Last updated at 7:45 p.m. with Cruz remarks on Air Force One.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump visited West Texas on Wednesday, scooping up $7 million for his reelection race and trying to eat into Democrat Joe Biden’s growing lead by visiting an oil rig and warning that his opponent would kill the energy industry.
Biden’s “extreme agenda,” Trump asserted, would destroy the fracking industry that has doubled production in the Permian Basin during his presidency. “I don’t think Biden’s going to do too well in Texas,” Trump said. “He’s already written it off.”
“It’s not just Texas oil that the radical Democrats want to destroy. They want to destroy our country. These people are sick,” Trump asserted.
It’s still an open question whether Biden will make a play for Texas, but polls have definitely moved his way. Trump cannot win reelection without Texas, and this visit — his 16th as president — suggested concern with just over three months to go before Election Day.
“Texas is in play. The whole country is divided right now, and the hard left is angry,” Sen. Ted Cruz told reporters on Air Force One on the flight back to Washington. Still, he said, despite slipping GOP support in suburbs, “I think we’ll win in Texas.”
Democrats accused Trump of trying to shift attention away from his handling of the pandemic, for which he receives low approval ratings in Texas and nationwide. If that really was part of the plan, though, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert undermined it. The East Texas tea partier, who like the president avoids wearing masks, was denied boarding for the flight after testing positive for COVID-19 at the White House.
A last-minute COVID test also cost a Houston congressional candidate a chance for face time with the president.
Both missed a hearty helping of red meat as Trump spoke to 200 or so energy executives and workers in a packed air-conditioned tent after a brief tour of a nearby drilling rig in Midland.
Trump said he came to the Permian Basin “to send a clear message to the zealots, radicals and extremists trying to shut down your industry. … As long as I’m your president we will never let anyone put American energy out of business, which is what they’d like to do.”
In fact, Biden’s energy plan would not ban fracking, and the American Petroleum Institute, closely aligned with the Trump administration, sees much common ground with the Democrat’s energy policies.
“The radical left wants to … uproot and demolish every American value. They want to wipe away every trace of religion from national life. They want to indoctrinate our children, defund police, abolish the suburbs, incite riots and leave every city at the mercy of the radical left,” Trump warned. “We are telling the Washington politicians trying to abolish American energy: Don’t mess with Texas.”
Gov. Greg Abbott and Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and energy secretary, met Trump on the tarmac and were on hand as he painted the portrait of Democratic dystopia. So were Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Trump’s state campaign co-chair, and new Texas GOP chairman Allen West, a tea party darling and one-term Florida congressman.
The president headed first to the Odessa Marriott, where donors paid $2,500 for lunch and up to $50,000 per couple for a photo with the president or $100,000 for a private roundtable discussion.
Trump’s last visit to Texas was only last month, a June 11 campaign-style event on police and race relations at a North Dallas church. The repeat show of ardor validates the contention of Democrats and pundits that Texas is up for grabs, after a quarter-century as a Republican fortress.
If Texas is a battleground, it’s the most important in the country. Republicans have no realistic path to the White House without it thanks to Democrats’ lock on New York and California.
Cruz flew to Texas with Trump, as did GOP Reps. Mike Conaway of Midland and Jodey Arrington of Lubbock, Trump’s interior and energy secretaries, Republican national chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and former White House physician Ronny Jackson, whom Trump is backing for a West Texas congressional seat.
Also aboard: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who marked five years under indictment on Tuesday as he awaits trial on securities fraud charges. Last Thursday, the president named him co-chair of his “Lawyers for Trump” committee.
Five other U.S. House candidates met with Trump on his arrival, including Genevieve Collins, who hopes to unseat freshman Rep. Colin Allred in Dallas, and former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, who faces Democrat Candace Valenzuela.
Houston candidate Wesley Hunt, challenging freshman Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, was supposed to meet with Trump, too, but he got a positive COVID-19 test result earlier in the day and headed home to self-quarantine.
Trump also met with Tony Gonzalez, who won a primary runoff Monday by just 46 votes, though he’s likely to face a recount against GOP rival Raul Reyes. Trump backed Gonzalez to replace retiring Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio. Cruz backed Reyes.
“They’re more concerned about covering up their failures than they are about covering up their faces with a mask,” said Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat, referring to Trump and Abbott in particular.
The national death toll from coronavirus officially passed 150,000 while Trump was in Texas. In Texas, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 5,700 lives, including 42 in Ector County, which includes Odessa, and 36 in Midland County. Both are overwhelmingly Trump country.
He carried Ector with 69% and Midland with 76% in 2016.
“Together we will end the plague from China,” Trump vowed in Midland.
Presidents don’t generally waste their precious time in states they can rely on in the next election. But polls have shown a dead heat in Texas for months, a far cry from his 9-point win in 2016 — itself the most anemic showing for a GOP nominee since President Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976.
“Texas families are suffering … because [of] President Trump’s inability to lead this country and combat the spread of COVID-19,” Biden said in a statement. “Mr. President, now isn’t the time for politicking or photo ops. Texans need a president with the experience and vision to fight for families no matter how many catastrophes reach our shores.”
Biden reportedly hasn’t decided yet whether to take a shot at Texas. Some advisers call it a fool’s errand, as do Republicans. It’s a costly state to contest, with more than 20 media markets, including some of the country’s most expensive.
“Joe Biden and Texas Democrats are delusional if they think they can win Texas. We welcome the Biden campaign to light their funds on fire by investing in the Lone Star State,” said Samantha Cotton, spokeswoman for the Trump campaign.
In Midland, Trump’s bravado included vastly exaggerated boasts about his Texas popularity.
“We had a great victory,” he told the crowd. “Not only did we win. We won quickly and easily. And now we’re leading what we had even four years ago.”
In fact, polls in midsummer 2016 showed Trump leading by 8 to 11 points — a far more enviable position than the dead heat or worse that he faces now.
A Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler poll released July 12 showed Biden leading by 5 percentage points.
A Quinnipiac University poll released July 22 showed Biden leading 45-44. In early June, the same pollsters had Trump leading by 1 point.
And a Morning Consult poll released Monday night showed Biden leading 47-45 — an even more dramatic shift, given that two months earlier the same poll showed Trump ahead by 7 points.
Trump’s hosts in Midland were Double Eagle Energy founders Cody Campbell and John Sellers, who sold 72,000 acres in the oil-rich Permian Basin three years ago for a cool $2.8 billion. The Fort Worth-based company employs about 160 workers and produces some 50,000 barrels a day from 530 wells.
Trump touted rollbacks in regulations and the U.S. evolution into the world’s top oil and natural gas producer.
Environmentalists complain that he has defanged federal pollution controls.
“Before the invisible enemy struck our shores, we created 800,000 new energy jobs, a third of them in Texas,” Trump told the crowd in Midland in a speech the White House billed as an official appearance. That allows the campaign to bill taxpayers for most of the travel costs, though he often strayed from energy policy to overt politicking.
Cruz, in an op-ed published Wednesday in the Midland Reporter-Telegram, wrote that Trump’s visit comes “at a critical time for Texas’ energy industry. Just a few months ago, before the deadly coronavirus pandemic brought our booming, blue-collar economy to a halt, the United States was the No. 1 producer of both oil and natural gas on the planet, surpassing both Russia and Saudi Arabia in crude oil production.”