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How Democrats Are Working to Build Statewide Victory

The Texas Democratic Party can’t rely on a superstar to save it. But rebuilding the party from the county level up might work.

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Illustration by Anna Donlan; Capitol: Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Of the fifteen most populous counties in Texas, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won eight last year. She carried three congressional districts and ten state House districts over Republican President Donald Trump. Her big showing in Dallas provided the coattails needed for a Democrat to ride to a House seat held by a Republican, and the Democrats swept the Harris County elections. Topping it all, the Republicans have a president whose poll numbers with independents and moderate voters are tanking—more than half the moderates in one recent state poll disapproved of the job Trump is doing as president.

All that sounds like a formula to put the long-suffering Texas Democratic Party onto the comeback trail. And, yet, the party could not find a candidate with statewide name recognition to challenge Governor Greg Abbott. The leading candidate for lieutenant governor lost a 2014 race for a lower office. The likely nominee for a challenge to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz—Beto O’Rourke—at least has brought enthusiasm to the contest.

As candidate filing came to a close Monday, the two most interesting primary races look to be the Republican challenges to Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.

Part of the seemingly bleak Democratic landscape comes from the party’s changing game plan. Following Abbott’s wipeout of Wendy Davis in the 2014 gubernatorial election, the party reverted to an approach it had in place before Davis’ filibuster against abortion restrictions propelled her to national prominence—and created Democratic dreams of winning a statewide election for the first time since 1994. The party is now attempting to build from the county level up instead of depending on a superstar to carry it from the top

Furthermore, Clinton’s strong showing  in the cities gives Democrats in Houston hope for proving their 2016 victories were not a fluke, and the unsettled political atmosphere has created opportunities in several congressional districts. One of the hottest likely will be the Democratic challenge to longtime U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican from north Dallas, and that contest could create enough excitement in Dallas County to help the Democrats pick up several seats in the Texas House, along with a victory in the county district attorney’s race.

Cliff Walker, the candidate recruitment director for the state Democratic Party, said he’s proud of the people who chose to run for statewide office, but he also pointed to recent Democratic victories on the local level in Virginia that had a “reverse coattails” effect. “One of the lessons we learned from Virginia is very competitive local races improves performance at the top,” Walker told me.

The hot primaries

Land Commissioner Bush finds himself entangled in controversy over the Alamo; critics have attacked him for lacking transparency as his office moves forward with a new master plan for the shrine of the Texas Revolution. Former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has announced against him, complaining about management of the Alamo as well as Bush’s handling of recovery efforts for people displaced by Hurricane Harvey. Bush can outspend Patterson and the two other Republicans in the GOP primary, but the Bush name does not carry the same weight it did when his grandfather and uncle were presidents.

In the Republican primary for agriculture commissioner, incumbent Miller faces a challenge from lobbyist Trey Blocker. Miller has been a buffoonish character in office, and he has a bad habit of posting items to Facebook that are false. Blocker has long lobbied in the Texas Lege, and his lengthy client list has included agricultural chemical giant Monsanto. The winner will face Democrat Kim Olson, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel.

U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Corpus Christi Republican, was probably best know, until recently, as the congressman in pajamas posing with a young women at a charity event in his hometown. But earlier this month, news came out that Farenthold used $84,000 in taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit from a former staffer. He has promised to repay the money and has denied any improper action. He very quickly drew five Republican and three Democratic challengers.

The not-so-hot primaries

Take your pick of the regional Democratic candidates for governor—there are eight of them. The three you are likely to hear about are former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez; Houston businessman Andrew White, the son of the late Governor Mark White; and Dallas leather bar owner Jeffrey Payne. Because of their sexual orientation, Valdez and Payne could have appeal to the Dallas LGBTQ community, and White has the potential to appeal to the conservative business crowd. Odds are high that the eventually winner will lose to Abbott and his $40 million campaign fund.

In the Republican primary, incumbent Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is facing a challenge from former Rockwall City Council member Scott Milder, who is building support among Texas educators and the mainstream business community. But Patrick remains on solid footing with the conservative Christian tea party movement because of his support for private school vouchers and legislation to limit bathroom access for transgender students. The nominee will face a general election fight with Democrat Mike Collier, who lost a race for state comptroller in 2014.

The potentially hot primary

Cruz seems likely to cruise to a nomination for a second term as the state’s junior member of the U.S. Senate, but he is being challenged by Houston energy lawyer Stefano de Stefano and Christian television network executive Bruce Jacobson. Whether this contest will turn into a keeper is yet to be determined.

The Texas Legislature

Texas House leadership may be largely affected by elections in the ten districts that were carried by Clinton despite being held by Republican lawmakers. Retiring Speaker Joe Straus was repeatedly elected by the House with a coalition of Democrats and Republicans as his base. It’s unlikely that Democrats can carry all ten of the contested districts, but let’s suppose they do. That would change the House partisan math to 85 Republicans and 65 Democrats, meaning that only eleven Republicans need to join forces with the Democrats to elect a moderate Republican speaker of the House. Yes, the Republican caucus has adopted rules stating that the speaker will be elected in the caucus, but there’s no method of punishing a legislator who breaks party discipline.

Seven of the ten districts are in Dallas County, two are in Harris County, and one is Williamson County, northwest of Austin.

The problem for Democrats is that Clinton only got more votes than the Republican incumbents in three of the ten districts: District 105, held by Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie; District 115, by Matt Rinaldi of Dallas; and District 134, by Sarah Davis of Houston. Rinaldi narrowly won against a Democrat in the 2016 general election, and Anderson’s district has just a 41 percent Anglo voting age population while the black and Hispanic voting age population is 51 percent. These are two races that might be helped by having Valdez at the top of the Democratic ticket.

