The Texas Democrats insist they've still got some fight left in them. So why are they deserting the battlefield?

May 2004By Comments

A FEW MONTHS AGO, IN THE parking lot of the LBJ Library in Austin, I bumped into Ben Bentzin, the retired Dell Computer executive who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the Texas Senate in 2002. Ben and I are relentless kibitzers about politics, so I asked after his friend Michael McCaul, who is running for the U.S. House. One of the juicier fruits of last year’s redistricting endgame was the creation of a new congressional district that stretches east from North Austin to suburban Houston; McCaul, a former federal prosecutor, was one of eight Republicans running for the seat in the March 9 primary. He told me that the race was going well: Another candidate had attempted to outflank McCaul on the right, but the likely outcome was that McCaul would decimate the guy and end up in a runoff with another of his rivals. (Which is exactly, come primary day, what happened.) Okay, I said innocently, but what happens in the fall? Which Democrat will the winner face? He grinned and replied, “There is none.”

Later that night, when I picked my jaw up off the floor, I wondered: How could the Democrats have permitted the Republicans to capture without opposition a new—that is, open—congressional seat, particularly when a nasty Republican primary would leave the eventual nominee bloodied and cash-strapped (which is also exactly what happened)? Beyond that, in how many other races had the Democrats decided to give up before the game began? The answer, I was surprised to learn, is way too many. In seventy races for the Texas Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the State Board of Education, the Texas Legislature, and the U.S. Congress, no Democrat will be on the ballot in November. The vast majority of the forfeits are in races for the Texas House, where, of the 88 incumbent Republicans, 51 will waltz to victory without breaking a sweat. They include three of Texas Monthly‘s Ten Worst Legislators of 2003—Joe Nixon and Beverly Woolley, both of Houston, and Robert Talton, of Pasadena—along with our lone pick for Dishonorable Mention, a certain Tom Craddick, of Midland. I always thought it was the obligation of the party out of power to run someone, anyone, even a guy in a chicken suit, against the sitting Speaker, if only to torment and distract him and hold him accountable. But apparently the Democrats couldn’t even manage to do that.

Occasionally I give speeches around the state about Texas politics, and the question I’m always asked is, “Are the Democrats dead?” My standard answer is “no,” partly because I’m a wishful thinker (democracy benefits from a lively debate over issues made possible by a two-party system, and nope, the two parties I’m referring to aren’t the conservative Republicans and the moderate Republicans) and partly because I studied history (politics is cyclical—ask the Republicans who were wallowing in their minority party status as recently as a decade ago). But it’s getting harder these days to answer anything other than “yes.” Last year, the most substantive thing the Democrats did was flee Austin; what meaningful alternatives to the Republicans’ cut-and-gut approach did they put before the people of Texas? (And why, right this minute, are they silent to the point of mute about school finance?) This year we have the Great No-show Election. And in two years, it appears, when the state’s most powerful elective offices will again be up for grabs, the likelihood of the Democrats fielding a candidate who isn’t a has-been, a sure loser, or a total unknown to the voters is slim. The only conclusion to be drawn is that the Democrats, if not dead, are on life support.

Not surprisingly, the Republicans agree with this analysis. “One of the main responsibilities of a political party is to put forward candidates and to give voters a choice,” says Ted Royer, the spokesman for the Texas GOP. “Whenever you fail to do that, you’re abdicating that responsibility.” Surprisingly, although they’re generally (a) smart and (b) realistic, few Democrats are willing to be as candid about their party’s sorry state—at least publicly. Of the dozen or so former elected officials, kingmakers, and potential statewide candidates I talked to, only Ben Barnes, the ex-Speaker and lieutenant governor turned lobbyist and fundraiser, would criticize his brethren on the record. (“There’s no one enunciating what we’re for or against,” Barnes says. “Unless there’s someone out in front of the band, leading the parade, the party dies.”) The rest offered, on background, a raft of excuses, justifications, recriminations, and what they insist, unconvincingly, are mitigating factors for this fall’s dereliction of duty.

