The Life and Death (and Life?) of the Party
Democrats once ruled Texas. Then came five decades of steady decline. Can Wendy Davis, the Castro brothers, and Team Obama’s vaunted field operation return their party to power? And if they can’t, can anyone?
“Somebody has to step up,” Wendy Davis observed one evening in late May over drinks at the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin. “As long as the Democrats continue to buy into the same bullshit that some of the Republicans are saying—‘Oh no, it’s Texas, it’s hopeless’—and continue to act like it won’t happen for six, eight, twelve, sixteen years from now, that perpetuates the problem.”
“So are you going to run for statewide office?” I asked.
Her green eyes sparkled. “One day, someday,” she said coyly.
One day, someday, about a month later, on the morning of June 25, the petite fifty-year-old Democratic state senator from Fort Worth fixed herself a single boiled egg for breakfast. It would be her only meal of the day. She slipped on a pair of pink tennis shoes, headed over to the Capitol, and stepped up. As Davis began what would become her internationally memorialized eleven-hour filibuster of a Republican bill that would severely restrict a Texas woman’s ability to obtain an abortion, she calmed her jittery nerves by thinking of the assurances made to her the previous afternoon by former Democratic state senator Gonzalo Barrientos, himself an old hand at filibusters: It’ll be fine. You can lean on your desk, keep some candies in your pocket, read anything remotely related to the topic—no one will call you on any of that.
Once it became clear that the opposite was true—that in fact the Republicans intended to challenge every syllable and muscle twitch—she started getting mad. As the day wore on, her lower back began to hurt. “It was probably because of stress,” she told me two days later. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what if I collapse during hour six?’ ” Her fellow Democrat Rodney Ellis helped her put on a back brace, but this led to the second point of order of the afternoon against her (after three points of order are sustained, a filibuster can be stopped). From then on, Davis knew she had to be error-free. She began to draw both strength and focus from the legion of supporters who had packed the Senate gallery. She was unaware that outside the chamber, the halls of the Capitol were filled with even more people rooting her on or that, by the end of the evening, more than 180,000 people around the world were watching a livestream of the proceedings, with many more following along on social media. Davis learned all this only later, after midnight, upon the defeat of the bill, when the evening’s takeaway seemed best expressed in a tweet by another emerging Texas Democrat, San Antonio mayor Julián Castro: “When Texas turns Blue, tonight may well be looked upon as the beginning.”
“When,” not “if.” After crawling on its belly for two dismal decades, the Texas Democratic Party has suddenly found a spring in its step—and not just because of Davis’s performance. The national debut of Castro himself in a much-lauded keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention last summer underscored the growing recognition that a new Texas—replete with millions of untapped and largely nonwhite voters—might be there for the party’s taking. Then came the news, immediately following Barack Obama’s impressive defeat of Mitt Romney last November, that the grassroots brainiacs behind the president’s campaign would soon be descending on the Lone Star State in the form of Battleground Texas: a well-funded organization dedicated to the labor-intensive, long-term effort to turn America’s biggest red state blue.
They were drawn, these number-crunching strategists, by a simple premise: that the state whose vast swaths of white, rural voters rejected Tony Sanchez and the rest of the Democrats’ “dream team” in 2002 barely exists anymore. Today, according to GOP pollster Mike Baselice, fully 59 percent of the state’s general-election voters are concentrated in just 13 of Texas’s 254 counties. Those counties are largely urban and suburban and less reliably conservative than the state’s rural areas. Dallas County, now mainly composed of minorities, went from red to blue in 2006 and has remained a Democratic stronghold ever since. Nearly 15 percent of the state’s general-election voters reside in Harris County, and a majority of them supported Obama in both 2008 and 2012. And the trend is spreading. Houston’s melting pot has spilled over into adjacent Fort Bend County, which, according to another Republican strategist, Ted Delisi, will be “the first truly competitive suburban area.” Delisi could have been speaking about Texas as a whole when he added, “It’s not your daddy’s suburbia anymore.”
Demography is the driver of this runaway freight train. The 2010 census found that the state’s population had increased by 4.3 million over the previous decade and that more than 3.3 million of the new inhabitants were minorities. Of these, an astounding 2.8 million were Hispanic, historically a reliable constituency for Democrats. These numbers conveyed a new reality: the Texas political landscape was getting friendlier for Democrats and tougher for Republicans. And if all of this seemed preposterously hopey-changey—yet another liberal hallucination straight out of The Gay Place—then the indelible image of that slender blond lady in the pink tennis shoes provided stark documentation. This was real. This could happen. Texas could, at minimum, become a state where elections are actually competitive.
