The Life and Death (and Life?) of the Party

Democrats once ruled Texas. Then came five decades of steady decline. Can Wendy Davis, the Castro brothers, and Team Obama’s vaunted field operation return their party to power? And if they can’t, can anyone?
Wendy Davis and San Antonio mayor Julián Castro (left) and his twin brother, Congressman Joaquín Castro, in Austin on July 7, 2013
LeAnn Mueller

“Somebody has to step up,” Wendy Davis observed one evening in late May over drinks at the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin. “As long as the Democrats continue to buy into the same bullshit that some of the Republicans are saying—‘Oh no, it’s Texas, it’s hopeless’—and continue to act like it won’t happen for six, eight, twelve, sixteen years from now, that perpetuates the problem.”

“So are you going to run for statewide office?” I asked.

Her green eyes sparkled. “One day, someday,” she said coyly.

One day, someday, about a month later, on the morning of June 25, the petite fifty-year-old Democratic state senator from Fort Worth fixed herself a single boiled egg for breakfast. It would be her only meal of the day. She slipped on a pair of pink tennis shoes, headed over to the Capitol, and stepped up. As Davis began what would become her internationally memorialized eleven-hour filibuster of a Republican bill that would severely restrict a Texas woman’s ability to obtain an abortion, she calmed her jittery nerves by thinking of the assurances made to her the previous afternoon by former Democratic state senator Gonzalo Barrientos, himself an old hand at filibusters: It’ll be fine. You can lean on your desk, keep some candies in your pocket, read anything remotely related to the topic—no one will call you on any of that. 

Once it became clear that the opposite was true—that in fact the Republicans intended to challenge every syllable and muscle twitch—she started getting mad. As the day wore on, her lower back began to hurt. “It was probably because of stress,” she told me two days later. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what if I collapse during hour six?’ ” Her fellow Democrat Rodney Ellis helped her put on a back brace, but this led to the second point of order of the afternoon against her (after three points of order are sustained, a filibuster can be stopped). From then on, Davis knew she had to be error-free. She began to draw both strength and focus from the legion of supporters who had packed the Senate gallery. She was unaware that outside the chamber, the halls of the Capitol were filled with even more people rooting her on or that, by the end of the evening, more than 180,000 people around the world were watching a livestream of the proceedings, with many more following along on social media. Davis learned all this only later, after midnight, upon the defeat of the bill, when the evening’s takeaway seemed best expressed in a tweet by another emerging Texas Democrat, San Antonio mayor Julián Castro: “When Texas turns Blue, tonight may well be looked upon as the beginning.”

“When,” not “if.” After crawling on its belly for two dismal decades, the Texas Democratic Party has suddenly found a spring in its step—and not just because of Davis’s performance. The national debut of Castro himself in a much-lauded keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention last summer underscored the growing recognition that a new Texas—re plete with millions of untapped and largely nonwhite voters—might be there for the party’s taking. Then came the news, immediately following Barack Obama’s impressive defeat of Mitt Romney last November, that the grassroots brainiacs behind the president’s campaign would soon be descending on the Lone Star State in the form of Battleground Texas: a well-funded organization dedicated to the labor-intensive, long-term effort to turn America’s biggest red state blue. 

They were drawn, these number-crunching strategists, by a simple premise: that the state whose vast swaths of white, rural voters rejected Tony Sanchez and the rest of the Democrats’ “dream team” in 2002 barely exists anymore. Today, according to GOP pollster Mike Baselice, fully 59 percent of the state’s general-election voters are concentrated in just 13 of Texas’s 254 counties. Those counties are largely urban and suburban and less reliably conservative than the state’s rural areas. Dallas County, now mainly composed of minorities, went from red to blue in 2006 and has remained a Democratic stronghold ever since. Nearly 15 percent of the state’s general-election voters reside in Harris County, and a majority of them supported Obama in both 2008 and 2012. And the trend is spreading. Houston’s melting pot has spilled over into adjacent Fort Bend County, which, according to another Republican strategist, Ted Delisi, will be “the first truly competitive suburban area.” Delisi could have been speaking about Texas as a whole when he added, “It’s not your daddy’s suburbia anymore.”

Demography is the driver of this runaway freight train. The 2010 census found that the state’s population had increased by 4.3 million over the previous decade and that more than 3.3 million of the new inhabitants were minorities. Of these, an astounding 2.8 million were Hispanic, historically a reliable constituency for Democrats. These numbers conveyed a new reality: the Texas political landscape was getting friendlier for Democrats and tougher for Republicans. And if all of this seemed preposterously hopey-changey—yet another liberal hallucination straight out of The Gay Place —then the indelible image of that slender blond lady in the pink tennis shoes provided stark documentation. This was real. This could happen. Texas could, at minimum, become a state where elections are actually competitive.

Or could it? In the weeks after Davis’s filibuster, Democrats rejoiced in their new star, launching various “Draft Wendy” campaigns to encourage her to run for governor in 2014. But the fact remains that she, or any other Democratic candidate for statewide office, would be a serious long shot next year. A customary response to the prospect of a Davis candidacy is the one I got from GOP political consultant Bryan Eppstein, who told me with a confident smile, “It’s not going to happen that Texas goes from a conservative state to a liberal state.” Four months into their quixotic effort, the Obamaites at Battleground Texas are perhaps beginning to realize that it could be easier to elect the nation’s first black president and subsequently

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