Democrats Stage a Revival in Texas

Democrats Stage a Revival in Texas

It’s their most surprising red-state revival–and Barack Obama’s happy dilemma.


AP Images
Obama campaigning in Austin during the Texas Democratic primary.

“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 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.”

Yes, Texas.

“Until three years ago, the Texas Democratic Party was just brain-dead and prostrate,” says Southern Methodist University professor Cal Jillson, author of Texas Politics: Governing the Lone Star State. “They were beaten down. During the Bush years, people wouldn’t even admit to being Democrats in Texas. Now they’re up on their hind legs, feeling confident. It’s the Republicans who are sullen and downcast.”

What in the name of Sam Houston is going on down here? Pretty much the same partisan upheaval that’s roiling several of the Southern and Western states that became staunch Republican turf in the Reagan ’80s–and are now surprisingly tempting targets for Obama ’08. Even more powerfully than in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia, a demographic tide is washing away the political dominance of older white conservatives in Texas, which in 2005 officially became the nation’s fourth “minority white” state (after California, New Mexico and Hawaii). At the same time, anti-immigration, ideologically rigid, starve-the-government Republican leaders are giving the GOP an ugly reputation with the rising generation of younger Hispanics–the swing voters who are displacing the old Reagan Democrats–and simultaneously alienating independent-minded, middle-aged “office populists” massing around booming metropolises like Dallas.

While Texas’ swelling Hispanic population still registers and votes in smaller percentages than blacks or whites, turnout soared in this year’s primaries, and Hispanics–once courted lovingly and successfully by Bush–are leaning increasingly Democratic. While GOP leaders spout anti-immigration tag lines, Texas Democrats are brimming with ambitious young Hispanic leaders like this year’s US Senate nominee, Afghanistan veteran and progressive populist Rick Noriega, who until recently trailed by single digits in his long-shot race to unseat Republican John Cornyn; State Senator Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, a firebrand who delivered the party’s Spanish-language response to this year’s State of the Union address; and smooth-talking State Representative Rafael Anchía of Dallas, whom Texas Monthly recently predicted would be “El Gobernador.”

Demographics and immigration aside, Texas wouldn’t be swinging so far so fast without a rejuvenated Democratic Party, which was hard to imagine just four years ago. Nowhere did Southern (or Western) Democrats fall so far in the 1980s and ’90s, and nowhere have they lifted themselves back up so quickly and dramatically. As The Return of the Democrats becomes the latest legend in the colorful book of Texas politics, many will date the beginning of the tale to 2003, when Democrats in the Legislature reconnected with their party’s hell-raising roots in the fight against DeLay’s Machiavellian (and legally dubious) redistricting scheme.

“That’s when Democrats really started to get our legs under us in Texas,” says Matt Angle, former chief of staff to Dallas Congressman Martin Frost, who lost his reconfigured district in 2004 when the dust had settled. After all those years of being stuck in what Donna Brazile, Gore’s 2000 campaign manager, calls the “fetal crouch” of agreeable, Lite Republican centrism, Angle says, “we fought back tooth and nail. And the public began to see that the Republicans were really overreaching, that they were willing to do anything, that for them it wasn’t about what was good for Texas.” In the process, “Democrats realized that not only do we have a moral commitment to fight back but also that we have a chance to beat them.”

By the time the redistricting fracas kicked up, Democrats had lost every significant vestige of power in Texas. Nearly forgotten were the many generations when “calling yourself a Democrat was like declaring you had a pulse,” in the words of former Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes. “If you were alive, you were a Democrat.” But there was an ironic upside to the Democrats’ struggles: during its three decades of slow, steady decline, the party shed most of its white conservatives. While the loss of those Reagan Democrats meant short-term pain at the ballot box, it also gave Democrats a chance to remake their party practically from scratch (as Republicans did in the 1970s), with the state’s urban-centered, multiethnic future firmly in mind, and with a whole new set of high-tech, grassroots techniques and resources on hand, thanks in part to Howard Dean’s fifty-state national strategy. Elected in 2005, new party leaders like Dallas chair Darlene Ewing are reconstituting the historically disorganized party–in urban areas of the state, at least–into a precinct-by-precinct, voter-by-voter, high-tech machine. Angle’s Texas Democratic Trust, a Washington-based group funded by legendary trial attorney Fred Baron, the “Texas George Soros,” lent organizers and polling expertise to the “coordinated campaign” that took Dallas’s long-entrenched Republicans by surprise in 2006, and it’s providing similar aid to the Democrats’ takeover effort in Harris County this year.