Or could it? In the weeks after Davis’s filibuster, Democrats rejoiced in their new star, launching various “Draft Wendy” campaigns to encourage her to run for governor in 2014. But the fact remains that she, or any other Democratic candidate for statewide office, would be a serious long shot next year. A customary response to the prospect of a Davis candidacy is the one I got from GOP political consultant Bryan Eppstein, who told me with a confident smile, “It’s not going to happen that Texas goes from a conservative state to a liberal state.” Four months into their quixotic effort, the Obamaites at Battleground Texas are perhaps beginning to realize that it could be easier to elect the nation’s first black president and subsequently reelect him in an underwater economy than to elect a Democratic governor in Texas.
Yet for all of this, it’s undeniable that for the first time in decades, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for Texas Democrats. The question is, Are they being blinded by it?
Wendy Davis was born in 1963, a year that marked the apogee of Democratic dominance in Texas. A Democrat named John Connally was governor, and by year’s end, a Democrat named Lyndon Johnson would occupy the White House. State and local elections featured two types of politicians: liberal Democrats and conservative Democrats. The state’s senators were Ralph Yarborough, a populist who today would find himself to the left of just about everyone in the U.S. Senate, and John Tower, the first Republican to hold that seat in almost a century. No Republican had won the Governor’s Mansion since 1874.
Fifty years later, the Texas Democratic Party has been reduced to irrelevance. The party has not won a statewide election since 1994 and in recent years has struggled to even field a slate of respectable candidates. How did this happen? To some extent, the drifting apart of party and electorate was set in motion by the twin upheavals of the sixties: civil rights and Vietnam. If the state owes much of its socially laissez-faire impulses to the libertarian West, at bottom it has historically remained in lockstep with the conservative South. Johnson’s roots did not save him—or his party—from the deep disapproval he faced back home, as throughout Dixie, upon passage of the Civil Rights Act, in 1964 (when he accurately, if perhaps too optimistically, predicted to aides Jack Valenti and Bill Moyers, “We’ve lost the South for a generation”). Four years later, in knots over Vietnam, he chose not to seek a second term. The party’s nominee was his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who lost to Richard Nixon but managed to eke out a one-point victory in Texas. In 1972, however, Texans voted in droves for Nixon over George McGovern. They were led by Connally, who had stepped down from his post as U.S. Treasury Secretary to head up a campaign group called Democrats for Nixon. Johnson endorsed McGovern and died the following year, about four months before Connally switched parties. By then, the Sharpstown scandal had already taken down Johnson’s protégé in Texas, Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes. Democrats managed to hold the governorship through Dolph Briscoe’s second term, which ended in 1979, but he was the last conservative Democrat. After losing the primary that year to urban liberal John Hill (who would ultimately drop the general election to Bill Clements), Briscoe retired to his Uvalde cattle ranch, taking with him the low-spending-and-even-lower-taxes ideology on which Republicans have ever since had exclusive purchase.
The eighties were no kinder to Texas Democrats, many of whom were thrown into existential crisis by the Reagan revolution. The Gipper’s merry liberal-bashing put a deep stain on the brand that even yellow-dog stalwarts like Congressman Charlie Stenholm and Senator Lloyd Bentsen were at pains to counteract. Then, in 1983, Phil Gramm, a Democratic congressman and former economics professor at Texas A&M who strongly supported Reagan’s tax policy, announced that he was switching parties. The next year he walloped Lloyd Doggett in the race to succeed Tower in the Senate, and the exodus began. A few years later, a young Democratic state representative named Rick Perry flipped as well.
But rather than retool, the Democratic party seemed determined to self-immolate. In December 1992 President-elect Bill Clinton appointed Bentsen to be his Secretary of the Treasury, thereby depriving Clinton’s Texas compatriots of their last unassailably moderate leader. Meanwhile, Governor Ann Richards evinced little appetite for party-building and outreach to the guns-gays-and-God electorate. She lost to George W. Bush in 1994, while a succession of other Democratic stars-in-the-making—first Lena Guerrero, then Henry Cisneros, then Dan Morales—went down in scandal. By the time Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock endorsed Governor Bush in 1997, and Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky surfaced the following year, the Democratic party was all but encouraging rural voters to renounce their yellow-dog ways.
After that, in the 2000’s, nails were simply driven into the coffin. Bush’s election to the White House gave state Republicans more power than they could have ever imagined thirty years earlier. And though some people had already begun to speak of “demographics” as a magic stone that might rescue the vanquished Democrats, the September 11 attacks galvanized Texas voters to the point where, the following year, they chose Perry over Tony Sanchez by eighteen points (despite the governor’s being outspent nearly three to one). A year later, the wily Exterminator, U.S. House majority leader Tom DeLay, shoved the Democrats as far down into the hole as he could by executing arguably the most brazen redistricting scheme in our nation’s history, one that had the effect of vaporizing nearly every white Democratic congressman in the state. It was official: Texas Democrats were a party in exile.
