Liz Castaeda does not play by party politics.
The 49-year-old is really in the middle. Shes a big fan of Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, despises President Donald Trump and stayed out of the 2018 contest between former U.S. Rep. Beto ORourke and Sen. Ted Cruz. This year, shes most excited about two state legislative candidates in Carrollton, the Dallas suburb she calls home one a Democrat and one a Republican.
She arrived at the polls on Tuesday, Oct. 13, to cast her ballot on the first day of early voting and the two names at the top of the ticket made her feel sick.
It seemed like an absurd choice: Im not thrilled with former Vice President Joe Biden, she said, but President Donald Trump brings so much division and hate.
So she skipped the question and promised to come back to it later. I didnt want to deal with that, to be honest, Castaeda said.
After all, she had other candidates to vote for who actually made her excited about the future of her country.
For Castaeda, like many Texas suburban women, the election is a referendum on Trump either a strong embrace or rebuke of the sitting president though her indecision may be an outlier in a year when polls indicate that roughly 95 percent of likely voters have already made up their minds.
UNCHARTED WATERS: Can the polls keep up with newly competitive Texas politics?
Winning votes from women in the suburbs including hundreds of thousands of educated Texas Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for Democrats in 2018 is a central preoccupation for Trump, whose shout-outs to that demographic have become a national spectacle in 2020.
Finally! Trump tweeted Thursday afternoon. Suburban women are flocking over to us. They realize that I am saving the Suburbs the American Dream.
Historically, pundits and politicians have used the term suburban women as code for middle-aged, white and affluent. Thats no longer true nationally or in Texas, where the suburbs are increasingly diverse in demographics, political ideology, education and other defining voting characteristics.
In interviews, 15 suburban women on both sides of the aisle described deeply divided politics only worsened by 2020 a hellish year that brought the coronavirus pandemic, racial unrest and economic uncertainty that will linger long after votes are counted.
It is the year that anything can happen, but those events have only pushed many suburban women into their existing views none of which exhibit particular excitement or disdain for a potential President Biden, but rather indicate strong opinions about the current President Trump.
IN-DEPTH: What Trumps save-the-suburbs pledge means in Texass only political battleground
I dont feel that Trump is for the people, said Serena Formby-Condon, a 60-year-old from a suburb outside Austin. I feel like hes for himself.
People are saying, How in the world can you vote for President Trump? said Ronnie Retzloff, a 74-year-old from San Antonio, and Im saying, How can you not?
As the coronavirus spread rapidly across the country in March and April, the lack of a coordinated federal response left the hard choices on shutdowns and mask mandates to local governments oftentimes to states, though Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has pushed some of those decisions down to the county level.
It was the local restrictions that drove Melissa Beckett, 47, out of San Antonio and into a new community in Gregg County, 350 miles away in deep-red East Texas.
She is a Catholic and former commodities trader who says the Democratic lawmakers in San Antonio dont represent her values and should not have brushed off calls to reopen schools. The entire handling of the pandemic from limiting nursing home visitors to requiring masks has been government overreach, she said.
This pandemic has exponentially amplified why the Democrats cannot be in the presidential office, Beckett said. We do not need our elderly in prison and our children not able to go to school.
Deborah Moncrief Bell, a 70-year-old Harris County resident, somewhat falls into the first category: Shes bound to her home, without transportation and with chronic pain, and has seen the coronavirus wreak havoc on friends and family. She is voting for Biden.
Trumps nonchalance about the virus he kept trying to get it, and eventually did, she said has made the country a more dangerous place for her to live. She cant afford to go out in public or to restaurants without risking her life, and it pains her to see people who conflate the coronavirus with the flu or decide not to wear masks.
Theres this whole attitude that people have that anybody is disposable, she said.
Dina Cortez, a 48-year-old San Antonio resident, was raised in a Democratic family but shifted right as she grew older, understanding how her faith and politics coincide. She backed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 presidential race.
For her, the coronavirus issue boils down to individual responsibility.