The GOP should have seen it coming in Dallas County, which lost 130,000 white residents–and gained more than 220,000 Hispanics–just between 2000 and 2006. In 2004 George W. Bush had carried the county by a scant 10,000 votes. But it wasn’t the population shift that turned Dallas blue in 2006; it was, in the words of local organizer Kirk McPike, the fact that local Democrats “took a good situation and made it extraordinary.” Ewing persuaded most of the Democratic judicial candidates in Dallas–there were more than forty–to contribute to the party’s new coordinated campaign and trust their prospects to a radically newfangled approach: a nonstop flurry of phone-banking, precinct-walking, direct-mailing and vote-targeting. Every judicial candidate won, as did Dallas’s first African-American district attorney, progressive Craig Watkins. “It was a triumph of grassroots politics,” says Angle. “Dallas Democrats spoke one-on-one to the voters, and more important, they communicated. It was research-based, targeted to things voters really cared about,” like the nation’s highest utility rates, statewide cuts in children’s healthcare and an unpopular Republican push for toll roads.

Which brings us to the other indispensable contributor to the Democratic upsurge: Texas Republicans.

Back at Scholz Garten, Burnt Orange blogger Karl-Thomas Musselman hoists his beer in a toast of sorts. “The best thing that ever happened to Democrats in Texas is that the people who took over the Republican Party in Texas are running it into the ground,” he says.

“They’re out of touch because they’re fanatically ideological,” says editor Matt Glazer. “They’ve failed to govern effectively by every measure you can come up with.”

“Say you’ve been voting Christian values, or along small-government Republican lines,” says Musselman, who comes from a place where most folks have been doing just that. “At some point, you have to start thinking, What does it do for me? My taxes are not lower. My kids are not smarter. My job is not better. What are we getting?”

Right now, folks are getting a heaping dose of right-wing bluster from the Texas Republicans–most notably, and most disastrously, on the sticky subject of immigration. Party leaders like Senator John Cornyn and Governor Rick Perry have veered from Rove and Bush’s formula and become fence-building border warriors. “They’re just digging themselves deeper in a hole by moving right on immigration,” says Cal Jillson. “The only prospect for the Texas Republican Party to remain competitive in ten years is to be winning 35 to 40 percent of Hispanic votes, along with 75 percent of whites and 10 percent of African-Americans.”

But as the center of Texas political gravity veers inexorably leftward, GOP leaders like Governor Perry appear determined to go down, Alamo style, with ideological guns blazing. “The reason we lost our majority in Congress,” Perry lectured the California Republican Convention last fall, “is not because our ideas lost their luster but our leaders lost their way…. It’s a sad, sad state of affairs,” he said, in a clear dig at fellow Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, “when…Republicans govern like liberals to be loved.” No such coddling would be forthcoming from the governor of Texas. “We need to hold the line on what it means to be a Republican,” Perry said, “which is, of course, being conservative.”

A converted Democrat who’s jostled for supremacy in the GOP with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (a relative moderate) since they both won statewide office in 1990, Perry is an intractable ideologue on “Christian values” and economic matters. At his urging, the Republican Legislature has cut more than 200,000 children off health insurance–and now, with a budget surplus, Perry is pushing for tax rebates. In 2006, after Perry’s hard-right re-election campaign netted him just 39 percent of the vote (enough to scrape by in a four-candidate field), he cheerfully declared of Texas voters, “They said, We like what you’re doing–keep it up.”

