It’s hard to imagine a world in which Texas Republicans reject Donald Trump as their nominee for president in the March GOP primary. Despite mounting criminal charges and his attempt to overturn the last election, which he lost, the former president has a sixty percentage point polling lead over his nearest competitor among likely Republican voters. But in Texas, not everyone who votes in the GOP primary needs to be a “Republican voter.” Take Zach Hinds, for instance: a Democrat in Arlington. He told me excitedly earlier this month that he had hatched a plan: he will cast a ballot for Trump’s chief foe, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, assuming she hasn’t dropped out by the start of early voting, on February 20. 

“Priority number one for me is to not have Trump in office. Even if there was a Democratic presidential primary that was actually competitive, I’d probably still do crossover voting,” Hinds said. By that phrase, the thirty-year-old engineer was referring to the practice in which Texas voters are able to choose which primary they want to vote in—even if that primary doesn’t align with their ideological preferences. Texas is one of sixteen states with an “open primary,” in which voters show up to the polls and get to choose between taking a Democratic or Republican ballot. 

Hinds’ calculation comes down to how best to make his voice heard. Joe Biden faces no serious challenger as the Democratic party’s 2024 presidential nominee—just as no sitting president for the last 140 years has lost his party’s support in a primary. Down the ballot, the Democratic race for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat is becoming increasingly competitive, but the two leading candidates—Congressman Colin Allred, of Dallas, and state senator Roland Gutierrez, of San Antonio—both face long odds against the incumbent. And races farther down the ballot won’t be competitive in the general election this year, either. The congressional district in which Hinds votes, the U.S. House District 25, situated west of Dallas, was redrawn in 2021 to make it nearly impossible for Democrats to win; his state House district is held by a Democrat with no primary challengers; and his state Senate district isn’t up this year but is held by a Republican who beat his last Democratic opponent by 37 percentage points. Hinds said that he and his wife, who is a Republican, will both take the GOP ballot this year, for which more is at stake, and opt for “more moderate” candidates. 

Hinds’s situation is not unique: the closest many Democrats can get to electoral power in the state may well be in trying to choose which Republican should represent them. Democrats haven’t won a statewide seat in nearly three decades; congressional districts are now so gerrymandered that only a handful (depending on the election year) could realistically be somewhat competitive. Both parties can reasonably vie for only about a dozen of 181 seats in the state House and Senate. “Our districts are just asinine. They were basically drawn by a five-year-old—but also one that knows how to cheat,” said Clayton Tucker, the chairman of the Lampasas Democrats, in Central Texas, who says he’s heard from more party mates this year who are thinking of voting in the GOP primary. 

Texas’s Democratic leaders have long been afflicted with a sort of complacency, banking on demographic destiny to suddenly turn the state in their favor, rather than doing the hard work of recruiting candidates and framing platforms that might appeal to a majority of today’s Texans. Party leaders don’t like the idea of crossover voting because it makes it appear as though Democratic turnout is depressed, which could scare donors away. Voters tend to not want to vote for members of the opposing party, given the level of contempt Democrats and Republicans now harbor for each other. But a look at the races many Texas Democrats will be voting in might change their minds about complacency. 

Take, for example, the race in Texas House District 33, on the eastern edge of Dallas. Incumbent Republican Justin Holland faces a challenge from a Trump superfan who has long argued that Texas should secede from the union. No Democrats are even competing in a primary for the seat, which Holland won by thirty points in 2022. Or consider the contested GOP primary in House District 138, in a deep red swath of Houston, where state representative Lacey Hull—a staunch conservative—is being challenged by a man who testified that he continued working with his law partner after finding out he had been accused of sexually abusing a child (both the candidate, Jared Woodfill, and his law partner say that accusation was unfounded). The Democrat running in this race, Stephanie Morales, faces no opposition, but she stands little chance in a seat that Hull won by fourteen points last time. 

Even county-level Democratic Party chairs in red parts of the state say the idea of crossing over is becoming hard to discourage. “All of our local officials are Republicans, so a lot of people feel like they need to vote in the Republican primary to have a say in who the next sheriff or county commissioner is,” said Cathy Collier, chair of the Gillespie County Democratic Party, based in Fredericksburg. “We make arguments against doing so all of the time, but it’s a fact that it happens.” (In her county, one that Trump won by nearly sixty percentage points in 2020, the state House race features Ellen Troxclair, a solidly conservative former Austin city councilwoman, and Kyle Biedermann, a former legislator whose crowning achievement was filing a bill calling for Texas’s secession mere weeks after being spotted outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021.) 