Of course, failure begets failure. A good many Democratic donors still existed in Texas, but few of them were willing to put money on a horse that couldn’t race. They began instead to donate to proven Democratic winners in other states—actual incumbent U.S. senators who might remember these general contributions while casting votes on the donor’s pet issues. Many such relationships were initiated at lavish meet-and-greets on a lush Nantucket property belonging to Ben Barnes, now a wealthy lobbyist. Texas had become, in effect, “an ATM for the national Democratic party,” in the words of Steve Mostyn.
Mostyn and his wife, Amber—two Houston attorneys who had amassed a small fortune on hurricane-related litigation while in their thirties—were, in 2008, among the most prominent wealthy liberals still willing to invest in Texas Democrats. That year they gave almost $1 million here at home, on top of the $100,000 they doled out to the national party. In 2010 they ramped way up, pumping nearly $10 million into Democratic causes, much of it dedicated to helping Houston mayor Bill White defeat Perry. The results, alas, were no different from what they’d been for the past several decades. At about 7:15 that election night, Amber found her husband in their home office, gaping at the big-screen TV, his bald head dripping with sweat.
“The early votes are in on Harris County,” he told her. “We’re fucked.”
Two years later, on November 30, 2012, half a dozen wealthy Texans—all of whom had donated to the Obama cause and were in Washington to attend the early flurry of holiday parties—gathered in Barnes’s downtown office to talk about how to turn their state blue. Among them were Dallas progressive activist Naomi Aberly, Austin realtor Kirk Rudy, and Adrienne Donato, the Obama campaign’s chief Texas fund-raiser, who, like the best in her profession, had mastered the tricky feat of being at every posh event in D.C. while remaining completely unknown to the media. Donato had organized this meeting. With her was a nerdily dashing and fast-talking 34-year-old named Jeremy Bird, who had found his way in life from a trailer park in Missouri to Harvard Divinity School to a job as the South Carolina field director for Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign to a subsequent job as the national field director for Obama’s 2012 reelection. Which is to say that standing before this group of hungry Texas Democrats were the brains behind the greatest national field organization that American politics had ever seen.
The subject of Texas had been in the back of Bird’s mind for years. Like many top Obama campaign staffers, he was a numbers fetishist, and it didn’t make sense to him that the state was so dependably red, given its demographic trends. During the summer of 2008, when the Obama campaign had literally more money than it knew how to spend, Bird had given some thought to investing in a few Texas events, but he’d lacked the time to plan them. In 2012 his field operation had the opposite problem: time but no money. Every dollar was needed in the battleground states. Nonetheless, Bird remained transfixed by Texas and its 38 electoral votes. The only state with more was solidly Democratic California. Added together, the two had 93 electoral votes, an all but insurmountable margin. After Texas, the next biggest state the Republicans won in 2012 was North Carolina, with just 15 votes. While talking to field organizers or big donors, Bird would stand beside a map of the United States and sketch out pathways to victory from the West Coast to the East. Invariably his finger would fall on the Lone Star State and he would say, Someday we’re going to have a different kind of conversation about Texas. That day had now arrived.
Still giddy from the reelection, the Texans in the room swore to Bird that their state was within reach, if only someone with his field wizardry would coordinate the crusade. They told him how the state’s wealthy liberal donors were itching to spend their money back home. The effort would need a catchy name. Somebody—no one seems to remember who—blurted out “Battleground Texas!” and everyone buzzed with excitement. Bird had never met most of the attendees before, but he was impressed by their unity and enthusiasm. He walked out of the meeting thinking, We can do this.
Five days later, at an office on Capitol Hill, Bird and Donato convened a second meeting, with a much larger group of Texans. This time, Bird did much of the talking. He explained to them that a twenty-first-century grassroots operation no longer meant simply knocking on doors and making calls—it would involve heavy use of digital resources and data analytics. He also walked them through the state’s enticing population trends but said, to the surprise of some of the donors in the room, “You can’t just wait for a big demographic shift to happen. That’s not enough to turn things around.” By the end of this meeting, it was evident to Bird that Battleground Texas would be his new project. What he needed next was seed money—and he knew who to call on to get it.
On the morning of January 14, Bird and Donato arrived at the Mostyns’ doorstep. They chatted over coffee in the dining room, which overlooks the elaborately frothing Mecom Fountain at the intersection of Montrose and Main streets. The hosts had remained big donors since the debacle of 2010—they’d given $9.8 million to Democrats nationwide during the 2012 cycle—but defeat had made them wary. Now the couple and their political adviser, Jeff Rotkoff, listened to Bird make his pitch. He wanted $250,000 to start up Battleground Texas. His hosts wanted to know how he planned to generate Obama-style enthusiasm in Texas without a candidate as charismatic as Obama.
