Can Texas Democrats Stop Chasing Ghosts?

Back in July, when the governor’s race still looked like a race, Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News bird-dogged Democrat Bill White for a week as he hunted for votes among the Anglo conservatives of East Texas. In one especially vivid account, datelined Palestine, Slater showed White answering litmus-test gun-rights questions at the local Starbucks. The candidate answered satisfactorily, citing a B+ score from the National Rifle Association and artfully dodging a question about the right to pack heat in church. A couple of East Texans admitted to Slater that they were considering voting for this strange, surprising Democrat. But there was just one problem, Jerry Harrison of the Farm Bureau said: “The only holdback I can see is that he’s a Democrat and he’s going to be with Obama.”

Those are hard nuts to crack. Not that Bill White didn’t try his darnedest to erase conservative Anglos’ stereotypical assumptions about what a Democrat who’d been mayor of Houston probably stood for. He swatted Obama away like a malarial mosquito. His campaign was predicated on another  assumption: that the only way for Democrats to win statewide in “red” states like Texas is to convince conservative Anglo suburbanites that they’re just as conservative, essentially, as the Republicans—only more sensible, and less crazy-talking.

Why is this the only way to win? Because Democrats are convinced that minority voters aren’t going to turn out—not until someday in the future, when they finally decide to start voting in large numbers. In the meantime, Democrats will keep focusing on the mythical Anglo “swing voter,” an elusive species the party has been chasing—with almost no success—with single-minded ferocity for three decades now.

Two months after Slater’s story, I spent a day with White on the trail, five weeks before Election Day. He was still beating the bushes for persuadable Republicans. This day, Sept. 23, started with a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Republican McKinney, moved on to a taped news show in Dallas, then hit the Rotary Club in Republican Plano and a retired educators’ group and high school in Republican Brownwood. The next day, White would be off to El Paso. He wasn’t “neglecting” South Texas and urban voters, exactly, but he was pitching most of his energy and message toward white conservatives. The problem with this strategy was summed up neatly by a chatty retired teacher who turned out for White’s sparsely attended appearance in Brownwood High School: “There’s just not enough Democrats here,” Holly Childers told me.

Election Day bore that out. White ended up winning 41 percent of the vote in Brown County. In Collin County, home to Plano and McKinney, Gov. Perry streamrolled White on Nov. 2, winning some 64 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, statewide, the Democrats also lost ground among women voters and Latinos, who voted 38 percent for Perry after giving him just 31 percent of their votes in 2006.

Was White’s time really better spent in Brown County than, say, Brownsville? While Democrats eagerly chase votes that aren’t really theirs for the asking, they are foregoing a chance to appeal to voters who are there for the wooing. Texas has more non-voting Latinos than any state in the country. Why did White never come up with a compelling, forward-thinking message for them on education or jobs—one that would have given people a reason to vote for him, rather than against Gov. Perry? Partly because it’s hard to be visionary when you’re so busy pretending that you aren’t.

The Nov. 2 wipeout—with White losing, and Republicans winning an historic 99-51 edge in the state House—ought to send a big, clear, flashing-lights message to Texas Democrats: It’s way past time to set their sights forward and stop obsessing over how to win back the “Reagan Democrats.” If Texas is going to have real two-party competition, Texas Democrats will have to stop keying their campaigns to a diminishing demographic that holds them in suspicion. Instead, the party has to find a message, and an organizing method, that makes more non-voters believe that by going to the polls and voting Democratic, they’ll be improving their lives. Maybe most of all, Texas Democrats need to remember something their Republican counterparts learned long ago: The only thing worse than standing for something unpopular is standing for nothing at all.

Published at 5:01 pm CST