On a night when the top of the Democratic ticket got clobbered, the wave came from the bottom. Despite having to contend with a legislative redistricting map that was drawn four years ago to achieve a permanent Republican majority, despite the best efforts of a GOP fundraising machine that had almost unlimited resources to put into targeted races, despite a severe deficit in consulting and fundraising talent, despite the absence of anything resembling a party organization, Democrats somehow managed to win virtually all the swing races for state House seats. The Ds lost no seats of their own and have already gained four from the opposition to cut the Republicans’ majority from 86-64 to 82-68. One Republican seat remains at risk, with Gene Seaman clinging to a 250-vote lead over Juan Garcia in a district that follows the Texas coastline as it turns to the northeast.
Karl Rove used to say of the Republicans’ long climb from an insignificant minority to a dominant majority, “This is not an event; it’s a process.” What happened on November 7 was an event. It is not yet a revolution, but it is potentially a palace coup capable of producing a bipartisan alliance that could unseat Tom Craddick as speaker. It certainly turns Texas politics upside down; the Republicans no longer have a monopoly on success. Craddick and Rick Perry have some soul-searching to do. Why did their party suffer such losses? Why didn’t their ability to outspend the Democrats make a difference? Can a conservative agenda of school vouchers, appraisal caps, an abortion trigger bill, and a new ceiling on state spending find a favorable reception in the next Legislature? After all, Republicans still hold the majority. The problem is that rank and file Republicans may lose their sense of invulnerability–their certainty that GOP money can scare off opponents, their belief that Democrats aren’t a threat to their own reelection. And, having lost it, they will be far less willing to follow the leadership blindly into battle with, say, the education community, than they were in the past.
Certainly nothing that happened in the statewide races in Texas suggested that voters had retribution against Republicans on their minds. But perhaps that’s the point. The voters looked at the top of the ballot and didn’t like their choices, from either party. They didn’t know enough about the Democrats and they knew too much about the Republicans. Infighting among the leadership. Hostility to public education. Toll roads. That anger–fed by all the hype of the national election–found its expression in legislative races.
In 2002, the Democrats tried to return to power by starting at the top, with Tony Sanchez as their candidate for governor and Ron Kirk as their candidate for U.S. senator. There were many reasons why this strategy didn’t work, but the main one was that you can’t build without a foundation. Four years later, the Democrats stumbled into the right strategy by default, having no major figure who wanted the party’s nomination for governor: Start at the bottom. Build the base. It’s not glamorous, but it works. The Democrats are a long way from becoming a statewide force, much less returning to power, but they have taken the essential first step: They won something.