“We’re going to do a lot of research, focus-group our own activists, and figure out what worked that we can transport to a new effort,” Bird assured them.
“When can we see a budget?” Steve asked—by which he meant not a one-page summary but a detailed spreadsheet.
“I’ll get that to you right away,” Bird said. Less than two weeks later, the Mostyns received a lengthy itemization of anticipated expenses, right down to office supplies and monthly health insurance costs. They cut Bird a check, as did Naomi Aberly, longtime state Democratic activist Aimee Boone, and Houston attorney Carrin Patman, among others. In late January word went out to the state and national press: the Obamaites were coming to Texas, and they intended to stay.
Last month I visited Bird’s juggernaut to see how the work was going. The main office of Battleground Texas is located about a mile east of the Capitol, in a former storage room of the Travis County Democratic Party headquarters that remains cluttered with boxes and cans of mosquito repellent. Under Gitmo-style fluorescent lighting, its foot soldiers—male and female, white and black and Hispanic, uniformly young—sat on folding chairs around a single wooden table, laptops open, tacos half-eaten. On one wall hung a handwritten sign:
3 RULES OF BATTLEGROUND TEXAS
1. Don’t be an asshole
2. Have fun
3. Be in this for something bigger than yourself
The organization’s executive director is an almost absurdly fresh-faced and cheery 31-year-old Californian named Jenn Brown, who says that she has “always been an organizer”—most notably as the Obama reelection campaign’s Ohio field director. (“My favorite joke is that if we can turn Texas into a battleground state, then I won’t have to spend another winter in Ohio,” she said.) If you didn’t know that Brown had delivered that crucial swing state to the incumbent in 2012, you might find her optimism about Texas to be somewhat naive. “People are really excited here, and they really want action,” she told me one afternoon as we sat at a picnic table behind the group’s makeshift office. “We did a tour when I first got here—fourteen cities—and it was booked solid: 3,200 people came out, standing-room-only in a lot of places, way beyond what we expected it to be. And all these people wanted their pictures taken with us after the events—like, ‘This is an awesome thing. I want to be part of it.’ ”
The reception had been somewhat different the previous times Bird had sent a field operation to Texas. In 2009 he’d dispatched some foot soldiers to muster grassroots support for the new administration’s legislative initiatives and then later to recruit volunteers to work in the battleground state of Florida. Back then, the Obamaites encountered a state party deeply in denial and averse to self-examination.
“I remember going to meetings and asking the Democratic powers that be, ‘What defines a Texas Democrat?’ ” one lead staffer told me. “They looked at me like, ‘Well, that’s a good question.’ ” In some counties, the resident Democrats had never attempted a get-out-the-vote operation and had to be trained on how to do so. In others, entrenched party chairs would “sit on their hands. If you wanted to reinvigorate the party, you’d literally have to run people against them.” The statewide party structure was all but nonexistent; though they hadn’t been in the state long, Bird’s troops soon realized that they were, in the words of a second Obama staffer, “technically the most staffed Democratic statewide operation in Texas.”
Unsurprisingly, a number of elected Democrats in not-so-liberal districts kept a suspicious distance from Obama and his policies. But that also held true for how local party operatives often regarded the Obama field team. Recalled the second staffer, “The word ‘carpetbagger’ would be dropped a lot.” The first staffer agreed, saying, “Some of the old guard were openly hostile. Sometimes when you’re the outsider, they’re like, ‘We know how to do things,’ and I’m fine with that. But in this case, they’d been doing things their own way and it hadn’t been working, and still they had this arrogance.”
That was then. Following the Obama campaign’s performance last year, it’s safe to say that Kool-Aid drinking has ensued, and even the old hacks who have long placed their faith in bloated TV and direct-mail budgets now accept that those nerdy Obama kids seem to have some clever ideas about how to win elections.
“But here’s the complication,” I suggested to Brown. “A lot of this is about money. On the one hand, you’ll be telling your donors, ‘This is a slog. Change won’t happen overnight.’ But on the other hand, if they don’t see something that looks like progress, then they’ll lose interest, right?”
“Well,” Brown replied, “one thing you’ll hear the Republicans say across the board is that if we don’t win in 2014, then Battleground Texas is a disaster and we should go away.” But, she maintained, the organization’s goal is not to win statewide elections—not yet, anyway. Rather, Battleground Texas is here to recruit and train volunteers, foster neighbor-to-neighbor contact about the issues, and enlist voter registrars—all of the unsexy minutiae that eventually compel a state to change its electoral shade.
