The shift in the atmospheric pressure that took place on the evening of September 22 could be felt all the way from Orlando to Austin. That was the night Governor Rick Perry had his near-death debate experience, the moment at which the air began to leak out of his 27-year political winning streak. In a matter of hours, the longest-serving and most powerful governor in Texas history was revealed to be, well, mortal. Or worse. “It was close to a disqualifying two hours for him,” conservative stalwart William Kristol pronounced. Brit Hume, of Fox News, observed that Perry “really did throw up all over himself at the debate.” At the New York Times, Gail Collins noted that “it was impossible to watch that debate without realizing that Perry is not presidential timber, or even presidential polyurethane.”
So began what can charitably be called Rick Perry’s “bad run.” As the criticisms mounted, so too did the justifications for the governor’s woeful performance. We were told that Perry’s then six-week-old campaign was still finding its footing. He was too focused on fund-raising. He was still recovering from his July back surgery. But the most likely explanation is also the most ironic: Perry had been so easily routing his opposition back home that he was out of practice. As King of Texas, he’d been able to avoid or ignore hostile audiences, nosy newspaper editorial boards, and anyone else who didn’t think he was such hot stuff, including the entire Texas Democratic party. He’d debated John Sharp exactly once when competing against him for lieutenant governor in 1998, and Bill White not at all in 2010, with a lot of pretty mediocre performances in between. None of which ever hurt him—until now. Perry, who has excelled at grinding Democrats under his boot heels, suddenly looked like a victim of his own success.
The governor, a famous jogger, just can’t get a political workout in Austin. Consider congressman Lloyd Doggett’s declaration in early August, just as Perry was preparing to announce his candidacy, that he would be chasing the governor all over the country, introducing voters to his record in Texas and challenging him at every turn. To put it politely, this prospect was not likely to keep Perry awake at night. Doggett’s opposition has had about as much traction as ballet shoes on a glacier. The strongest voice for Perry to contend with may belong to someone who’s been dead for nearly five years, Molly Ivins. A Google search turns up more than 63,000 hits for her line “The next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president, please pay attention.” But even Molly’s sounds more and more like a voice grousing in the wilderness. In truth, the two-party system is dead here, and has been for quite some time.
No one paints as bleak a picture as the Democrats themselves. In 2009 they held 74 seats in the Texas House, to the Republicans’ 76. Two years later, the score is 49–101. That ratio is far more lopsided than that of the U.S. Congress, and with redistricting and passage of the Voter ID bill, it’s likely to tilt even more in the Republicans’ favor. Democrats haven’t won a statewide race since 1994. The closest they came was in 1998, when Sharp almost beat Perry for lieutenant governor and Paul Hobby almost beat Carole Keeton Rylander (now Strayhorn) for comptroller. No one on the left sees a comeback much before 2014, and even that’s considered optimistic; 2021 is the date set by the worst pessimists, who are banking on the next redistricting year to finally translate Latino population growth into more political power.
Meanwhile, the Dems remain a party in exile. “When the deck is stacked against you there’s a challenge raising money, recruiting candidates, and exciting the base,” Austin state rep Mark Strama, one of the state’s bright young Democrats, explained. “It’s challenging. You can’t overstate the challenge.”
How did a party that once controlled nearly every elected office become so irrelevant? As political consultant Glenn Smith told me, “All Democrats since the seventies have been running against the wind.” Maybe Lyndon Johnson was right in predicting that the Civil Rights Act would lose the Democrats the South for a generation—or more. George McGovern’s race in 1972 didn’t help either, ceding power to the caucuses and fracturing the party into myriad special interests of gender, ethnicity, and color. In Texas, this spelled doom. Longtime Democrats suddenly found themselves out of place, and with Phil Gramm’s urging, they gave their hearts to Ronald Reagan. The likes of Garry Mauro, Jim Hightower, and Jim Mattox weren’t going to bring them back. Meanwhile, a shifting economy decimated the white working class, the Democrats’ traditional source of strength; the suburbs turned Republican; and the new immigrants were disaffected conservatives from Rust Belt states. Ann Richards’s 1990 victory was the exception that proved the rule; her drubbing by George W. Bush four years later made it impeccably clear that Texas was the reddest of red states.