We need to work in order to make money, we need to support our families, we try to be as safe as possible, she said. I go to the grocery stores and I occasionally go to restaurants. I dont think that we can live in fear. I do appreciate those that would be high-risk and have chosen not to do so Im not telling anybody how to run their life.
She is voting for Trump.
The coronavirus has also heightened differences over the Affordable Care Act. With millions out of work, losing the insurance they received through their jobs and with the Supreme Court set to review a case on the law early next month suburban women voting for Biden see a new urgency in casting their ballots.
Angelia Morton, a 57-year-old from North Arlington, is independent her family is voting for Trump this year, but shes casting a ballot for Biden. She recently lost her job in the airline industry because of coronavirus fallout, and while she isnt sure that any other president could have handled the virus better, it bothers her that Trump continues to deny that its still a problem.
In this election, job security and affordable health care are at the front of her mind.
I dont know what [Trumps] health care plan is, she said. He keeps saying that hes got one and keeps making promises that he cant deliver on.
Perhaps Trumps most direct appeal to suburban voters has been a push for law and order, heightened after mass demonstrations took place this summer against racial inequality and police brutality. But some of the protests turned violent, prompting Republican calls to crack down on rioters who destroyed property.
In Texas, it is approached either as a threat of destruction and violence or a rebuke of racism that has long plagued the United States.
The most important thing to me is for the country to be stable, for us to have law and order and not to run to radical positions based upon individual things that have happened, said Retzloff, the 74-year-old San Antonio resident and former public school teacher.
Retzloff, who grew up in a Democratic family, left the party with Ronald Reagan and has never returned. Democratic policies, such as the Green New Deal, are too radical for the United States, Retzloff said, and shes deeply concerned about calls to defund the police.
Her neighborhood is littered with signs for both Trump and Biden, but she believes the president will capture a second term in a landslide. Polls arent worth a flip, she said.
Gina Wood, a 52-year-old resident of Aledo outside of Fort Worth, is a lifelong Democrat voting for Biden. This summer, two young Black women in her historically conservative suburb organized a Black Lives Matter march that drew a far larger crowd than anyone had anticipated, mostly consisting of white people.
At 52 years old, Ive never had the types of conversations that Ive had with Black women, she said. It has been just extremely eye-opening for me.
Trump, she said, has only exacerbated racial and political divides. In her red county, she sees neighbors post signs hoping to make liberals cry again.
A little extreme, but thats where we are, she said.
Partisan alignment is the most reliable predictor of a persons voting tendencies, but women also have many other identities that factor into their decisions at the ballot box.
Gender, race, age, religion and education could all be equally as, or more, important to a woman than her life in the suburbs, said Elizabeth Simas, a political scientist at the University of Houston.
In some way, they could decide the election because its uncertain which identity is going to take precedence for a woman, she said.
For Molly Wills Carnes, a 54-year-old Cypress resident, the presidents politics are deeply personal: She has a transgender daughter who the Trump administration has targeted with anti-LGBTQ policies, she said.
Shes a senior in high school, and then shell have four years of college we are in a race against the clock, Carnes said. We have five years to get her a fair and just world.
She sees a jadedness in the Republican Party that makes caring about vulnerable people somehow radical.
Castaeda, the Carrollton voter who was not excited by either presidential candidate, isnt bound to identity politics.
When you see a Latina, youre going to think Im a Democrat, and Im not and Im also not a Republican, she said. I really am in the middle. My ballot was filled with both sides.
But she also isnt blind to the way candidates rhetoric and actions impact her identity. In 2017, Trumps first year in office, a man in a truck pulled over and approached Castaeda as she helped campaign for a local candidate. He asked if she had papers.
I cried, said the lifelong Texas resident. I had never experienced that before.
Three years later, Castaeda was filling out her 2020 general election ballot. She submitted it, walked out of the polling place and sat down in her car to drive home.
Suddenly, she realized that she had forgotten to vote for a president. It was an accident but perhaps, in the strangest of political years, that was fitting.
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