Barack Obama swooped into Texas yesterday to raise money for the Democratic National Committee at a pair of fundraisers in Austin and Dallas and speak at a rally with students at the University of Texas. He received a boisterous welcome from Texas Democrats, who don’t often get visits from the national party, though that is starting to change. The DNC held its winter meeting in Austin last fall and Obama strategists believe Texas, given its rapid demographic changes, could be in play in the next few presidential cycles.
At a time when Democrats across the country are bracing for losses, Texas Dems are bullish about their chances of taking back the Texas House of Representatives this year, which would give them a voice in the all-important redistricting process in 2012, and picking up statewide office seats for the first time since 1994. Anti-incumbent fever could actually work to the Democrats advantage in the Lone Star State. “If the mood in the country is ‘throw the bums out,’ in Texas the bums are Republicans,” Matt Angle, director of the Texas Democratic Trust, told me earlier this year.
The premier statewide matchup pits former Houston Mayor Bill White, a Democrat, against incumbent Republican Governor Rick Perry, a fire-breathing conservative who made headlines last year when he raised the prospect of Texas seceding from the union. Polls show White within striking distance of Perry, George W. Bush’s two-term successor, and thus far Texas Dems believe their candidate has run a disciplined, effective campaign. Yet White was notably absent during Obama’s visit, choosing instead to campaign in Midland, Abilene and Alvarado. The Old Settlers Reunion parade apparently took precedence over a rare presidential visit.
White also had some choice words for the president in a recent interview, faulting him for “spending too much money in Washington,” and saying, “I was in the oil and gas business when he was a community organizer”—the type of cheap shot usually reserved for Sarah Palin or Rudy Giuliani. White’s dismissal of Obama is a striking reversal from last year, the Dallas Morning News pointed out, when “White bought a newspaper ad picturing him with Obama under the headline ‘The Dream. The Hope. The Change.’” White believes he’s making the smart political move by suddenly distancing himself from the president—Perry would love nothing more than to tie White to Obama, so why give him the opportunity? But Texas Observer editor Bob Moser recently wrote a column wondering if White’s “Obamaphobia” is the best strategy—a sentiment I also share (and am quoted expressing in the piece).
“What this whole sad episode of Obamaphobia seems to have revealed about White, as much as anything else, is his wrong-headed notion of what it’s going to take for a Democrat to win statewide in Texas,” Moser writes. As I told Moser, Perry is going to run against Obama’s Washington no matter what, so White might as well use the president to try to inspire the voters that represent the ascendant future in Texas politics—young people, blacks, Hispanics—while courting the usual swing voters—independents, conservative Democrats, centrist Republicans—by emphasizing Perry’s extremist record. But focusing only on the latter group is a losing strategy. To take one example of how the state is changing demographically, there are already enough Hispanics registered to flip Texas blue in a presidential election if they voted Democratic and 2.5 million more, according to some estimates, who have yet to be brought into the political process. That’s a big question mark, of course, but one with huge long-term possibilities. Instead of hiding from the president, White should be following Obama’s ’08 model and doing everything he can to expand the state’s political map.
—Ari Berman’s new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.