When Jim Hightower, Nina Turner, and the Our Revolution road show rolled into Tyler, Texas, Ed Moore liked what he heard. “This is basically what we’ve all been needing,” explained the retired factory worker and union leader, who lives in a town where factories and unions have taken a lot of hits in recent years. Moore, a city councilman who represents working-class neighborhoods shaken by deindustrialization, nodded in agreement as Hightower channeled old-school Texas populism into a warning: “The powers that be…are knocking down the middle class. They are holding down the poor” and attacking “the essential ethic that holds America together—and that is the notion that we are all in this together.”
Our Revolution is the national group created by backers of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run with the goal of transforming the Democratic Party. When Turner, a former Ohio state senator who now leads the organization, finished her address by declaring, “We can change the world—one community at a time, one state at a time…. Tyler, Texas, can we do this?,” Moore joined the enthusiastic multiracial, multiethnic crowd, which was packed into an activity center on the local college campus, in answering: “Yes!”
It was an optimistic response to a tough question. Texas Democrats haven’t won a single statewide race since 1994, and they’ve had a harder and harder time winning congressional, legislative, and local races in places like Tyler, an East Texas city of 105,000 where the party once called most of the political shots but in recent years has struggled to pull together slates of candidates. Even Hightower, who has long preached that a populist coalition could rejuvenate the state Democratic Party—and who is well aware of the argument that demographic shifts are helping parts of Texas get out of their right-wing rut—says it’ll take time, and a lot of organizing, to tip the state.
But he has faith. Hightower argues, with the experience of a Texan who knows what has been lost and what might be found, that Our Revolution can renew the kind of progressive-populist politics that once elected Democrats like him to statewide office. “There’s an energy—you can feel it,” says the author and activist, who has argued for years that the party must unshackle itself from big money and reconnect with working people in places like Tyler. “You felt it in the Sanders campaign. So many people came into politics, in Texas and across the country: young people, working people, people who had given up on the Democratic Party but who started to think that maybe we could make this a party that appeals to people everywhere.” And Hightower really does mean everywhere—“not just in the blue areas, but in the reddest areas of the reddest states. Now that the presidential election is over, the Bernie people are coming from the outside and crashing the gates of state parties and saying, ‘You have to get better at this.’”
Of the many resistance and rebuilding groups that are working on the ground to renew Democratic fortunes in the states, Our Revolution has made a notable decision: It’s betting big on Texas. As soon as the Sanders campaign gave way to the organization—with its slogan “Campaigns End, Revolutions Endure” and its promise to “transform American politics”—Hightower and a new generation of Lone Star populists vowed that they would make Texas Our Revolution’s most engaged, active, and, they hope, politically successful state branch. And after a shaky start, Our Revolution is developing into a muscular grassroots organization with nearly 500 chapters in 49 states and a burgeoning capacity to organize on behalf of issues and to help win elections. This is about the recognition of a need: Political movements that evolve out of presidential campaigns often have a hard time defining themselves as more than a reflection of a particular candidate and a particular moment in history. To get to that broader definition, groups that seek to fundamentally change parties and politics must deliver successful examples of how the politics of an insurgent presidential campaign can elect candidates in other races.
That’s no easy endeavor. There are still plenty of Democrats who aren’t ready to change, at least not as much as they need to. But in an era when everything seems up for grabs, when frustration with Donald Trump’s fill-the-swamp presidency is rising, and when the Democratic Party is looking for the pitch-perfect response that might undo not just Trump but the politics that produced his presidency, there’s an openness to new approaches. This means that models can be tested and proved—especially in a state as big, politically vital, and rapidly diversifying as Texas.
Texas progressives say there’s no time to waste. As the results from this fall’s elections indicate—not just in Virginia and New Jersey, but in states like Georgia and Oklahoma as well—the 2018 off-year election cycle could be the best since 2006 for red-state Democrats. They say it’s time to rethink dismissals of the Lone Star State as uncompetitive, noting that Hillary Clinton ran as well in Texas last year as she did in Ohio. They point out that Republicans hold three congressional districts that were won by Clinton. They note that one of the state’s most dynamic Democrats, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, is mounting an audacious “no PAC money” challenge to Republican Senator Ted Cruz. They point to a memo from Dave Carney, a political adviser to GOP Governor Greg Abbott, in which Carney explained after the 2017 midterms, “It would be easy for us to say Texas is not Virginia. It would be easy for us to say the Democrats in Texas aren’t that well organized. That would be a huge mistake…. The enthusiasm gap that we face is real.” Informed of the Carney memo, Texas Democratic Party official Manny Garcia told the Houston Chronicle: “We agree.”
