As Democrats celebrate picking up five seats in the Texas House of Representatives, they should reflect on what might have been. In a posting the morning after the election (see “Seaman vs. Garcia: One Box to Go” in the blog archives), I listed seven races other House that were close enough that the Democratic candidate might have won with more support. The Democrats have 69 seats–exactly seven seats short of a majority. Consider the millions of dollars that several trial lawyers threw away on Carole Strayhorn’s quixotic campaign for governor and whether that money could have tipped some (or all) of these races.

One of the losing Democrats, Ernie Casbeer, read the posting and sent me an e-mail that should make leading Democrats–and by that I mean people who do politics 24/7: big donors, fundraisers, consultants, officeholders–think long and hard about opportunities that were missed and whether they had the right priorities in this election. I don’t know Ernie Casbeer, but you can’t read this e-mail without thinking that he is the kind of person who ought to be in public office, regardless of party:

“I have been picking up signs and only got home a short time ago. I would like to share following with the public, if you think it is okay. My campaign team consisted of my wife, Cat, and me plus a friend, Tim Orwig, who helped with the ads I put into the papers and polished my articles for the paper. I did have many supporters in various parts of the district who helped get out signs. I called people in the district from mid-April until October every night that I could. I started calling in the district at 6:30 and called until 9 each night. We collected most of our donations from the calls. The average donation was around $70.00. I had ads in every paper in the district including two Spanish language and one Korean, most of the radio stations, and bought most of the usual campaign material. I carried two of the six counties and lost my opponent’s home county by 178 votes. Three of us, all of whom were working full time– my wife and I are teachers and Tim works for a internet company–with very little money almost pulled an upset. I had a large number of Republicans tell me that I was the first Democrat that then had ever voted for. I would like the public to know what we did and for them to think about what could have been done with some more support.”

Sid Miller, Casbeer’s opponent in the rural district that is centered on the dairy farming country southwest of Fort Worth, raised around $100,000 in the three reporting periods (mid-July, 30 days before the election, and 8 days before the election) following the primary elections in March. Casbeer raised around $35,000. Even so, the race was close enough that in the last eight days, Republicans rushed to Miller’s aid: $15,000 from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, $10,000 from HILLCO Partners (that’s the Buddy Jones-Bill Miller lobbying behemoth), and donations from $500 to $1,000 by other PACs, such as the Texas Apartment Association. Casbeer had to make do with a $1389.77 in-kind contribution from Texas Parent PAC for a phone bank.

The question is, why didn’t leading Democrats “think about what could have been done with more support?” I think the answer is the answer is that they are like a football team that is used to losing and has ceased to believe that they can win. I heard a Democratic consultant dismiss the chances of Katy Hubener defeating Kirk England in Grand Prairie. She had lost to his predecessor, Ray Allen, in 2004. She had lost to England in a special election last spring. And so the Democrats wrote her off. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that her race against Allen had come in a Republican year when George W. Bush was on the ticket, and that her loss to England last spring had come in a special election, a type of race in which Republicans typically have the advantage due to light Democratic turnouts. In the succeeding months, the world had fallen apart for Republicans. Katy Hubener lost to Kirk England by 231 votes. England had a huge edge in fundraising for the campaign, approximately $173,000 to $40,000. With any help at all from Democrats in the end game, she could have won this race. To his credit, Garnet Coleman figured it out. The Houston state rep sent Hubener $1,000 in the last week, but he needed more help and didn’t get it.

One more race to mention: Mike Krusee got 50.1% of the vote. He is the author and biggest defender of the highway bill that authorized toll roads throughout Texas. His Round Rock district is in the heart of the Central Texas controversy over tolling. A well financed campaign that hammered him for his support of toll roads might have taken him out. And yet, Democrats completely ignored Karen Felthauser. She raised barely $15,000 for the entire campaign.

Opportunities like 2006 only come along once in a generation, and Democrats failed to make the most of this one.