Tom Kesler knows a thing or two about Tarrant County politics.
He has lived here for more than 50 years. The Arlington resident recalls voting in almost every single election. The 78-year-old knows one thing for sure about how elections go here: You win the suburbs, you win the county.
“It’s a numbers game,” Kesler said, leaning against his Ford Ranger in the parking lot of the Bob Duncan Center in Arlington where he early voted.
Democrats scored symbolic victories in Tarrant County with President Joe Biden in 2020 and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke in 2018. However, Republicans still run nearly the entirety of the county government, and, with it, they have policy-making power. Tarrant County elections have come down to the power of suburban voters — and the Nov. 8 election likely could again.
Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political science professor at the University of North Texas, views most suburban voters as swing voters.
“Depending on the issue and the election and national conditions, they tend to make the difference in the outcome,” Eshbaugh-Soha said.
The political atmosphere in 2022 is different from 2018 and 2020, years when Democrats gained ground in Tarrant County.
In the two most recent elections, Democrats benefited from having a president who was not from their party, the political scientist said. Tarrant County suburban voters swung for Democrats, at least for the U.S. Senate seat in 2018 and president, Eshbaugh-Soha said.
Now the situation is reversed.
Neither political party should expect suburban voters to stick with them, Eshbaugh-Soha said. While O’Rourke is on the ballot again, this time seeking the governorship, Eshbaugh-Soha said he would not be surprised if Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott wins the suburbs and the overall county.
An Abbott victory also likely paves the way for the continued electoral success of down ballot Republicans in key races, such as county judge and district attorney, the political scientist said.
‘Numbers just really don’t lie’
The suburbs control the outcome of Tarrant County elections because that is where most residents live.
Tarrant County has 1,261,007 registered voters — 60% of them live in the suburbs. Fort Worth has 506,839 registered voters.
“Based on those numbers alone, those are the voters we want to follow,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “The numbers just really don’t lie.”
He added a caveat: Candidates have to be careful to not discount neither the suburbs nor Fort Worth as they seek countywide office.
Early voting turnout is showing the strength of the suburbs.
Tarrant County is divided into four precincts, each with a county commissioner. So far, Precinct 3 in northeast Tarrant County has seen the highest turnout of voters. As of Nov. 1, 82,488 Precinct 3 residents cast their ballots early.
Precinct 3 has led in early voting since 2012, according to Tarrant County Elections Department records. Additionally, Precinct 3 has the highest number of registered voters in Tarrant County.
The Arlington-centric Precinct 2 has the second-highest number of registered voters. Both areas are suburban.
Precinct 2 has the second-highest number of early voters. So far, 55,805 Precinct 2 residents have voted. That is 26,683 fewer voters than in Precinct 3.
Fort Worth, the most populous city, is mostly in Precincts 1 and 4.
Precinct 1, which also includes Benbrook, Crowley, Everyman and Forest Hill, has seen 45,242 residents cast a ballot early.
In Precinct 4, 48,385 people have voted early. Precinct 4 covers the northwest corner of the county and includes White Settlement, Saginaw and Lake Worth.
Precincts 1 and 4 combined have seen 93,627 early voters — 11,139 more than what has been recorded in Precinct 3 alone.
Still, Precincts 2 and 3 have seen a combined 138,293 residents cast a ballot.
‘It’s salient to people’
Mansfield resident Cynthia Daniels made the 30-minute drive to Bedford the Sunday before early voting began. She pulled into the parking lot and walked into Turning Point Beer. She ordered a pint of ice cold beer and sat down with her friends.
They gathered to hear several Democrats talk about education, a top issue for Daniels this election. A decade ago, she moved to Mansfield because of its schools.
“The more you’re educated, the better your choices are in life,” she said. “I believe in learning all aspects of life, not just what one group believes over the other.”
Education has proven to be a wedge issue this election season. The Tarrant County judge candidates, Republican Tim O’Hare and Democrat Deborah Peoples, have used the issue to drive their supporters to the polls.
Eshbaugh-Soha gave a simple reason for why candidates are using education as an issue this cycle.
“It’s salient to people,” the UNT political science professor said. “People want their kids to do well in school and they want their kids to be educated.”
Toss in perceived uncertainty, and voters, especially those in the suburbs, are ready to show up at the polls, Eshbaugh-Soha said.
For example, Eshbaugh-Soha pointed to some conservatives using critical race theory and issues related to transgender people as a way to ignite their base. The other side of the aisle also has attached to those issues, but have taken the opposite stance as a way, in their view, to side with students.
Some people may see those topics as overblown, but they still appeal to some voters, he said.
“If people are concerned about that, it’s important for candidates to be able to speak to those issues in a way that appeals to those voters so that they feel comfortable, and then you get those votes from those citizens,” Eshbaugh-Soha said.
Education is likely one of the top issues among suburban voters. The other is the economy.
“The economy is always a no-brainer,” Eshbaugh-Soha said.
The top issue for Kesler, the Arlington voter, is the economy. He wants to ensure younger people have a country in which they can prosper and make a life just like he has.
Doing their homework
Daniels and Kesler said they do not stick to one particular party when voting. Sometimes they vote for Republicans. Other times they vote for Democrats.
“I’ve never voted a straight ticket,” Kesler said. “I try to look at the different candidates before I vote, and that’s the way it should be.”
In recent years, Daniels said, she has been leaning more toward Democrats. Regardless, she does her homework before heading to the voting booth. Her process is like Kesler’s.
“I try to really look at what each individual is for and against, who’s lining their pockets and what their beliefs are,” Daniels said. “I’m trying to do just a little more digging and do a little more research.”
Before early voting started, Daniels was still researching her choices and learning more about the offices on the ballot. One office in particular she wanted to research more is county judge. At the Bedford brewery, she heard from Peoples, the Democrat hoping to succeed Republican Glen Whitley as Tarrant County judge.
Kesler knew going into the voting booth about the office and the candidates. Even armed with that knowledge, he could not make heads or tails of the county judge race.
“I kind of flipped a coin on that. That doesn’t concern me a whole lot,” Kesler said.
Kesler and Daniels are just two of the eventual hundreds of thousands of voters who will show up at Tarrant County polls.
After all, elections are just a numbers game.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.