That’s how it’s worked elsewhere, in states like Virginia and Colorado. And according to the available metrics, Battleground Texas has gained significant traction during the first four months of its existence. The organization now has seventeen full-time staffers and two field offices, with an army of three thousand volunteers, two thousand of which are dedicated to voter registration. Still, it remains an open question whether any outfit bearing the president’s imprimatur will wear well here. As Wendy Davis herself observed to me, “Let’s face it, Obama is not a hugely popular political figure in the state of Texas.”
At the same time, it’s also the case that the Obama magic hasn’t been tried anywhere without Obama himself. “At the end of the day,” a prominent Texas Democratic strategist told me, “there’s no place in the country where you had the vaunted Obama field organization where you didn’t also have millions of dollars in paid communication and a candidate who was absolutely stellar.” This strategist and others with whom I spoke suggested, somewhat uncharitably, that what the Obamaites were up to in Texas wasn’t particularly innovative—that homespun progressive organizations like the Texas Democratic Trust and Progress Texas had employed similar grassroots strategies in the past but ultimately lacked the resources to compete with the state GOP. In other words, nothing was wrong with the Texas Democrats that money couldn’t cure, and conversely, without casting a wide cash net, Battleground Texas would also fail. “You get all the Texas Democratic donors and if you put together twenty million dollars, you could have a hell of an impact across the country—but that’s half of what you need to run statewide in Texas,” the strategist said. “Unless they’re able to bring in significant money from outside of Texas, the attitude toward them will sour fast.”
Similar skepticism could be found among the Republican ranks, not surprisingly. “My first thought is, you can’t Instagram your way to closing a million-vote deficit,” Ted Delisi told me—though he then added, somewhat begrudgingly, “Maybe that’s an old way to look at it.” Bryan Eppstein smirkily characterized the Obama organizers as “people in Washington trying to make a few of their big-money constituents in Texas feel relevant.”
But what did surprise me—though perhaps it shouldn’t, given the attendant petty jealousies of the state’s party warlords—was how cynical many Democrats were toward Battleground Texas. Was Bird using Texas to prove his worthiness as Hillary Clinton’s potential field operator in 2016? Was Battleground Texas simply a way to wring money out of the Mostyns and their ilk? (One veteran Democratic player said of Bird, “He’s a bright kid, and he’s here to make a lot of money. I’ve seen a lot of them come and go. We’ll see if there’s any staying power.”) Brown and Bird both assured me that Battleground Texas was here for the right reasons and for the long haul—and, for that matter, that the group was meeting its financial goals while attracting out-of-state donors entranced by the notion of snatching 38 electoral votes away from the Republicans.
In its first four months the organization has raised $1.1 million from around 3,500 donors. Not earth-shattering, though not bad either, if you assume that the Republicans will do nothing in response. The reality, however, is that the GOP has no intention of standing on the sidelines while its electoral support sails off into the wild blue yonder. “Battleground Texas is the single greatest development for the health of the Republican party in Texas,” state GOP leader Steve Munisteri declared to me one afternoon in his Austin office, which curiously sits next door to the state AFL-CIO headquarters and across the street from the Texas Chili Parlor, a longtime lefty watering hole. “We’re now getting dozens of paid staff people from the Republican National Committee.” Buttressing the national party’s efforts, the conservative organization FreedomWorks plans to contribute about $8 million in Texas to parry Battleground’s efforts.
Munisteri (who, for what it’s worth, was a classmate of mine in junior high school) ticked off all the staffers he was hiring as a result of the national party’s donation: fifteen new full-time Hispanic outreach personnel, other staffers to work the Asian American and black communities, a full-time digital specialist, and half a dozen voter contact coordinators. “It’s like physics,” he added with a broad grin. “For every action, there’s a reaction. What they’re doing now is they’re getting us to do those things that we weren’t doing before.”
Still, the Texas Republican party’s problem hasn’t been a paucity of resources. Rather, its problem—which additional money and staff are unlikely to cure—has been its special gift for offending whole categories of the state’s electorate. As conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan acknowledged to me, “Republicans are so good at taking out their guns, shooting themselves in the foot, reloading, and then shooting themselves in the other foot.” While the sobering results of the 2012 presidential election have prompted introspection among Beltway Republicans about why they have lost favor among Hispanics, single women, and young voters, it’s fair to say that the soul-baring has not fully caught on within the Texas GOP. In April, Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled that same-sex couples could not receive domestic-partner benefits. And in June, word got out that Texas tea party organizer Ken Emanuelson had been caught on tape saying, “I’m going to be real honest with you: the Republican party doesn’t want black people to vote if they’re going to vote nine-to-one for Democrats.” Such bombast is exquisitely tailor-made to alienate hordes of millennial-generation voters.
