In what should be a pretty good year for the party, the situation doesn’t look rosy.
The life of a Texas Democrat is full to the brim with dramatic irony, but especially so in the last 18 years, since the good millennium gave way to the bad millennium. In the first decade of this century, Democrats made a hard push to rebuild the party, expending a tremendous amount of time and money, scoring gains slowly over the years until they nearly took control of the Texas House in 2008. And then, in 2010, the first midterm election of an unpopular (in Texas) Democratic president, it all went up in flames — the party ended up worse than when it started, with another Republican-controlled round of redistricting that pushed them far out to sea. It was a lesson — the national environment really, really matters.
But then in 2014, in the second midterm election of an unpopular (in Texas) Democratic president, they tried the same thing. The party made a hard push for control of statewide offices. Texas Democrats had two well-known and capable state senators to lead the ticket, Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, the former of which had significant national fundraising draw. Obama campaign veterans and national consultants flew here from all over the country. They and their purpose-built organizations invested a lot in Davis, and then, on Election Day, got pounded into the earth’s mantle, as if by the force of Thor’s hammer. You can still hear them down there on quiet days in Austin, their tinny voices echoing from below.
Now, in 2018, the situation has changed. We’re approaching the first midterm election of an unpopular Republican president, who is not just disliked nationally, but in Texas, too, and the statewide ticket is led (under Beto O’Rourke, running for Congress) by former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, an immensely flawed candidate whose record is marred by violence in the jails she oversaw, and who is primarily notable to the Republican consultants she’ll soon be facing as an advocate of “sanctuary cities,” whatever that means. Valdez has struggled to answer basic questions about policy during the primary — the Houston Chronicle editorial board wrote that she demonstrated “startlingly little expertise” — and the money she’s raised so far amounts to a rounding error on Greg Abbott’s campaign account. In what should be a pretty good year for the party, the situation doesn’t look rosy.
None of this is to say her opponent was any better. Andrew White’s claim to the job was being the son of a person who had it before, and owning and using a boat during Hurricane Harvey. White knew policy, but he knew Democratic primary voters less well, and lost support for his equivocating language about abortion and gay rights. When Democrats offered support for him, it was often by crediting him as the least weak candidate to lose to Abbott, and that’s not much.
And it’s not to say that the party’s ticket is a total write-off. There’s someone relatively serious in each slot, unlike previous years, when joke candidates frequently won nominations, and O’Rourke’s campaign is strong. But it’s still not optimal. None of the seven candidates running under O’Rourke for statewide offices have much experience in state government. They have little name recognition, and little pull with donors.
The money and energy will go to congressional races this year. Which is fine, and may have some important ancillary benefits, perhaps by influencing legislative races in the shadow of contested congressional districts. But it also means 2018 won’t be the rebuilding year for the state party that it might have been.
State lawmakers and mayors didn’t run this year because they judge the slate of Republican incumbents to be unbeatable, and they might be right. But if Democrats are to have any leverage in the 2021 redistricting process, they need to either gain control of the Texas Legislature, or win certain statewide elected offices that effectively hold veto power over redistricting plans in the event of legislative gridlock. They can hope for a sweeping U.S. Supreme Court case instead, but if that doesn’t happen, the next chance Democrats will have to affect redistricting will be in 2031.
Moving forward and deeper into the realm of speculation, the dilemmas multiply. If Trump wins a second term, Texas Democrats could have a good opportunity with the midterm election of 2022, when there will be open statewide offices. But if Trump loses, Democrats will be stuck running again in a midterm year under a Democratic president — which means more trouble with candidate recruiting and donors. Or maybe not: Texas Democrats have never been known for their timing.