The first of these was predictable, given the ideological makeup of the state: In many of the races in question, the Democrats can’t possibly win, so why bother running? “Most of the seventy aren’t competitive,” says a Democrat who formerly held statewide office. “I don’t even think you could keep Craddick busy. If Craddick went to Italy and stayed in Italy until November, he’d still get sixty-plus percent of the vote.” This Democrat further argues that running candidates in can’t-win districts purely for the sake of running could actually backfire, since it would drive up Republican turnout and cause problems for other Democrats in close races. “You put a bad candidate up for county commissioner,” the ex-official says, “and you defeat your good candidate for county judge.” And it works both ways: “When Rick Perry runs statewide, the last thing he wants is someone in a heavily Hispanic district ginning up a hot race and generating a lot of Democratic votes.” Maybe all that’s true, but it still reads like the Democrats are shrinking from a fight. (Gee, Santa Anna’s army sure looks big. Not sure we can be “competitive.” Guess we’ll stay home.)

Another rationalization was a variation on the why-bother idea: Because of redistricting, the system is rigged to protect members of both parties, so the notion of a vigorous general election, however badly we might want one, is a sham. Even the late lieutenant governor Bob Bullock—a Democrat, it should be noted—took the path of least resistance when it came to creating safe seats for incumbents. “Toward the end of his career, Bullock was in the getting-people-reelected business rather than the serving-Texas business,” says a prominent Democrat who’s never run for office but might. Here the rationalizers have a point—to a point. Without a scandal for a story line, it is next to impossible for a challenger to defeat a better-known, better-funded incumbent in a district packed full of voters in the incumbent’s party. The GOP acknowledges this too: While the Democrats haven’t run candidates in 70 races this year, the Republicans have opted out of 45, mostly in nonwhite districts (the GOP’s version of “noncompetitive”). But it’s less of an issue when you’re the majority. The minority, on the other hand, remains a minority unless it cracks the code. And first it has to try.

What about money? The Democrats I talked to say they don’t have nearly enough of it and, given the catch-22-like conundrum of not being alive until they’re alive, can’t get any; short of finding another self-funder like Tony Sanchez, they can’t possibly compete. So—once more with feeling—why run? Two words: Howard Dean, who launched a campaign for president against a wildly popular Republican at a time when the general belief was that the Democrats were dead and proceeded to raise $40 million, much of it from new donors, by running anyway.

Finally, there’s the disarray of the party machinery, which everybody cites—and lays at the feet of poor Molly Beth Malcolm, who stepped down as state Democratic chair late last year after five and a half years in the post. She wasn’t good at raising money, they say. She didn’t recruit the kind of candidates who can win. She wasn’t aggressive enough at “messaging” (a fancy word for the scorched-earth attacks that Karen Hughes used to level against the Democrats in the early nineties, when she was the GOP mouthpiece, Ann Richards was governor, and the Republicans were in the seemingly permanent minority). Malcolm categorically rejects the blame, but whatever happened in the past, she isn’t the reason—no chair ever is—for the high number of no-shows this fall. It’s the Democrats’ deficit of ideas. Says Barnes: “We haven’t shown the people of Texas solutions to their problems that are better than the Republican philosophy of ‘Cut taxes, privatize everything, and have as little government as possible.'” Of course, it could be worse. Malcolm’s successor, Charles Soechting, says that when he took the job four and a half months ago, the Democrats were planning on contesting only 11 of the 88 House seats. “I have to tell you,” he says, “that I’m quite honestly very pleased with thirty-seven.”

The shame of all this for the Democrats is that it didn’t have to be. There were many reasons for the party to go all-out this year: the opportunity to benefit from divisive Republican primaries; the heavy Democratic turnout that will be generated by a close presidential election; the backlash against the Republican leadership, as manifested in Perry’s low poll numbers (only a 40 percent approval rating) and the primary defeat of four so-called Craddick Democrats (with two more likely to lose their runoffs); the investigation of alleged campaign-finance violations by Craddick, Congressman Tom DeLay, and other Republicans (see “Speakergate,” page 78) and the prospect that a Sharpstown-style blitz of indictments could incite a throw-the-bums-out reaction by voters; the chance to groom young candidates for races in the future; the possibility that lightning could strike—you never know.

And, most of all, the looming specter of 2006, when the Republicans may be clawing each other’s eyes out in primaries for governor, lieutenant governor, and several other top-tier offices. Any effort by the Democrats this year, even an unsuccessful one, might have inspired a crop of real rather than pretend candidates to make a play for control of the Legislature and the statehouse two years hence, and voters would have seen that reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated. Alas, there are seventy reasons to believe otherwise.

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