Such delusional thinking has many GOP leaders–the ones currently out of power, at least–profoundly worried. “The grassroots has withered up and died,” former state chair Tom Pauken recently lamented in the Houston Chronicle. “The Republican Party has definitely peaked in Texas,” says the party’s longtime political director, Royal Masset. GOP pollster Mike Baselice fears big numbers of “grumpy Republicans”–more than 50 percent in Texas say the state and country are on the wrong track–will sit out 2008. Meanwhile, the party looks to be skidding toward a bloodbath in 2010, when insiders expect both Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a hellfire-and-brimstone Christian conservative, and Senator Hutchison, who embodies the politer, Chamber of Commerce wing of the party (and says she’s tired of Washington and wants to come home), to challenge Perry in the Republican primary. “And people say Democrats have circular firing squads!” says Glazer, clearly charmed by the prospect.

A Perry-Hutchison showdown could open a sizable tear in the coalition of Christian and business conservatives that has made the Texas Republican Party–like other state parties in the South and interior West–such a force in recent decades. “Hutchison is closer to a Republican in a more moderate state,” says Jillson. “She’s been booed sometimes at state conventions by the true believers. Perry might beat her in a primary, but she is more popular statewide.” And if she were to lose to Perry (or Dewhurst), a whole new bloc of moderate Republicans could be giving the Democrats a fresh look. Even if the Republicans steer clear of such a destructive internal battle, Jillson says, “there’s no denying that every trend is against them. You can’t argue with demographics. And the issues are all lined up against them. The grassroots energy is on the other side. They can see it coming, but they haven’t reacted.”

Rank-and-file Republican disquiet was all too palpable at the party’s state convention in Houston in June. Enthusiasm for the GOP’s presidential nominee-to-be was so damp that a local reporter counted the applause that followed John McCain’s campaign video at precisely eight seconds. Charisma-challenged Senator Cornyn, running for re-election in a state where a 2007 poll showed that 40 percent of voters had no opinion of him at all, unveiled an unintentionally uproarious video set to the old novelty hit “Big Bad John,” depicting the go-along senator as a take-no-prisoners, Stetson-hatted reformer making corrupt Washington politicians quake in their boots. Some of the weekend’s loudest cheers were spontaneous, off-the-agenda outbursts by supporters of rebellious Republican Congressman Ron Paul. For his part, Paul was one of an embarrassing fourteen no-shows–out of nineteen Congress members–who were being introduced at the convention.

The Democratic convention, held the previous weekend in Austin, was a jubilant throwdown by contrast. A broadly diverse, revved-up crowd of more than 12,000 cheered new party heroes like State Senator Mario Gallegos Jr. of Houston, who last year returned to the Senate floor with a hospital bed, against doctor’s orders after a liver transplant, to block a Republican-backed voter-ID bill that would have disenfranchised thousands of Texans. And notwithstanding a cranky fellow who circled the Austin Convention Center bearing a sign reading Small-town, gun-owning religious Democrat bitter about Obama, lingering wounds between the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama camps were salved by such characteristically Texan means as Thursday night’s “unity pub crawl,” with downtown Austin’s bars jammed to overflowing with commingling drinkers of Obamarama ‘Ritas and Hillary Harps. On Saturday the delegates paused to watch as Clinton quit the race and endorsed Obama–at which point, par for the course at a Democratic gathering, the video feed sputtered. But around the convention hall, chants of “Hillary! Hillary!” soon gave way to a rousing, full-throated chorus of “United We Stand.”

“Given the news coverage beforehand, I’d almost expected a Jets versus Sharks rumble to break out,” says Berthume, the Texas Blue editor. Instead, “it was a Frank Capra moment for me as a Democrat. It was ridiculous. You’d see people with Clinton and Obama shirts holding hands, hugging. People cried.”

A few nights later Renee Hartley, vice president of the Dallas County Young Democrats, was still hoarse from her long weekend serving on the platform committee–but still making volunteer assignments to the forty folks who came out for the DCYD’s monthly meeting at Zúbar, a warm, woodsy drinking hole in East Dallas. Hartley originally backed John Edwards, then ended up as a Clinton delegate to the state convention–which brought her a certain amount of grief, since “I was under 35, an African-American female and people just assumed I’d be for Obama. How could I not be?” Hartley’s working-class roots inclined her toward Clinton’s populist pitch–but she said that, along with the vast majority of her fellow Clintonites, she was having no great difficulty making the switch. That’s partly because, she said, being a Democrat in Texas is no longer just about “which horse you ride.”

