Am I Blue?
The consultants behind Battleground Texas believe the state is ready to swing back to the Democrats. They could learn a thing or two from the Republicans.
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In the video, a handsome if slightly geeky-looking young man stands in front of an olive-green curtain. He is wearing a suit jacket and a dress shirt with an open collar. “Hey, everybody,” he begins. “My name is Jeremy Bird. Many of you might remember me as the national field director for Obama’s reelection campaign. I wanted to speak to you quickly about an exciting new movement that launched this week. It’s called Battleground Texas.” The objective, Bird goes on to say in the four-and-a-half minute YouTube clip, posted in late February, is to turn Texas into a competitive state—that is, one in which Democrats can hold their own with Republicans, something that hasn’t happened since Ann Richards defeated Clayton Williams to become governor, in 1990.
It’s a daunting task, but Bird certainly has credentials. He is a veteran grassroots organizer, and he led one of the most brilliant get-out-the-vote campaigns in the history of presidential politics in 2012, heading up the outreach to minority groups, unmarried women, and millennials. President Obama himself has attended several private events in Texas, where, according to state representative Garnet Coleman, he has talked about how important Texas is to the future of the Democratic party.
You might think that weary state Democrats would welcome Battleground Texas with open arms. In fact, they have little love for their Washington brethren, including the president, who (as they see it) parachute into the state, attend lavish fundraisers, and stuff their pockets with cash destined to be poured into congressional races in other states. Glenn Smith, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked on Richards’s 1990 campaign, told me he feared that Republicans would say, “Obama’s carpetbaggers are here.” That’s to be expected, and indeed, Dave Carney, a Republican strategist who worked for Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign, remarked to Politico that the plan amounts to little more than “consultants coming up with a project to get paid.” But what should be more troubling for Bird is that several prominent Democrats have told me essentially the same thing: they worry that his efforts are little more than an attempt to raise his own profile—and a lot of cash.
It’s obvious why Democratic strategists like Bird view Texas as the last great prize to be won in the eternal quest for partisan advantage: the state’s 38 electoral votes are second only to California’s 55, which reliably go to the Democrats. The White House knows that if it can turn Texas blue, Republicans will be boxed out of the presidency. So how does Battleground Texas do that? Bird intends to raise millions of dollars over the next four years, while at the same time expand the voter base for Democrats and get people to the polls. It goes without saying, given the recent performance of Democratic tickets in Texas, that this is easier said than done.
To be fair, there is a lot of Democratic money in Texas, but there is also a lot of competition for that money. An ongoing debate among Democrats is whether it is better to try to win a statewide race or to pick up more seats in the Legislature. Smith is optimistic about Battleground Texas’s chances, but he is skeptical that a comeback can be based on success in legislative races. “It’s very difficult to get everybody rowing to the same beat,” he said. Now Bird and other operatives who will soon be descending on Texas must somehow persuade donors to fund organizing efforts when the state’s Democratic candidates are in desperate need of campaign contributions themselves. If the Battleground Texas leaders are smart, their first goal will be to flip Harris County: turn Harris blue, with its huge and diverse minority population, and the rest of the state could follow. Dallas County is already Democratic, and, aside from Tarrant County, so is the rest of urban Texas.
If there is some good news for the Democrats, it’s that a pair of Public Policy Polling surveys showed that Hillary Clinton is currently running even with or ahead of likely Republican opponents in Texas for 2016, and Bill White, who lost the 2010 governor’s race to Perry, has a slight edge over him today. Notwithstanding these glimmers of hope, the truth is that the Texas Democratic party barely exists. In the 2010 midterm elections Republicans decimated Democrats in the state House, winning a supermajority. The party lacks the infrastructure to run major campaigns—operatives, consultants, fund-raisers, and county and precinct chairs, not to mention credible candidates. Thirteen counties in Texas no longer hold Democratic primaries. Democrats haven’t had a successful statewide election since 1994, when Bob Bullock, Dan Morales, Garry Mauro, and John Sharp were on the ticket (but Richards lost the governorship to a Republican by the name of George W. Bush).