Davis has the most left-leaning voting record among the House Republicans, and Abbott has endorsed her primary opponent, Susanna Dokupil. If Davis loses the primary, there is a high likelihood that the district will go Democratic, especially if White is the nominee. A White candidacy also might help the Democrats carry District 138 over incumbent Dwayne Bohac, but the Republican last year received 7,252 more votes than Clinton even though she carried the district over Trump.

Congressional races

Probably no race will get more attention than Sessions’s run for re-election in District 32 in north Dallas. The district has remained solidly Republican in recent elections, except for Clinton’s two-point victory over Trump. Sessions out-polled Clinton by almost 28,000 votes. But knocking him out is a priority for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and thirteen Democratic primary candidates are vying for the chance to run against him. Five of the earliest candidates collectively raised more than $1 million, and being in one of the state’s top media markets, the focus should be intense, especially since veteran WFAA investigative reporter Brett Shipp has joined the Democratic field.

The District 21 seat held by retiring congressman Lamar Smith is not likely to go Democratic, but that has not stopped five from announcing for it. More likely, one of the nine Republicans trying for the seat will be the next congressman.

The most vulnerable Texas Republican in Congress is Will Hurd of Helotes. Clinton not only carried the district, she got more actual votes than Hurd. Four Democrats are running in this heavily Hispanic district, and having Valdez at the top of the ticket might help with Hispanic turnout in the general election.

The Houston district carried by Clinton is held by John Culberson. Clinton won the district, and like Sessions, Culberson out-polled the Democratic nominee—but not by the kind of substantial margin Sessions held. White’s candidacy might help a Democrat here: six are vying for the nomination.

Dallas County district attorney

Republican incumbent Faith Johnson was appointed by Abbott to fill a vacancy. Two Democrats already have filed to run against her. The possible combination of Valdez running against Abbott and the excitement around the challenge to Sessions could be enough to put this office into Democratic hands.

I haven’t tried to include every race. There’s some potentially good ones brewing for the fall, and a couple of others bubbling in Collin County. Please, feel free in the comments to add races you think I should have written about and give your opinion on the ones that I did.

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  • José

    I see that Dems are running candidates for all 36 US Congress seats, 133 of 150 state reps, and 14 of 15 state senators. Good for them. Texans deserve a choice.

    • John Bernard Books

      I agree, usually dems select a slate for the primary and dems are free to crossover and try to ruin the republican primary. Why do dems like you let the party bosses tell you how to vote?
      Dem party bosses like to say how stupid their voters are. You’re supposed to be highly educated, can’t you decide who to vote for?
      Texans do have a choice in the republican primary.

  • WUSRPH

    Another list of candidates to Oppose:

    Another list of candidates to OPPOSE:
    Young Conservatives of Texas announced its second wave of endorsements for the 2018 Republican primaries this morning.
    The group backed state Rep. Pat Fallon of Frisco in his bid to unseat state Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls. It also gave its support to 14 state lawmakers and statewide official seeking re-election:

    Gov. Greg Abbott

    Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

    Attorney General Ken Paxton

    Comptroller Glenn Hegar

    Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick

    State Sen. Kelly Hancock of North
    Richland Hills

    State Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth

    State Rep. Greg Bonnen of Friendswood

    State Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano

    State Rep. Kyle Biedermann of
    Fredericksburg

    State Rep. Cole Hefner of Mt. Pleasant

    State Rep. Bill Zedler of Arlington

    State Rep. Mike Lang of Granbury

    State Rep. Valoree Swanson of Spring

    • SpiritofPearl

      I’ve heard good comments about Ms. Craddick, but I no longer vote for Republicans.

      • Jed

        craddick is bought and sold by the petro-lobby. she rejects science in favor of lobbyists. she is just like her daddy, in other words. she is horrible for texas and texans, and emblematic of everything wrong with texas government in general and the RRC in particular. whoever is giving you “good comments” about her should be removed (exhumed?) from your list of advisors.

        • SpiritofPearl

          She is my friend. Can’t say she’s unbiased.

    • donuthin2

      Don’t know anything about most on the list but after seeing Patrick and Paxton on the list, no way I would give them any credibility.

  • Tara Banda

    Will Fisher is a Democrat and attorney from Flower Mound running for Congress to unseat incumbent Michael Burgess in TX26. He recently held a second packed town hall, has done Q&As on Facebook live, did an AMA in r/politics, has been phone banking since July and blockwalking since September (the last two blockwalks having ~40 and ~30 volunteers for a single candidate). He was originally in a primary with three other candidates, but only one other ended up filing for the same race.

    No national news about this yet because this district has been red for so long and Burgess is a Trump yes-man. But the Republicans even want him out because he’s been in Congress for 15 years with no success at climbing the ladder. He’s being primaried by a lady who happily took photos with Bannon at one of Moore’s last big events.

    The Dems want him out because: he’s a doctor who helped author the AHCA, let CHIP expire, votes for bills directly impacting his district, holds town halls only to be condiscending, and at one town hall openly stated that he only represents 60-something percent of the district.

    He also years ago suggested that fetuses masterbate … if that were now, I bet there’d be some national interest.

  • Gary Denton

    Beto actually has a chance with the unpopularity of Cruz and his media savvy and extensive campaigning. Cruz is more unpopular in Texas than Moore was in Alabama. Nearly every action the GOP is supporting to gain favor with billionaires, big corporations, or their Evangelical base is opposed by the majority of the people.