Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders animates the filled auditorium at Trinity University.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders animates the capacity crowd at Trinity University on Friday night. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders made turning Texas into a majority-Democratic state the focus of a campaign-style rally held Friday night at Trinity University.

“There is probably no state in the country more important in the political struggle than the state of Texas,” Sanders told a capacity crowd at Laurie Auditorium. “If we can significantly increase the voter turnout here in Texas, we are going to win in Texas.”

The 2016 Democratic presidential hopeful spoke before more than 2,500 people, using the stop in San Antonio, one of several throughout the state this weekend, as an opportunity to touch on the key topics of his progressive campaign.

A second-term Independent, Sanders crafted an insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary that created a new ideological faction in the party. He campaigned on a platform of democratic socialism, advocating universal single-payer health care, free college tuition for students attending public universities, and campaign finance reform.

“What I have always believed, is that when working people stand up and fight back, no matter how much money they may have, we will win,” Sanders said.

During his nearly hour-long remarks, Sanders said President Donald Trump lied to the American people when he promised to work for them and not the so-called Washington insider’s establishment. But Sanders said it’s important to view Trump supporters who are economically disadvantaged as potential progressive voters, and not as “racist, sexist, xenophobes.”

Sanders’ visit came three days after Texas held the nation’s first midterm primary election. Early voters in 15 of the state’s most populous counties turned out in large numbers for Democrats, but Republicans ultimately cast around 1.5 million ballots, more than the Democrats’ roughly 1 million, indicating that a much-discussed “blue wave” hasn’t yet materialized.

The crowd clapped and cheered for Sanders, giving him three standing ovations during his remarks.

“Of course I’m crossing my fingers for [a Sander’s presidential run in] 2020,” said Liliana Mendoza, a 36-year-old member of Our Revolution, a spinoff group from Sanders’ campaign. “The fact that he’s visiting Trump country specifically is because it shows that he has a plan and he’s not wanting to leave anybody behind based on party affiliation.”

Sanders shared the stage with former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, a national board member for Our Revolution.

Hightower highlighted the races progressive Democratic candidates participated in during the state’s midterm primaries. He specifically mentioned Rick Treviño, a former high school teacher turned progressive candidate who surprised observers by emerging from a crowded Democratic field to get into the May runoff for Texas’ 23rd Congressional District. Treviño will battle Gina Ortiz Jones for the right to face incumbent Rep. Will Hurd in the November general election.

“Rick did something that the establishment didn’t realize could be done,” Hightower said. “He didn’t just stay in San Antonio or Laredo. He went to … all those rural counties out there, and he knocked on doors that never had a politician knock on their door.”

Jim Hightower speaks to a filled auditorium at Trinity University.
Jim Hightower, a former state agriculture commissioner, speaks to a packed auditorium at Trinity University. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report
Candidates (from left) Jay Hulings, Gina Ortiz Jones, Rick Treviño, and Angela Villescaz participate in the Democratic Candidate Forum for TX-23.
Rick Treviño (center) looks on during a candidate debate for Texas’ 23rd Congressional District. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Ortiz Jones, was the top vote-getter with 41 percent of the vote. She also has an advantage in funding, with nearly $600,000 in campaign contributions, drawing support from political action committees Emily’s List and the Victory Fund.

Because his positions align with Sanders’ on nearly every issue, Treviño viewed the senator’s visit as “perfect timing.”

Treviño said he will continue to use the personal touch as he continues his underdog campaign.

“The only way [moderates] stay in is through a lot of cash,” Treviño told the Rivard Report Friday morning. “I only know one way to campaign, and that’s personal touch and talking about issues.”

The Trinity Progressives, a group of Trinity students organized to promote progressive ideals, co-sponsored Friday night’s event with Our Revolution. The stop at San Antonio was one of several Sanders is making across the state, with a scheduled appearance Saturday in Lubbock.

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.