The last serious effort Democrats made to win a statewide race was in 2002, when they ran the so-called dream-team ticket of Tony Sanchez Jr. for governor, Ron Kirk for U.S. senator, Sharp for lieutenant governor, and Kirk Watson for attorney general. This was a formidable lineup backed by real money; Sanchez alone spent more than $60 million. All the Democrats lost, and the party has not fielded a competitive statewide slate of candidates since.
Of course, the party is not without rising stars. The best-known Democrats in the state are the Castro twins, Joaquín, a freshman congressman, and Julián, the mayor of San Antonio and the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention last summer. But neither of the Castros is as recognizable statewide, much less nationally, as was another San Antonio politician, Henry Cisneros, at the height of his popularity, in the eighties.
How can the Democrats win? For many years, their strategy has been to wait for the maturation of the Latino vote. They are still waiting. As the Battleground Texas folks will find out soon enough, Texas is not a high-performing Latino-voting state, and an analysis of Latino voting patterns reveals profound structural weaknesses. The Latino population is around 9.5 million, but only 43.8 percent are eligible to vote. Of those who are eligible, 32.3 percent are young (18 to 29), 27.1 percent lack a high school diploma, and 27.9 percent have a household income under $30,000. Latino registration actually declined from 2008 to 2010. Energizing that voting group will be one of Battleground Texas’s biggest challenges, because it is something no one else has been able to do.
The Castro brothers are among the optimists. Appearing recently on CBS’s Face the Nation, Julián told Bob Schieffer that Texas is “going to become a purple state, then a blue state, because of the demographics, because of population growth of folks from outside Texas.” But as Wayne Thorburn writes in The Transformation of Texas Politics, a forthcoming book by UT Press, Nina Perales, the vice president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, offered a more sober view. Shortly after the 2012 election, Perales appeared at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference in San Antonio. Joaquín had just predicted that Texas would see a Democratic voting majority in eight to twelve years, and Perales responded, “I just wanted to throw cold water on everything you have all said. We’re losing ground. We have more U.S. citizen Latinos turning eighteen every day than are getting registered. The gap between eligible and registered in the Latino community is widening, not narrowing.”
As most consultants will tell you, election cycles come and election cycles go, and very little changes in the electorate. Bird and Battleground Texas have brought some talented operatives to the state—Jenn Brown, who served as Obama’s field director in Ohio, and Christina Gomez, a former digital strategist for the Democratic National Committee—but demographics can cut in both directions. As a group, Latinos tend to be business-oriented, so when they eventually move into the middle class, the likelihood increases that they will leave their political roots behind and vote Republican. The biggest threat to Democrats right now is whether Republicans will be able to mount an effective Latino outreach drive. If they can pull it off, particularly with a Hispanic candidate like George P. Bush, the Republicans will have checkmate.
Not surprisingly, Governor Perry scoffs at the idea that Battleground Texas can be successful. “The University of Texas will change its colors to maroon and white before Texas goes purple, much less blue,” he recently remarked. For the moment, Perry is right, but that doesn’t mean Democrats in Texas won’t have their day. The national party has assembled a formidable coalition that has won two presidential elections and could well win a third. The coalition includes multiple groups: blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays, secularists, college-educated women, and young people generally. This coalition reflects what America looks like in 2013, and the state’s Republican leaders don’t have a clue about that change. If Republicans don’t alter course, Texas politics will gradually reverse itself.
It’s important for Battleground Texas to remember that Texas did not become Republican overnight. The state was solidly Democratic for a century before John Tower won a U.S. Senate seat, in 1961—the one that had been held by Lyndon B. Johnson before he had to give it up to become vice president. Over a long period of time, the Texas Democratic party lost control of the state due to a demographic change: an influx of affluent families moved to Texas from the north, who brought with them a tradition of voting Republican that did not previously exist here. Texas ultimately became a Republican state because Democrats switched parties.
Today the Texas Republican party is so far out of touch with the values of the ascendant culture that mainstream Republicans who loathe the extremism of their party will become Democrats. Again, it will take time; when the Republican party was evolving into the dominant political force in the state, Karl Rove would preach patience. “It’s not an event,” he would say of the growing strength of the Texas GOP. “It’s a process.” Battleground Texas should take note, that’s a valuable piece of advice.