texasmonthly.com: What was it about this story that interested you?
Patricia Kilday Hart: I wrote in October about the three special sessions for re-districting, so I really wanted to follow up and see how the Democratic incumbents were faring in the new districts. No one—Democrat or Republican—will tell you that re-districting was about anything else but maximizing Republican gains in Congress. As a political consultant told me: “This isn’t about who the best candidate is.” Rather, he acknowledged, it’s about Republicans getting even with Democrats who dominated their districting process for decades. Also, I see a compelling drama unfolding in these elections: Can computer software (used to redistribute voters) overcome the personal appeal of individuals?
texasmonthly.com: What was your research like for this story?
PKH: To begin researching this story, I relied upon Internet sources. The Legislative Council has a redistricting Web site with an amazing array of numbers used to evaluate the districts. The public has access to all the numbers that the mapmakers used. And, of course, all political campaigns maintain thorough Web sites with information on their candidates’ issues and resumes. But you have to get out of Austin to get an authentic view of a campaign. I visited Congressman Charlie Stenholm in his Washington office and spent a day with him in Lubbock and some surrounding small towns. I returned to West Texas to spend a similar day with Republican Randy Neugebauer. I watched him shake hands with the crowd at the Barbarian Festival, in Cross Plains, and it doesn’t get much more authentic than that. People wanted to talk to him about everything from veterans’ issues to small business regulations—and I got to watch him operate without a script. He was very personable and very good at thinking on his feet. He’ll be tough competition for Stenholm, who is also an excellent campaigner.
texasmonthly.com: Voters oftentimes vote a straight ticket. Do you think if Charlie Stenholm and his band of brothers win, it will be because people are attracted to them as individual candidates?
PKH: If any Democrat wins, it will be because that candidate successfully identified with voters in some way outside of the party label—as a West Texan, as an Aggie, as a member of the North Dallas Jewish community, for instance. There has to be another personal connection to the candidate that will supercede the party identification.
texasmonthly.com: How do Democrats deal with new districts filled with people who they are not familiar with?
PKH: All of the Democrats are seasoned campaigners and comfortable introducing themselves to new voters. So, for someone like Stenholm, it’s like deja vu—he’ll be reliving his 1978 race when he was the new kid on the block.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think Stenholm, with his photo of himself shaking Ronald Reagan’s hand, is a true Democrat?
PKH: Over the past two decades, both parties have moved to the extreme right and left because of fringe groups that dominate their primaries. Charlie Stenholm absolutely is a true Democrat: If he had switched parties and become a Republican, he wouldn’t be in any trouble at all. He’s been courted relentlessly to switch parties, and he refuses. Unfortunately, he is the last of a dying breed of politicians skilled at the art of compromise and comfortable in working “across the aisle.” We’re all in trouble if a member of Congress can’t shake hands with the president of the United States because he happens to represent the opposing party.
texasmonthly.com: Do you agree with Roll Call that this race “leans Democratic”?
PKH: Different so-called “experts” have chosen different races in which they believe the Democrats have an edge. These are all untested districts. I won’t go out on a limb and try to “call” any of these races. The deck is tremendously stacked against all the Democrats; it will be a triumph of personality and campaign style and strategy if any one of them succeeds.
texasmonthly.com: Is a Texas Democrat an oxymoron?
PKH: I wouldn’t say Texas Democrat is an oxymoron, but we probably should add this rare bird to the endangered species list. Having said that, it is important to remember state demographers believe that in the near future, the Texas climate will be very kind to Democrats: As the state becomes more Hispanic, Texas Democrats will thrive and be plentiful.
texasmonthly.com: Do you agree with Stenholm that when it comes to spending, “we’re the target”?
PKH: The “we’re” in the Stenholm quote was directed at the agricultural community, not taxpayers in general. He was attempting to bring a little reality into the conversation. It’s easy to be for cuts in spending, but West Texas voters need to realize that the cuts very likely will come from farm subsidies that they have benefited from.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think is the difference between geographic and party loyalty? How does that play out?
PKH: We all know Texans strongly identify with their state, city, or region in a very visceral, personal way. When someone says, “I grew up on a cotton farm in West Texas,” that statement reveals a lot about them as an individual and about their life experiences and values. When a Texan says, “I am a Republican,” or “I am a Democrat,” it reveals something about a values system, but not in the same way that geography does. I think this election will tell us a lot about how attached Texans are to party labels. On the national level, political scientists believe our country has become almost tribal in allegiance to a political party. These five Democrats will test that theory in November by appealing to voters on the basis of experience, common values, and personality—and hoping those traits supercede allegiance to a tribe.