Above: Beto O'Rourke speaks at the 2018 Texas Democratic Convention.
More than 7,000 delegates for the Texas Democratic Party convened in Fort Worth over the past few days to ruminate on the prospects of a blue wave in November. Activists packed caucus meetings for Hispanics, women and rural folks, attended forums on gun violence, running online voter registration drives and an “introduction to transgender topics.” The number of times politicians asked crowds whether they were going to turn Texas blue were innumerable, as were the adjectives and descriptors attached to the Republican Party and President Donald Trump.
The energy and eagerness to do something — anything — in the lead-up to November was palpable, as was the enthusiasm for the party’s new slate of statewide stars. Lieutenant governor candidate Mike Collier’s convention speech was a huge hit; “Lupe!” chants responded to gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez’s speeches several times; and, of course, Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke proved that he is the new face of the party.
Here are a few main takeaways from the convention.
Prompted by the election of Donald Trump, women have been at the forefront of the organizing and activism that’s driven the political backlash to his presidency. And they’re also are also running for office at historic rates, forming the tidal force behind a much-anticipated blue wave — or what’s become known as the “pink tsunami.”
The power of women in the Texas Democratic Party was on full display at the convention. On Thursday night, former state senator and 2014 gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis held a party — entitled “Still F****** Standing” — in commemoration of her state Senate filibuster that temporarily derailed anti-abortion legislation five years ago.
At the Women’s Caucus meeting on Friday, she introduced the dozens of Democratic women who were running for the Texas Legislature, saying they will help bring “balance” back to state government. State Representative Celia Israel, D-Austin, called on delegates to “Bring us more competent women” and to “channel our inner Ann Richards.”
Women are running in some of the most critical races around the state — from gubernatorial nominee Lupe Valdez at the top of the ticket to Beverly Powell and Rita Lucido, candidates for battleground Senate districts battlegrounds, to Lizzie Fletcher in the 7th Congressional District, Gina Ortiz Jones in the 23rd District, and MJ Hegar in the 31st Congressional District.
Beto or Bust
The Democratic convention could be summed up with three words: Beto or bust. The U.S. Senate candidate’s booth is the central attraction on the exhibition floor. His name comes up in seemingly every conversation or candidate stump speech and at every party caucus meeting. It was clear that the more than 20 speeches that came before Beto’s Friday were slowly — very slowly — building up to the main attraction. In short, Texas Democrats are on the Beto bandwagon.
The convention came less than two weeks after visiting his 254th county on the campaign trail. “When we show up everywhere, that’s how we win,” O’Rourke pronounced.
In a wide-ranging speech — albeit one that studiously avoided mentioning his opponent Ted Cruz, a foe of Democrats around the country — he implored state Democrats “to keep showing up” for women, teachers, workers, farmers, immigrants, and said, “I want to make sure that we’re talking to everyone, every day in the state of Texas. That everybody is treated with respect and dignity in the state of Texas, in the United States of America, everyone, everywhere, every single day.”
Despite the Betomania that has taken hold in the Texas Democratic Party, O’Rourke still has work to do increasing his name recognition and ensuring that he can maximize turnout in the five largest metro counties in the state.
Family Reunification at the Forefront
From the moment the convention began, Trump’s “zero tolerance policy,” which tore immigrant families apart, was a central focus, animating every speech and drawing the biggest responses from the crowd.
The ugliness of the family separation policy was used by Democratic leaders to create a moral contrast between them and Texas Republicans. T-shirts boasting the sloga “I care and I vote for Democrats” — a response to the jacket First Lady Melania Trump wore on the way to the border — were selling at a healthy clip.
In his speech, O’Rourke said, “It is up to the people in this room tonight: We stopped family separation, now it’s time to make sure that we get those families back together. When we show up, nothing can stop us.”
On Saturday morning, hundreds of delegates attended a protest calling for family reunification inside the Fort Worth Convention Center. Signs reading “Su vota es su voz” and “No human is illegal on stolen land” dotted the crowd. Congressional candidate Sylvia Garcia said, “It’s not over until every family is reunited; it’s not over until we close every family detention center in the state.” From there, a long list of other Democratic candidates spoke as well, prompting someone to yell, “This is not a campaign rally. Let’s take it outside,” to the streets.
Every member of Congress that spoke Saturday talked about the separations, too. In her speech, Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson played the audio of children crying after being separated from their parents and implored to vote Democratic “if you never want to hear this sound in America again.”
The Sleeping Giant
As I reported Friday, Democrats are scrambling to keep Hispanic turnout from receding from general election levels to 2014 levels. The focus on family separation was also coupled with desperate calls from the party’s Latino leaders to awaken the so-called sleeping giant that is the Texas Hispanic electorate.
“I don’t know what we’re gonna do, but we have to wake up the sleeping giant. Kick it, throw water at it, put five-alarm clocks. I realize some of us are hard to wake up in the morning, but this is ridiculous. We gotta get that sleeping giant up,” Valdez said at a convention forum Saturday morning, according toTexas Tribune reporter Patrick Svitek.
The notion that Texas Latinos are a “sleeping giant” when it comes to potential political power has been around for a long time. Here, for example, was the cover of an issue of the Observer from 1969.
If they have any chance of coming close to winning a statewide election in 2018, Democrats will need a massive increase in Hispanic turnout. The problem so far, though, is that the party doesn’t appear to have a plan to do so.
The Texas Democratic Party certainly was not short on enthusiasm at this year’s convention. The grassroots and their leadership is propelled by one part excitement about many of the Democratic candidates, and another, larger part, that is anger at Trump and Republicans in Texas and in Washington, D.C.
Since 2016, the national Democratic Party’s existence has become consumed with how to counter the ascendance of Trumpism. In Texas, the Democratic Party has been grappling with how to parry a similar ascendance of right-wing extremism for more than 20 years.
And for 20 years they’ve failed. One thing that was clear at the convention is that they still haven’t figured out how to craft a clear message and existential purpose that doesn’t depend on the evils of the other party. The Texas Republican Party was eager to troll the Democrats before and during the convention, including by driving a hearse outside the Fort Worth convention center that mourned the death of the Texas Democratic Party, “R.I.P: 1846-2018.”
November will tell whether this is just GOP hubris — pride comes before the fall, after all — or if Democrats are indeed still an opposition party, not a winning party.