whole thing about terror, and anger, and darkness that is coming out of America’s youth,” Barrow said. “Then there’s this whole other story about mental illness that’s not being told. I’m interested in the whole narrative. But of course, I’m a mama. My kids go to public schools.”

As far as the presidential race, Barrow said she will wait to support for the person “who actually has the best chance of winning.”

“Maybe that’s not entirely in alignment with every single value I hold, but I’m not interested in making a statement with some far-runner when I see so many people hurting.” At the most basic level, she said, she wants to see compassion coming from the White House and “a basic concern for humanity.”

Susan Wood, a 52-year-old former special education teacher from Granbury, Texas, gives O’Rourke high marks for showing that kind of compassion and humanity since the shootings. O’Rourke paused his campaign for nearly two weeks after the massacre in his hometown of El Paso.

Wood still has O’Rourke’s Senate campaign bumper sticker on her car, along with a sticker bearing a quote from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”

But in the 2020 presidential race, Wood says she’s leaning toward Warren or California Sen. Kamala Harris. (O’Rourke, she said, needs to “cook a little longer” before aiming for the White House.)

She’s not yet convinced that either Harris or Warren will be able to galvanize the broader electorate in a way that gives her confidence about their ability to beat Trump, though.

The choice “is about who can get people excited about — them,” Wood said. “For me, that’s the way I felt about Beto. I was excited about him. I wanted to listen to him. And I thought he was smart, and brilliant, and honest and genuine.”

“They need to be able to excite everybody,” Wood said. “If they could excite millennials the way Bernie (Sanders) excited millenials. If they could excite the minority vote the way Beto excited the minority vote. And if they could excite women the way Clinton excited women…. I haven’t seen anybody who can do all that yet.”

Ruth Cress, a 77-year-old medical coordinator from Fort Worth, said that as horrifying as the recent shootings were, she, too, is waiting to hear bigger ideas.

“I just haven’t heard a fix for it yet,” she said. “I’m not an NRA advocate, but there are people behind the guns. I don’t know what the fix is for that.”

Cress cannot stand Trump, but no one Democrat has caught her attention.

“I get tired of hearing all that bickering,” she said. “They’re all just like little kids arguing back and forth. That’s what it sounds like to me. When it narrows down to where there’s a handful, then I’ll start paying attention.”

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