There’s hope for Texas Democrats. But there has been hope before—as recently as 2014, when Wendy Davis’s gubernatorial run started strong but ended in a 59–39 defeat. Progressive populists now say hope must be coupled with persistent grassroots organizing, and they argue that the promise of a $15-an-hour minimum wage may do more to increase turnout than a $15 million TV ad campaign that repeats failed talking points. So Our Revolution Texas is moving fast, racing to create the next politics for a state, and a nation, that desperately needs it. “I think people know that if we break through in Texas, anything is possible,” says Turner, a Sanders surrogate in 2016 whose dynamic speaking style and unapologetic advocacy for emboldening the Democratic Party have made her a hero among millennial activists. “We have to do the work here if we are going to renew the Democratic Party.”
Designated by Our Revolution’s national board as the organization’s first state affiliate, the Lone Star group has hired staff; used Sanders-campaign lists to connect with grassroots activists; and begun organizing chapters at the local, county, and regional levels. It has spelled out a progressive agenda—a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, worker rights, support for immigrants, policies to address climate change, and a commitment to get big money out of politics—and it is encouraging political newcomers who came of age in the Sanders campaign, as well as the worker-rights, immigrant-rights, and Black Lives Matter movements, to start running in Democratic primaries and nonpartisan local elections.
Some of these newcomers have already won. Activist La’Shadion Shemwell, 30, was elected in June to the McKinney City Council in conservative Collin County, north of Dallas. “If I can do it,” Shemwell says, “having been arrested, being a minority, having tattoos and dreadlocks, being a poor person with all the odds against me—if I can do it, then anybody can do it.” In San Antonio, history teacher John Courage surprised nearly everyone by winning his uphill run for a City Council seat. “We can’t overstate how huge an upset this is,” said Our Revolution, which backed him. “Education activist John Courage has won his race in San Antonio’s most conservative district!”
The group plans to endorse candidates in 2018 for posts like state commissioner of agriculture—where Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel and rancher who has become a dynamic advocate for sustainable food production, seeks the Democratic nod—as well as in hundreds of down-ballot contests that have often been neglected in recent years. And it’s exploring the possibility of endorsing for governor and US Senate. There will be some primary fights, but in many parts of Texas, Our Revolution activists are working with local Democrats and stepping up as candidates supported not just by Sanders backers but by 2016 Clinton backers. “They’re bringing energy and a lot of young people into the party,” says Lorraine Broll, president of the Circle-C Area Democrats club in Central Texas. She isn’t a member of Our Revolution, but she’s pleased the group is organizing in places like Hays County, an area between Austin and San Antonio where Trump narrowly won in 2016 but where Democrats hope to make dramatic progress in 2018.
Part of the Our Revolution Texas strategy is to run in places where Democrats aren’t supposed to have a chance. To that end, it’s organizing not just frustrated Democrats but also independents and members of the largest political group in the state: nonvoters. This emphasis on expanding the voter roll and the candidate list intrigues Texans who have grown cynical after years of hearing that the demographics of this minority-majority state will soon make Democrats dominant.
It’s true that Texas is rapidly diversifying, with substantial Latino, African-American, and Asian-American communities. But voter suppression and gerrymandering by the GOP—and lethargy on the part of establishment Democrats—still give Republicans the upper hand. Activists argue that the TV ads and tepid talking points favored by too many Democratic strategists won’t undo the GOP’s advantage anytime soon. Pushing instead for intense organizing and messaging, Our Revolution leaders and organizers have taken to the old-fashioned populist circuit, driving county highways before dawn and after dark to get to towns that haven’t experienced much political excitement in recent years. The meetings fuse activist energy with practical politics, pulling in labor, civil-rights, and immigrant-rights groups, as well as young people who have never identified as Democrats. “There are people who haven’t trusted the Democratic Party, but they trust Our Revolution,” says Julie Ann Nitsch, who won a seat on the Austin Community College district board of trustees last December with strong support from the group. There are also plenty of Democrats who have stuck with the party through thick and thin but have grown tired of waiting for something new.
“This really is exciting,” said Ed Moore, as the “Revolutionize Texas” rally concluded on a Sunday night almost a year after Trump swept East Texas and obliterated Hillary Clinton in Tyler’s Smith County by a 70–26 percent margin. “The Democrats,” Moore confided, “have been bypassing East Texas for so long that I wondered if they knew we were still here.” It wasn’t just that Hightower, Turner, and the Our Revolution crew showed up. It was what they preached: the sort of red-hot populist, strong-for-workers, tough-on-billionaires gospel that Democrats used to embrace in these parts. “Hightower talks about yellow-dog Democrats,” Moore said of the old-time loyalists who backed the party’s ticket no matter who was nominated. “That got me wondering if, maybe, some of the yellow rubbed off on the Democrats.”
