“Did I mention that it’s fun to be a Democrat in Texas?” asks Matt Glazer, editor in chief of the Burnt Orange Report, the state’s leading progressive blog. He has, in fact, mentioned it a couple of times over beers at Scholz Garten, a legendary liberal hangout in Austin, and always with the same glimmer of happy bemusement behind his black-frame blogger specs. I’d been seeing that look in Democrats’ eyes all over Texas in early June–at their raucous, record-breaking state convention, at local Democratic shindigs, in giddily overburdened Obama HQs. “It’s like everyone who toiled on that Democratic death march for years, when it was so difficult, is now seeing daylight,” says Josh Berthume of the Dallas suburb Denton, editor in chief of TheTexasBlue.com and another key player in a vigorous blogosphere that has helped ignite the startling Democratic flare-up here, in the bright red heart of Tom DeLay and Karl Rove’s “permanent” Republican majority.
The very notion of Texas Democrats glimpsing daylight–of America’s biggest chunk of Republican real estate being shaded pink on the ’08 election map–seems almost absurd, a contradiction in terms, even to those who are making it happen. Like many of the nuevo pols, bloggers and progressive activists who are constructing a state-of-the-art Democratic machine in Texas, Glazer and Berthume are too young to remember the last time skies were blue for the party that ruled Texas politics from Reconstruction clear through to Reagan/Bush. So is Burnt Orange publisher Karl-Thomas Musselman, who’s 23. “The last time Democrats won my hometown”–a small outpost in the central Hill Country–“was 1964,” he says. “And that was only because President Johnson brought the chancellor of Germany to Fredericksburg for a visit.”
The last Democratic presidential nominee to carry Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976. The party hasn’t won a solitary statewide election since 1996. Every November from 1972 to 2004, the Democrats bled seats from their once-unanimous majority in the Statehouse. By the 1990s, national Democrats like Bill Clinton had come to see Texas as “a money pot, period,” says Molly Hanchey, a retiree who leads an 8,000-volunteer grassroots group called ObamaDallas. They flew in to raise cash, but they didn’t stick around to scare up votes–and Clinton’s party did nothing to help rebuild the state’s hopelessly antiquated Democratic infrastructure. Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry tried to compete here. By 2004, Democratic fortunes had sunk so low that they carried just eighteen of 254 Texas counties at the top of the ticket.
Four years later, the Realm of the Bushes is now being described–in the Wall Street Journal, no less–as potentially “the next California.” The next big Republican stronghold, in other words, that is headed for a seismic partisan flip. It won’t happen tomorrow, of course. But unmistakable signs of a Democratic breakout are all around. In Dallas, linchpin of the Republicans’ statewide ascendance in the 1980s, an innovative grassroots campaign in 2006 earned Democrats a sweep of more than forty contested judicial races–and Harris County (Houston) seems poised for a similar switch. Democrats won back six Statehouse seats in 2006, bringing them within five of regaining the majority and having a hand in revising Tom DeLay’s infamous Republican-friendly redistricting after the next census. Recognizing the outsized influence of the state’s estimated fifty active left-leaning bloggers, this year’s NetRoots Nation (formerly called Yearly Kos) is coming to Austin in July. And in the March presidential primaries, a startling show of Democratic enthusiasm was the big story buried under the Clinton/Obama headlines: just 1.3 million Texans voted Republican, while nearly 2.9 million voted Democratic–more than voted here in either of the last two general elections for Gore or Kerry. Political scientists are projecting that Bush Country will morph, by 2020, into the nation’s second-largest Democratic state. “Texas,” Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean enthused during the DNC’s rules committee showdown in May, “is ready to turn blue.”