But it is the Texas GOP’s tone deafness on issues relating to the state’s fastest-growing demographic that is likeliest to prove the party’s undoing. Several Republicans attempted to convince me that many Texas Latinos do in fact vote for their candidates, citing, as GOP pollster Baselice did, numbers from the 2010 election cycle. One would think, then, that Republicans would’ve responded with delight to the new census figures. Instead, as the federal courts have repeatedly determined, the GOP redistricting chiefs have gone to great lengths to dilute Hispanic voting power.
“All Hispanics have to do is look at the value documents of the Republican party of Texas,” said 43-year-old San Antonio state representative Trey Martinez Fischer, one of the Democrats’ most prominent opponents of the redistricting plan. “Their party platform says that this is an English-only state, that it’s a crime to be in this country illegally, that we should eliminate prekindergarten education for sixty-five percent of Hispanics, that we should repeal the DREAM Act for children of immigrants who came here through no fault of their own. Go to any of the two hundred and fifty-four counties—go find a Latino and ask them, ‘Would you join a political party if this is what they stood for?’ You’d get Ted Cruz, and that’s where it would end.”
In recent years, Munisteri has made a hobby of preaching the gospel of demographic change to Republicans, and he conceded to me that his own organization’s polls show that the majority of Hispanics in Texas see the Republican party as the “party of the wealthy and as exclusive. . . . They’re basically telling us that they view the Republican party as hostile to the Hispanic community.” He admitted as well that the Obama field-organizing team had the proven ability to capitalize on the GOP’s errors. And, he said, “If I all of a sudden see a statewide slate of [Democrats], and they’re well-funded, and Battleground Texas is able to give them their infrastructure, and those are competitive races—say, one candidate loses 52–48 and another loses 53–47—then I’ll go from being concerned to being alarmed.”
But, he continued—as his Buddha-like smile reappeared—“it all comes down to this: none of this matters if you don’t have the candidates.”
“When my mother got her start in politics, in the sixties and seventies, neither Democrats nor Republicans were sufficiently tending to the plight of Hispanics,” Julián Castro told me as we sat in his office, situated in a surprisingly (for America’s seventh-largest city) undersized city hall building. “However, the challenge for Republicans is not just that they ignored Hispanics for a long time—it’s that their policies affirmatively hurt most Hispanics. And that’s a distinction they often fail to make. They believe that if they just put a happy face on their policies, all of a sudden Hispanics are going to find their inner Republican. But no evidence has borne that out. And the days are gone when George Bush saying a couple of lines in Spanish was enough to woo the Hispanic community.”
Those sure sounded like stump-speech words to me. Except that they weren’t: Castro had already made it clear that he was sitting out the 2014 gubernatorial race. When I asked why this was, he thought for a moment before replying, “Different reasons. First, the state is still some time away, I believe. Second, I feel like I’ve done a good job in San Antonio, and there’s more to do, and this is the reason I got involved in politics in the first place. So I’m not lacking for the satisfaction of contributing to a community. And I’m thirty-eight years old.”
“But when you say the state’s not there yet,” I said, “it’s going to take people like you to get it there. Right?”
“Yeah, no, I agree,” he said. A few minutes later he returned to the subject, adding, “There is a challenge with regard to candidates. I recognize that. We need the candidates in order to accelerate the turning of Texas into a competitive state.”
A couple of hours later, I raised the same point to his twin brother, Congressman Joaquín Castro, when we met at a Mexican restaurant on San Antonio’s East Side.
The congressman’s face lit up mischievously. “Don’t worry—it’ll be soon enough,”
Though the twins are physically identical, they are otherwise remarkably different: Julián projects a laid-back, even contemplative personality, while Joaquín—younger, by one minute—is visceral and somewhat excitable. What they share is a fanatical interest in politics well beyond what their day jobs require.
“Republicans are sort of having their cake and eating it too,” the mayor observed to me, “because they conflate conservative and Republican. They’ll say, ‘Well, somebody has conservative values—they’re Republican.’ And they did a good job after the 1960’s of cutting off the avenues for Democrats to claim liberal or progressive [values]. So Democrats were just stuck with a party label, and that’s it. Whereas Republicans can claim a party label when they want but then also claim a viewpoint when they want—like when we saw the massive federal spending under Bush, which isn’t exactly conservative. I’m trying to point that out more and more these days, just because it’s an interesting sleight of hand.”
At one point during our conversation, the mayor predicted that Ted Cruz would be running for president in 2016. “You can tell by how he’s positioning himself on the most far-out right wing and then attacking both parties,” Castro said. “And he has a free shot in 2016, because he doesn’t have to run [for reelection to the Senate] that year.”
