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2010: Can Texas Democrats Dream Again?

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With the filing deadline having passed quietly on Tuesday—quietly, that is, unless you’re the sickest kind of political addict—there’s cheerful news for Texas Democrats as they look to the 2010 statewide elections. Which is a strange thing to find myself typing, given their grim track record over the last couple of decades. Strange—but true. And surprising in equal measure.

The dominant Republicans, of course, have long known what to expect on their side: A potentially divisive battle at the top of the ticket between Sen. Kay Bailey “Will I, Won’t I?” Hutchison and Gov. Rick “States’ Rights” Perry. Otherwise, precious little drama in their statewide primaries—and only token opposition in the statewide races where they’ve batted 1,000 since 1998. Just two months ago, Democrats hadn’t the slightest clue about what to expect—aside from yet another year of near-certain futility. After all but one of the state’s potentially viable Dems had wussed out of the governor’s race, the party’s likeliest ticket-topper was Fort Worth businessman and George W. Bush pal Tom Schieffer, who could have raised more money and garnered more enthusiasm in his 10-month exploratory campaign by stationing himself at a busy intersection with a cardboard sign reading: “I’m a Democrat—really! Please help!” Nobody of note was stepping up to challenge Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. And it was the same on down the line, statewide race after statewide race: It looked for all the world like the GOP was going to sail to another sweep, getting to focus its money and energies on salvaging its slim majority in the state House. But lo, unto the Dems a savior appeared: wildly popular Houston Mayor Bill White, who switched from gunning for Hutchison’s fictionally available Senate seat and gave his party a reason for optimism that’s anything but fictional. And over the next six weeks, the Democratic blanks began to be filled in down the ballot (with the one inexplicable exception of the race for the powerful Comptroller’s office, where party officials couldn’t find a single soul willing to challenge the less-than-invincible incumbent, Susan Combs). Maybe the best news for Texas Dems—aside from White’s blessed reversal—is that they’ll actually have party primaries that might create a few fireworks and stir some interest without tearing the party apart. The party’s top statewide vote-getter from 2006, East Texas rancher Hank Gilbert, will face off against Kinky Friedman, who dropped his inexplicable run for governor to try for (Inexplicable Part II) Agriculture Commissioner. The winner could have an outside shot at knocking off the Republican functionary now running Ag, Todd Staples. The Lite Gov primary will offer less sideshow entertainment than Gilbert vs. Friedman. But for Democrats—and potentially, for any Texan interested in good and honest government—it offers far more consequential stakes. Former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a white-hatted hero to many progressives for prosecuting Tom Delay, Sen. Hutchison and even himself, threw his hat in the ring. And then Linda Chavez- Thompson—sharecropper’s daughter, national labor leader and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee—followed suit, potentially giving Democrats a boost in Latino turnout. (See her announcement here.) (A momentary digression into obligatory fairness: Austin deli mogul Marc Katz is also running for the Dems’ Lite Gov nomination and swearing he’ll spend gobs of cash. Ditto Houston hair-care mogul Farouk Shami, who’s running against White for the gubernatorial nod. Nobody but Katz and Shami quite knows why.) Compared with what the Dems very recently had every right to expect—no, fear—it’s almost too good to be believed. Not since the ill-named “Dream Team” (John Sharp for Senate, Tony Sanchez for governor, Ron Kirk for lieutenant governor) raised—and then dashed—Democratic hopes in 2002 has the party faithful enjoyed such a season of hope. [CORRECTION: As commenters helpfully pointed out, Sharp was the lieutenant governor candidate in 2002, while Kirk ran for Senate.] How hopeful do things look? Look no further than this: Even The Dallas Morning News has been moved to recognize the outside chance that White, at least, could break the GOP’s long winning streak. In part, the relative strength of the Democrats’ statewide ticket for 2010 is a reflection of the undeniable fact that the GOP’s hold on Texas is slowly eroding. The eye-popping turnout for the 2008 Obama-Clinton shindig was just one sign of that. The Democrats’ near-miss in retaking the state House later that year was another. The Dems now rule Dallas, dominate Houston, and continue to reap the benefits of the Republicans’ tone-deaf immigrant-bashing in winning the loyalties of Latinos. Harvey Kronberg, editor and publisher of Quorum Report, says that the GOP’s demographic “structural advantage” has already shrunk from its apex of 1.5 million statewide to about a half-million—an edge that White, especially, is well-situated to overcome with his strong base in Harris County and its environs. In that vast metro stretch with about one-third of the state’s total votes, Gov. Perry’s been unusually popular, Kronberg notes. He would normally expect to roll up a huge and probably decisive margin there—against any Democrat but White. Another of the state’s most astute political observers, SMU’s Cal Jillson, is quick to note—accurately enough—that it remains true until proven otherwise that “you could lose a lot of money betting on Texas Democrats.” Anybody foolish enough to bet on the Dream Team debacle of 2002 certainly lost a mint. Aside from the Republicans’ persistent—though waning—edge in voter loyalty, the Democrats’ biggest enemy in 2010 could be their own, perfectly understandable, lack of faith. How many times can you work up your hopes, have them mercilessly crushed, and keep coming back for more? “In the last half-dozen cycles, Texas Democrats were so beaten down that they sort of went to ground,” Jillson says. “They didn’t have really good candidates, didn’t put money behind them, so you got late into each race and Democrats would see their candidates a dozen points behind. They’ve never really had the horses to bet on. In this race, they do have that in Bill White.” Will they make the bet? Democrats were turning cartwheels when White announced, and they’re still dizzy with unfamiliar excitement. But the test, Jillson says, is “whether they will see White and others on the ticket and get behind them. Will they put some money in, so national Democrats can see that commitment and add to the pot?” And will they have the juice in their ground game to counter the Republicans’ organizational edge in voter turnout? “If that happens,” Jillson says, “we could have an interesting race.” By God, we could.