“There’s this overwhelming sense that we’re moving forward now as a party–it’s not about any one candidate, whether it’s for President or senator or governor.” Which is no small development in a state where Democratic politics long orbited around such outsized personalities as Lyndon Johnson, longtime House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Governors John Connally and Ann Richards. Now Texas Democrats are competing on Republican turf–at the grassroots, that is–and developing a message that resonates with old-style and new-school Texas populists. “Democrats have started learning this everywhere,” says Matt Angle, “but nowhere more than in Texas: you can’t be afraid to say that you want government to work, that some things are a higher priority than cutting taxes.”

The Democratic resurrection in Texas could hardly be happier news for the national party’s long-term future. But in the short-term calculus of a presidential election year, it does create a dilemma–albeit a rather pleasant one–for Barack Obama’s campaign.

On the one hand, Texas Democrats stand to gain more ground in local and legislative elections in November, and they could surely make good use of the rocket-boost of grassroots energy and big money that is Obama’s to spread around. Those investments, in turn, would build momentum for a quicker statewide turnaround–meaning, among other things, more members of Congress to bulk up the majority behind Obama’s policies. Down the road, of course, it would also bring the Democrats closer to a potential mother lode of electoral votes–thirty-four at present, with more than forty projected by 2030–that could make national contests vexingly difficult for Republicans to win.

On the other hand, there is no realistic prospect that, barring a national landslide, Obama can carry Texas–until 2012, perhaps. And while Texas Democrats have a progressive, attractive Senate challenger in Rick Noriega, he’s struggling to rustle up the big bucks he needs against the well-heeled Cornyn. Besides, no matter how financially fat the Obama organization might be, running a full-scale campaign on Texas’ vast landscape of media markets is dauntingly expensive, with candidates needing to fork over some $1.4 million per week from Labor Day forward to get sufficient advertising on the air statewide. That adds up to a minimum of more than $11 million–money that might pay more immediate dividends in North Carolina, Nevada, Virginia, Colorado or New Mexico, toss-up states where Democratic turnarounds are further advanced.

In the consultant-driven, micro-targeting days of the not-so-distant Democratic past, the Texas dilemma would have been solved easily enough: look at the polls–screw it!–shovel everything into Florida and Ohio! As former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe reportedly declared in a strategy session during the Gore campaign, “All we care about is getting to 270”–electoral votes, that is. Winning the White House, in turn, was supposed to be a magic bullet for building the party nationally–though Democrats in states like Texas reaped no benefits from President Clinton’s two wins.

But it’s not only a new day for Democrats in Texas–it also looks like a new day for the national party. In May the Obama campaign dispatched hundreds of trained voter-registration volunteers to seventeen states, including Texas, where they will focus their efforts on the “blue boom” areas of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin, where hundreds of thousands of Hispanic voters are eligible but unregistered. In June, after the nomination was clinched, Obama deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand announced in an e-mail that the presidential campaign would extend Dean’s fifty-state strategy by running something close to a genuine national campaign. “Our presidential campaign will be the first in a generation to deploy and maintain staff in every single state,” he wrote, vowing to “provide help where we need it and impact races up and down the ballot this November.”

Just how much help Texas will be getting–“As in every presidential election, some states will be more competitive than others, and we will scale our resources accordingly,” Hildebrand carefully added–is anything but certain at this point. But Obama’s campaign guru, David Axelrod, promised in a series of Texas fundraisers in early June that fifteen staffers would be dispatched to Texas for the general election. “He was cagey about their level of investment,” says Molly Hanchey, the ObamaDallas chair. “But he was clear that we won’t be just an ATM this time.” And that’s more important, she says, than making Texas a full-scale presidential battleground in November.

“We’re going to do what we’re doing regardless,” she says. “They didn’t get us started–we did, even before Obama declared his candidacy.” And Texas’ newly focused Democrats have plenty to shoot for down the ballot. “The Dean strategy, and now the Obama strategy,” says Matt Angle, “recognizes that there is something to win in every state. And that, as we’ve learned in Texas, you don’t build a party from the top down.”

Here’s to that.

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