To the extent Texas Democrats think about the 1998 elections at all, it’s with a healthy dose of humility and embarrassment. Garry Mauro, then the land commissioner, lost the gubernatorial race to a fellow named George W. Bush by 37 points, to this day the worst performance by a Democrat running for governor since Reconstruction. But W. was popular. In the race for lieutenant governor, Democrats performed much better. Republican agriculture commissioner Rick Perry scored only 50.04 percent against his old friend John Sharp, then state comptroller, a well-liked, good-ol’-boy Democrat, who won 48.19 percent.
But the 1998 election, as dismal as it was in many respects for the minority party, was a high-water mark in others. Sharp came closer to victory than any statewide Democratic candidate has post-1994. In the 1998 campaign, the Democratic party was able to recruit two candidates for statewide office who had a proven track record of electoral success. And that effort nearly paid off in a big way. Had Sharp done just a little better, he likely would have become governor once Bush won the White House. Perry’s career could have stalled, and the state’s history might have looked very different.
Running just two experienced candidates for the top seven positions in state government may seem like a low bar, but Democrats have rarely met it since. And it will not be met this year, to the party’s great discredit.
Since 1998, most Democratic candidates for high office have fallen into one of three camps: well-meaning novices, self-funders, and eccentrics. In 2002, the party’s gubernatorial candidate was Tony Sanchez, a rich businessman who had never held elected office. In 2006, only gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell could boast of some substantive experience in office—one term as a congressman. In 2018, a year when Democrats might have hoped to ride an anti-Trump wave, El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke outperformed expectations in his bid to defeat incumbent senator Ted Cruz. But aside from the hapless Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez, O’Rourke had no one under him on the ballot who had won even a local election to help bring out voters.
The Democratic slate for 2022, winnowed down by the primary election on March 1, will be no more experienced. Several races are heading to runoffs, but the only candidate with a substantial track record in elected office is once again O’Rourke. To say that the lineup beneath him is weak is not to slight the candidates who are running: many, if not most, are doubtless hard-working and smart folk. But it should be infuriating to rank-and-file Democrats that the slate of candidates the party is putting up for important statewide offices is less formidable than it was in 1998, or in most elections since, after all these years of effort and promise after promise of a blue wave that never arrives.
In the runoff for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, arguably the most powerful seat in state government, Mike Collier, a three-time candidate who has never held office, faces Michelle Beckley. She is a two-term member of the state House from the Dallas suburbs, which would normally count for something, but her tenure was supremely undistinguished. In Texas Monthly’s most recent rankings of the best and worst legislators, we included her on a list of “Furniture,” a venerable term used by legislators for colleagues who did so little they might as well be a bench in a corridor.
Beckley, who won 30 percent to Collier’s 42 percent in the first round, naturally called on him to drop out of the race the day after the primary. She has compared Collier to Joe Manchin, and not in a good way. She suggests that her opponent and the West Virginia senator are not real Democrats. (But Democrats should hope Collier is as strong a candidate as Manchin, who has won multiple elections in a state where Donald Trump won by a margin thirty points larger than his win in Texas.) On Friday, Beckley’s former chief of staff got on Twitter to write that she knew Beckley “better than most” and that “there is no chance in hell that she would be a good” lieutenant governor.
In the race for attorney general, in which Democrats ought to be running as strong a candidate as possible against the comically corrupt Ken Paxton, the leading contender is Rochelle Garza, a former ACLU lawyer from Brownsville. She’ll face a runoff against either Joe Jaworski, who had a distinguished but brief stint as mayor of Galveston, or Lee Merritt, a lawyer from Dallas who specializes in racial justice cases and representing victims of police violence. All have strong résumés, but would face a very steep learning curve in state government, and none has won an elected office with more than four thousand votes.
The two candidates in the Democratic runoff for comptroller and the nominees for agriculture commissioner and for a seat on the Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, all seem like good folk, but they don’t have experience in elected office. In the race for land commissioner, two of the stronger candidates in the Democratic primary included Jay Kleberg, a conservationist whose family owns the fabled King Ranch in South Texas, and Jinny Suh, a community organizer with a long list of endorsements from prominent Democrats and Democratic groups.
They placed second and third, respectively. Kleberg will face the winner of the first round, Sandragrace Martinez, a family therapist from San Antonio. On February 22, Martinez’s campaign reported $42.47 cash on hand. (Note the decimal point.) This was a marked improvement from her February 8 financial report, when her campaign war chest contained $8.43. “Sandragrace is a kind, compassionate born leader, with many friends,” reads Martinez’s peculiar website. “People respond positively to her, therefore.” She “brings Psychology and Zoom expertise that would be critical in leading the current staff and Boards at the GLO, so they operate efficiently and with good will.” (To be fair, this would be a marked improvement over how the GLO operated during the tenure of the current commissioner.)
The Democratic party faces a structural disadvantage in recruiting credible statewide candidates. The pool of those who have won elections is thin, given the party’s 27 years of failure in statewide races, and the gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts. There are plenty of Democrats with experience leading Texas’s most populous cities and counties, which are more liberal than the state at large. But they are choosing not to run, and that is, in part, a vote of no confidence in their party.
An ally of the Castro brothers, long feted as the future of the Texas Democratic party, once told me that Joaquin and Julián would tell friends questioning their reluctance to run for statewide office that they could close a gap with Republicans of a few points, but not of ten points—and were, in essence, waiting for someone or something to close the gap for them. That thinking puts Democrats in a bind.
Credentialed candidates are not enough, of course—in 2014, a relatively formidable statewide slate led by state senators Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte got creamed—but without strong candidates it becomes even harder for the party to look viable. And Democrats miss the rare opportunities that might come along down-ballot, such as in 2018, when Paxton won by only 3.6 percent against a likable but first-time candidate, Justin Nelson. What if Democrats had run a stronger candidate?
Point this out to a party loyalist and the response is often to say that anybody would be better than the guys in office now. Such responses demonstrate a remarkable complacency for a party that’s been in the wilderness for nearly three decades. Texas Democrats need to look serious before voters will take them seriously. When the statewide slate is composed largely of seat-fillers, the Democratic party looks less like a serious competitor to the GOP and more like the Greens—occupying space on the ballot without any expectation of success.