His brother also referenced Cruz—several times, in fact, prompting me to wonder aloud whether he had his sights set on challenging the senator in 2018. The congressman replied with a smile but nothing else. Of the state GOP, he said, “Their craziness hasn’t caught up with them yet. Ted Cruz, Dan Patrick, Donna Campbell—these folks have not caught up to them yet. But they will. You give it a few more years.” (To speed up the process, several sources told me, Battleground Texas and the Mostyns have discussed establishing an independent group that would provide opposition research and run statewide TV ads attacking Republicans.)
He went on to say, “Republican leadership over the last decade and beyond has been able to sell their narrative successfully to Texas. With hardly any opposition. And the narrative is that Texas has created more jobs than any other state in the nation. Why in the world would we want to change anything, right? So they’ve successfully created this narrative where they take credit for the good things without ever being held accountable for the other side of the coin—which is the poor education, the highest percentage of minimum-wage jobs in the country, some of the worst working conditions, the highest teen pregnancy rates among the states.” Pointing out that the major Texas cities where job creation has surged are presided over by Democratic mayors like his brother, he continued, “The success has been bipartisan. But what they’re offering is a false choice—they want you to believe you can’t be pro-business and pro-education. We want to be pro-business too. But we also want to be pro-education.”
I came away from my meetings with the Castro brothers impressed by their acumen but frankly wondering whether they were too cautious to lead their party out of the wilderness. Politicians win by not being afraid to lose. There they were, campaign rhetoric already well burnished, contentedly sitting back and waiting for optimal conditions to present themselves. Perhaps it’s the case that, as Martinez Fischer—another emerging Democrat who says he has no intention of emerging next year—told me, “folks have been waiting decades for things to change in Texas, and there’s no need to swing at the first pitch—no need to jump onto the 2014 slate just because the cavalry’s coming.” Or, as another well-known Democratic politician said, “We have a deep bench but nobody on the field.”
What this hesitancy makes clear, however, is that, for now, the Democratic surge is proceeding entirely from the bottom up, led by privates rather than field generals. “It’s about how we tell the narrative from the beginning, so that we’re not setting people up to think we’re going to win the Governor’s Mansion right away,” Jeremy Bird explained. “It has to be realistic.”
But will anyone listen to a story in which the protagonists are voter registrars and county judges rather than charismatic gubernatorial candidates? As one fretful longtime Democratic operative told me, “If one of the Castros doesn’t run, or there’s not someone else out there that we’re not thinking about right now, we’ve got a problem. I mean, we just can’t run Kinky Friedman again.”
Which brings us back to the lady in the pink tennis shoes.
A few weeks before she became a household name, Wendy Davis and I met in Austin for barbecue. Though outfitted in an elegant bone-white dress, she gamely dug into brisket and beef ribs while sharing her made-for-Oprah backstory. Her mother (who has a sixth-grade education) comes from a family of sharecroppers in Texas and Oklahoma, and Wendy Russell spent her early childhood in Rhode Island, New York, California, and elsewhere before her father landed a job in Fort Worth with National Cash Register when she was in fifth grade.** After her parents split up, “we became a low-income family,” she said, and her mother supported three children from wages at an ice cream shop. At seventeen, Davis moved out of the house and into a “slummy little apartment” with her boyfriend. She got pregnant, and the young couple hastily married. “My mother was sobbing the entire time,” she told me. “And not because she was feeling joy, as you can imagine.”
The newlyweds moved into a trailer park in southeast Fort Worth. Davis got laid off from her clerical job when she was seven months pregnant. She spent the next four months on unemployment insurance before obtaining a job at a pediatrician’s office, where she could procure free medicine for her infant daughter. “I just saw myself in a dead end,” she told me. “I was literally struggling to pay the bills, buy the groceries, and put gas in my car.” Now and then her electricity and phone line went dead. Her husband couldn’t hold a job, and their marriage lasted all of a year. One day, by pure chance, the nineteen-year-old single mother happened to notice a brochure for Tarrant County Junior College that a nurse had left at the office. “I picked it up and started looking at it,” she recalled, “and they had classes that you could take to become a paralegal. I thought that might be something I would have an aptitude for.”
From that precise moment, she began her Horatio Alger–like (if not entirely seamless) ascent: a year of paralegal training followed by an undergraduate degree at Texas Christian University (making her the first in her family to graduate from college); remarriage, to an ambitious former Fort Worth city councilman named Jeff Davis (whom she later divorced); graduation with honors from Harvard Law (after spending three years shuttling back and forth between Fort Worth and Cambridge to raise her two daughters); a clerkship with U.S. district judge Jerry Buchmeyer (who oversaw the deconcentration of Dallas public housing projects into more-affluent areas of the community, resulting in death threats against him); and five terms on the Fort Worth City Council before being recruited in 2007 to run against Kenneth Brimer Jr., District 10’s seemingly invincible Republican incumbent. She beat him by 2.42 points.**
She secured her upset victory by earning 95 percent of the black vote and 80 percent of the Latino vote in rapidly expanding suburban neighborhoods the Republicans had long ignored. The GOP map drawers responded by cutting those minority precincts out of her district in 2011. “We had to fight like hell—they completely gutted my district,” Davis said of the legal battle that ensued. “And they made sure I had to spend a lot of campaign money to get it put back to where it had been.” She prevailed in court and then in her 2012 reelection, in a district that Mitt Romney carried with 56 percent of the vote.