That’s “yellow” as in “scared of their own shadow.” In conversations with Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents from towns across Texas this fall, I was struck by just how profoundly frustrated the base is with a national party that couldn’t beat Trump and a state party that has been on a losing streak longer than any in the country. There’s a sense that the party has, in the words of veteran Texas labor organizer Paula Littles, “lost its way” by advancing a campaign-donor-defined agenda that appeals to elites in Dallas and New York rather than an economic-populist agenda that speaks to folks on Tyler’s Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Objections that Democratic strategists, donors, and candidates have narrowed the party’s appeal with “Third Way” platforms and policies that fail to excite much of America aren’t new. Sanders carried that complaint into the 2016 presidential race with considerable success, emerging as the most popular politician in America, according to recent Harvard-Harris polls. Even Hillary Clinton now admits that her campaign “lacked the sense of urgency and passion that I remember” from her husband’s successful presidential run in 1992.
Most Texas Democrats I spoke with on my 1,000-mile trip around the state recognized that their party’s problems in Texas—and the nation—run deeper than personalities and last year’s election results. The party has become uncompetitive in much of America. In 2016, it won just 487 of the more than 3,100 counties nationwide (and just 27 of the 254 counties in Texas). The big, bold, contentious, and yet strikingly competitive party that controlled Congress for most of the 60-year period from Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 to Bill Clinton’s in 1992, and that dominated statehouses for much of that time, now struggles to compete in vast stretches of the country. According to Hamline University professor David Schultz, “Democrats are in the worst shape they’ve been in since the 1920s.”
Nowhere has the decline been so dramatic as in Texas, a state once so solidly Democratic that the great political battles played out in the primaries, because Republicans weren’t competitive enough to make November contests matter. Into the early ’90s, Democrats were so dominant that the state’s political stars—people like Hightower, once the Texas agriculture commissioner, and then-Governor Ann Richards—became leading progressive voices on the national stage. Hightower was defeated in 1990, the victim of a slimy campaign engineered by Karl Rove. Richards lost four years later to Rove’s gubernatorial candidate, George W. Bush. The party lost the Texas Senate in 1996 and the Texas House in 2002, and as the years passed, it lost courthouse posts at such a steady rate that in recent years, contests for local, county, legislative, and even statewide offices have often been conceded to the Republicans without much of a fight.
The change has occurred in the lifetime of many of the Texans who have joined Our Revolution. Before the “Revolutionize Texas” rally in Tyler, Hightower and I drove around the surrounding region. “I used to win this county, Smith County,” Hightower recalled. He finished his 1982 race for agriculture commissioner with more than 60 percent of the vote statewide, running on a Democratic ticket that swept every state office, and he finished equally strong in 1986. In those days, says Littles, the union organizer who grew up south of Tyler in Groveton and now directs the Texas efforts of National Nurses United, “I loved working elections in East Texas. Everyone understood what it was about. You had steelworkers, rubber workers, oil and chemical workers, all these unions, all these union families. We elected a lot of populists and progressives. We had a saying: ‘We elect people and then we collect from them.’ Everyone knew what that meant—it meant that elected officials didn’t just respond to the big money and the bosses; they listened to us, they responded to the needs of working people.”
Then things started to fall apart. First came the layoffs, then the factory closings. The sprawling Goodyear plant that once employed more than 1,000 tire workers on Tyler’s west side closed a decade ago; a Carrier Corporation plant closure cost another 400 jobs four years ago—long before Trump made a show of trying to save the company’s facility in Indiana. Union locals dwindled and disappeared—not just in Tyler but in much of East Texas. Democrats started looking elsewhere for support: to wealthy donors and campaign consultants who argued that the best way to win elections was by pouring money into TV ads rather than local parties and grassroots organizing. “The party turned into a club,” says Littles. “People didn’t feel so connected to it. They stopped showing up for meetings, stopped answering calls to knock on doors.”
Now they’re showing up. On a Monday night in early October, I drove out of Austin to a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Circle-C Area Democrats club, which works part of the sprawling, and absurdly gerrymandered, district of retiring Republican Congressman Lamar Smith. When I arrived, I couldn’t find a parking spot. The club has moved its meetings to larger and larger halls as the crowds have grown in recent months. Trump’s election shook a lot of folks into action. They’re not all Our Revolution members, but many are, including club vice president Hatem Natsheh, who says Our Revolution Texas has “reactivated” the party in many parts of the state. That certainly seemed to be the case as the congressional candidates spoke; as Natsheh notes, “A lot of them were sounding the Bernie Sanders themes: Medicare for All, $15 an hour.”
One of the leading contenders at the Circle-C forum, former congressional aide Derrick Crowe, told the crowd that Texas Democrats must spell out an agenda that excites not just the party faithful but also the great mass of nonvoters who must become engaged in order to tip Texas. Crowe wasn’t just talking the talk. A few days before the forum, when the group organized a rally for universal health care, Crowe showed up, held his “Medicare for All” sign aloft, and tweeted that he was “Proud to stand with @OurRevolutionTX & @OurRevolution for #Medicare4all in San Antonio!”