Texas Democrats hardly had time to enjoy their new status as a robust minority party before they began squabbling over strategy. David Van Os, who is something of a perennial candidate (Supreme Court 1998 and 2004, attorney general 2006), signified his interest in challenging chairman Boyd Richie over the issue of whether the party’s strategy of concentrating resources on legislative and urban-county courthouse races to the detriment of statewide candidates such as Rick Noriega, the party’s nominee for U.S. Senate.
Van Os is totally off base here. Has everybody forgotten 2002? The Democrats opted for a start-at-the-top strategy behind gubernatorial nominee Tony Sanchez, Senate hopeful Ron Kirk, and lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp–and got wiped out. The Democratic brand in this state is tarnished. The party is not credible on a statewide level. Too many of its candidates have been anonymous placeholders. Good candidates with potential shy away from running. No Democrat has won a statewide race since 1994. The Republicans have tarnished their own brand, but at the top of the ticket, the GOP is the default choice.
The Democrats are a minority party. They have to know their place–and their place is the bottom of the ballot, not the top. It takes at least $15 million to run a major statewide race, at least $5 million to run for a downballot statewide office. The idea that you can do it on the cheap is fatally flawed. The party cannot amass the resources to compete. On the other hand, it takes a couple of hundred thousand to run a tough state rep race, half a million or more to run a state Senate race, a million to run a congressional race. The further down the ballot a race is, the further the money goes.
As a top Democratic strategist told me earlier today, You have to make a lot of decisions in the course of a campaign. If you have money, you can afford to make some mistakes. If you don’t have money, you have to be right every time, and that just doesn’t happen.
The Democrats are pursuing the right strategy by starting at the bottom: urban courthouses, state House seats, state Senate seats, congressional seats. The Republicans didn’t seize control of the state overnight, and the Democrats can’t expect to do it either. They aren’t going to like this, but impatient Democrats like Van Os should heed the wisdom of Karl Rove, who, when the Republicans were where the Demcrats are now, used to say, “This”–meaning the party’s takeover of Texas–“isn’t an event. It’s a process.”