This is part of the reason Davis has generated so much hope among Democrats: in her last two campaigns, she succeeded both in attracting the party’s key constituencies and in broadening its base, equally imperative skills for any successful statewide race. And then there was her already legendary performance on the Capitol floor in June. Exactly 56 hours after it had concluded, I asked her what it would take for a Texas Democrat to win on that larger stage. “I think they would need to convince people that they represent their value system and tap into it outside of a partisan frame,” she replied. “That’s really always what my messaging has been. If you invite people to think about things in a broader way—to step outside of their normal fallback to partisan frames—then thoughtful people will listen, and they’ll sometimes make different decisions. I always stand out by the voting lines on Election Day, and I can’t tell you how many people say, ‘I’ve never voted for a Democrat in my life, but I’m splitting my ticket for you.’ They’re more engaged and thoughtful than we give them credit for. And when I see the pandering by Governor Perry and Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst, it literally makes me sick to my stomach. Because it demonstrates that they believe voters are stupid.”
If that sounds like the opening salvo in what could soon be a sharp-elbowed contest, consider that the previous morning Perry had launched his own startling broadside at Davis and her appealing, up-from-nowhere personal history. Speaking before the National Right to Life Convention in Dallas a day after the filibuster, Perry said, “It is just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.” Davis told me that the comment struck her as offensive, but in political terms it amounted to the highest possible compliment. It was Perry’s way of saying, She’s a threat. Of course, from the GOP perspective, she’s also an opportunity. Defeating Davis in a statewide campaign next year presents a chance to undercut the most appealing Democratic figure in Texas, regain a senatorial district, show pundits nationwide that the state GOP remains firmly in control, and demoralize the Obama idealists, all in one stroke.
Texas Democrats, who recently were of the mind that neither Davis nor anyone else from their party stood half a chance of winning the governorship in 2014, are well aware of these risks. But they’re now begging her to run. “There’s definitely been momentum in that regard, yes,” she acknowledged to me.
Where that momentum leads is another matter. In the 2014 elections, fully 65 percent of the Texas electorate is expected to be Anglo. And as Davis’s own political strategist, Matt Angle, told me, “The hardest thing for Democrats in Texas to win is the Anglo vote.” Angle’s client happens to have, post-filibuster, a certain celebrity quality, and she has always been politically deft. But from what I’ve been able to tell, no one in her kitchen cabinet—which includes, in addition to Angle, Steve Mostyn and longtime Democratic consultant Jack Martin—has been vehement that Davis run in 2014. No doubt she and they are also aware that by achieving fame as a defender of abortion rights, Davis has provided Republicans with the talking point that she is in fact a card-carrying liberal rather than the business-friendly centrist she’s cast herself as in Tarrant County.
For all her current deliberating, Davis happens to be a strong believer in herself, with a long memory for those who have failed to share that belief. “I don’t like that kind of thinking,” she told me back when we were having drinks at the Austin Four Seasons bar in May, referring to those who proceed with the assumption that a Democrat cannot win in 2014. “Certainly in Senate District 10—sorry to keep using it as an example—everyone said, ‘Oh my God, poor little Wendy. We really like her. Why is she doing this?’ People all over my community were saying it; people all over the state were saying it: ‘Oh God, this is a joke. There’s no way.’ ”
And now people are saying it again: there is no way, not in 2014. But maybe that’s beside the point. Maybe the more important question is, If Davis runs and loses, will she wind up hurting either her brand or her party’s resurgence? Or is the opposite more likely? After all, less than 24 hours after her heroics during the filibuster Perry called a second special session, and the Republicans simply reintroduced the abortion-restrictions legislation. But Wendy Davis had, to borrow her phrase, stepped up—and enhanced her party’s prospects (and her own) by doing so. Perhaps what Democrats in Texas need most desperately is not a winner but simply a fighter. Winning comes later.
Robert Draper is a contributing editor to Texas Monthly. He also writes regularly for the New York Times Magazine.
**Correction: In an earlier version of this story we incorrectly conflated Wendy Davis’s personal history with her mother’s, stating that it was the former who spent her early childhood on a succession of tenant farms when in fact it was the latter. We also misstated the margin by which Davis beat Kenneth Brimer Jr. in 2008 for the District 10 Senate seat; she won by 2.42 points, not 9, as originally stated. We regret the errors.