And then things got even tougher. Despite governing as a bipartisan in Texas, Bush—and Karl Rove—targeted the Democrats in their pocketbooks. The passage of serious tort reform cut into the left’s major source of money, the trial lawyers. Then, in 2003, Tom DeLay oversaw the drawing of new districts that further weakened Democrats, drawing them into Republican districts or pitting white liberals against people of color. During the same time, Perry was gradually pushing his party further to the right, culminating in 2010, when he shrewdly made his gubernatorial race against Bill White a national referendum on a president he painted as too far left for most Texans. As Perry knew, an unpopular liberal in the White House, like Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama, is death to Texas Democrats.
But before the state’s Republicans start waltzing on the cemetery grass, consider the effect the Disappeared Democrats have had on Perry. Accustomed to the futile jabs of his opponents back home, he had trouble scoring points against Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann; he looked poleaxed by even the easy questions, like a boxer who’d spent the past ten years winning fixed fights. And even if he does win the nomination, how will he be able to claim that he can make a politically riven Congress functional enough to solve the nation’s problems, as the electorate claims to want in poll after poll? Having proved so successful at decimating the opposition here in Texas, Perry ascends to the national stage with no experience working across the aisle, unlike his predecessor in the Governor’s Mansion.
Perry’s scorched-earth tactics, in fact, feature prominently in Texas Democrats’ dreams of a comeback. Sooner or later, the thinking goes, he will fly the Republican party too close to the sun. Many on the left hope that this has already happened, pointing to the drastic cuts to health care and education in the last legislative session. Those cuts, and Perry’s shoot-from-the-lip style on the campaign trail, have already revealed a schism between more-moderate Republicans and the tea partiers. Then there’s the steady march of demographics. “If the Republican party uses ethnicity and race as the way to build its base, it’s going to be a bad future when the majority of the people will be of color,” says Democratic state rep Garnet Coleman, from Houston. “State’s rights? Secession? Attacking the Speaker because he is not a Christian? The twentysomething Latinos in my office don’t take very kindly to the language that’s being used.” Not that the Democratic party has always accepted these demographic trends either. “Whoever thought that Bill White would be the messiah for African Americans and Latinos?” Coleman says. “Come on, that’s old thinking that the white guy would be the one who motivates and pushes the nonwhite folks. That’s over. We are very capable as people of color of running this world.”
If Obama is reelected in 2012 and Perry returns home to finish out his term, many believe the tide could turn quickly. Perry’s vulnerabilities would by then have been exposed for all to see, and he could find himself far less effective as the bully in the bully pulpit. If Obama loses to any Republican, the wait will be longer, but maybe not by much. “The only thing propping up the Republicans is that there’s a Democrat in the White House that people want to blame for everything,” hypothesized Chris Bell, who lost to Perry in 2006. “There have to be one heck of a lot of Republicans who have to look at that party and say, ‘This isn’t the party I joined.’ Those people are going to move to the Independent column, and that’s how elections are won.”
Thus has been born the Perfect Storm Theory of Democratic Return. This miraculous event (one should never begrudge left-wing Texans their magical thinking) requires a confluence of Collapsing Republicans, Fed-Up Independents, Organized Democrats, and the emergence of a Charismatic, Semi-Moderate Leader. The same names keep cropping up for that last category: state reps Rafael Anchía from Dallas, Pete Gallego from Alpine, Veronica Gonzales from the Valley, and Donna Howard from Austin, as well as Mike Villarreal from San Antonio, along with both Castro brothers, San Antonio mayor Julián and his brother, state representative Joaquin, now running against Doggett for Congress. But as Strama, who is also on that list, says, “I look around the floor of the Texas House and I see some really talented politicians who have a vision, who are in it for the right reasons, and who have a lot of retail political appeal. We have a very strong bench. The problem is that all the guys on the bench are saying, ‘Coach, don’t put me in!’ We look across the sidelines and those guys are huge!”
But even if the Democrats manage to claw their way back to relevance here, it might be too late for one Texas governor. Maybe someone forgot to tell Perry to be careful what he wished for.