David Currie, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party Non-Urban/Rural Caucus, said he can no longer “get upset at Democrats trying to keep good state officials in office that can fight against the right-wing nutcases.” His territory of Tom Green County, home to San Angelo, overwhelmingly supported Trump over Biden, 72 percent to 21 percent, in 2020, and downballot Democrats also got wiped. Currie said he hopes his party’s voters participate in their own primary so the state can “build a party,” but he also noted that Democrats might want to vote to help keep their current state representative, Drew Darby, in office. Darby, a relative centrist in the GOP caucus who voted against school vouchers during this year’s legislative sessions, faces a Greg Abbott–backed primary challenger who supports a plan to use taxpayer money to subsidize private schools. No Democrat is vying for the seat.  

Republicans, too, might benefit from crossover voting in the portions of the state gerrymandered to be Democratic holds. Most conservatives in bluer areas, such as those living in large Texas cities, probably prefer centrist Democrats to hard-core progressives. Indeed, one of the progenitors of the idea to try to sink the opposing party’s candidates in primaries was none other than the late right-wing radio celebrity Rush Limbaugh. In 2008 Limbaugh launched “Operation Chaos,” in which he encouraged his listeners to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary to “bloody up” Barack Obama, the prospective nominee. (When the gambit did not seem to work, Limbaugh announced he actually wanted Obama to win the nomination.) But in 2024, Republican leaders in Texas have started to make a stink about open primaries and Democrats “stealing” elections from far-right candidates. 

Democrats in Texas who cross over, historically, have not been particularly effective. In the 2022 midterm elections, only about 5 percent of all votes in the GOP primary were cast by Texans who had previously voted in at least one Democratic primary since 2014. We don’t know for sure that these voters were Democrats—they could’ve been Republican voters who once crossed over themselves, or independents who preferred the options presented on the liberal ticket in a given year. But even if every single one was a Democrat, this wasn’t a large enough bloc to swing any statewide races; at most, it could have swung seven legislative elections, according to Derek Ryan, the longtime data expert who maintained the Texas GOP’s voter file for two decades.

To actually sway bigger races, hordes of Democrats would have to collectively decide to vote in the GOP’s primary. “It would be a pretty huge undertaking. It would have to be a large bloc of Democratic voters saying, ‘Okay. We’re all going to go do this,’ ” said Elizabeth Simas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston. “That’s where I think a lot of the crossover voting arguments tend to fall apart, because there just isn’t that level of coordination among voters.”

Strategic, limited party switching has some precedent here, however. In 2021 Jake Ellzey of Waxahachie, a former Republican state House member, faced Susan Wright of Arlington, a longtime GOP activist and the wife of the late congressman Ron Wright, in a special-election runoff. Ellzey had more bipartisan appeal, while Wright had the backing of prominent right-wingers such as Trump and Cruz. Nearly 5,400 likely Democrats cast ballots in the race, according to one analysis, presumably in an attempt to prevent Wright from winning. Ellzey won the race by about 2,500 votes. 

More recently, GOP operatives say Democrats might have swung the special-election runoff in House District Two to replace disgraced Republican state representative Bryan Slaton. Jill Dutton, a small-business owner backed by groups allied with the relatively centrist House leadership, won by 111 votes over Brent Money, a real estate lawyer who had the support of Governor Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton, Cruz, and numerous right-wing megadonors. One estimate found that 267 voters who had last participated in a Democratic primary cast a ballot during the early voting period. 

After Dutton’s win last month, Cary Cheshire, a longtime ally of Tim Dunn, a Christian nationalist and right-wing megadonor, warned of what he portrayed as Democrats’ dark electoral powers. “The question isn’t whether Jill Dutton and her Democrat friends stole the special election but if Republicans are willing to let them steal it again,” he wrote for DC Enquirer, a conservative news organization. Former state senator Don Huffines, who unsuccessfully challenged Abbott for governor from the right in 2022, said the state needs to close its primaries “to stop Texas from turning blue.” No one, it appears, appreciates the potential of Texas Democratic voters more than far-right Republicans.