For ages now, Texas Democrats have been living in a political drought of Darfurian proportions. Few candidates, feeble causes, little help, no hope.
From the governor’s office to city planning commissions, from members of Congress to county clerks, district judges to dogcatchers, the state has seemed packed to the rafters with Republicans.
To the rest of the country, it was a given: Texas bled red. Democrats had the blues. In fact in much of the state, putting a “D” next to your name on the ballot might as well have meant “deceased.”
Then came the transformational presidency of George W. Bush.
Like a modern-day Moses, Bush has unintentionally led Lone Star liberals out of the wilderness into what looks increasingly like a political promised land.
The whole planet may be pissed at the President, but Democrats down here might want to build him a great big statue, something even more ostentatious than the ghostly white, sixty-seven-foot figure of Sam Houston that appears to be crashing out of the woods and onto the freeway near Huntsville.
For the past seven years, while the world waited to see what sociopolitical gaffe the President would commit next, while wars were waged but not won, while defense contracts got more generous and health insurance companies got stingier, Texas held its breath–and began to turn blue.
This election year, Dallas joined Austin as a Democratic fortress. There is a sense that the city of Houston may be about to flip and a majority for the Dems in the Texas House is only a handful of seats away. Democrats throughout the state are being romanced by a dazzling presidential campaign in which their votes will at long last matter.
The state Democratic Party is partying like it’s 1959. Those were the good old days, when Texas Republicans were so rare that crowds would gather whenever one wandered into town. In presidential politics, that began to dissolve with the rise of Ronald Reagan, whose charm and Western appeal helped trigger massive changes in Texas voting.
Again and again, the state’s malleable middle has taken advantage of open voting to flip and flop between parties and personalities. First, there were Reagan Democrats, some of whom turned into Ann Richards Republicans. They then morphed into Dubya Democrats, who now appear to be in the process of becoming Tex-Obamacans.
Politicians have been every bit as volatile as the voters. It’s mostly forgotten now, but Governor Rick Perry, Bush’s successor, used to be a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. He flipped in 1989. Even Perry, described by his critics as “dumb as a box of hair,” was bright enough to know when it was time to part ways with the Democratic Party.
Ditto for Phil Gramm. Elected to Congress as a Democrat, Gramm switched sides in a Texas-sized scandal in 1981, after he was caught spilling party secrets in order to help President Reagan win a Congressional budget debate.
Now the strong feelings for another Republican President have set off a second Texas stampede, but this time voters appear to be running the other way.
“Bush put the wind back in our sails,” according to Matt Glazer, a young Democratic consultant who edits Burnt Orange Report, a popular Texas political blog.
“If it hadn’t been for the cronyism and corruption of George Bush and Tom Delay, we’d be looking at a slower build in Texas,” he says. “But they were just so God-awful.”
Disappointment with the Bush Administration helped create a voting blowback in Dallas in November 2006, when Democrats swept forty-two judicial races and won the County Judge and District Attorney spots.
The abrupt switch from red to blue caught veteran political watchers off guard. “It sure took me by surprise,” says Cal Jillson, Southern Methodist University political science professor. “I thought it would roll slowly to the Democrats in Dallas, not overnight.”
Jillson credits the growing Hispanic vote and the change in atmosphere with convincing the “closeted Democrats to come out.”
The language used here is instructive. Only in Texas could publicly supporting Democrats be compared to announcing the secrets of your sexual identity. But that is changing, too.
“For years, the Anglo Democrats down here were so beaten down, they just quit. They gave up. Now there is a bandwagon effect that is bringing them out again,” Jillson says.
A Texas Republican strategist agrees. “The Democratic groundswell here is so deep and so energized,” says the consultant, who didn’t want to be identified. He says he believes the Republicans have made poor tactical choices in recent state races and that the party’s split over religious issues is costing it voters.
“The right wing of the Republican party, the ultra-conservative religious right taking hold is turning people off,” he says.
Among those turned off by the strength of the religious bent in the GOP? This consultant.
“So I am volunteering for Obama, delivering yard signs, making calls, whatever I can,” he says. “I told them I am not doing this to look for business. I just want to help the campaign. I believe in his message for change.”
In this season of change, it seems all eyes are on the Texas Democrats. And many here feel they are finally getting the attention they deserve. After all, they’ll tell you, they were smart enough to reject George W. Bush long before the rest of the country.