Texas Democrats: After the Deluge

From the ashes of election night, can Texas Democrats build a new party from the bottom up?


A few years back, when Southern Democrats everywhere were suffering much the same way Texas Democrats are today, I asked an organizer friend in North Carolina: What’s the remedy for the Democrats’ inability to beat the Republicans down South?

“Well, shit,” he said. “They could try being Democrats.” I knew what he meant: They’d tried acting like Republicans. They’d tried cozying up to Big Money and out-fundraising the opposition. They’d listened to the consultants. What they hadn’t tried is standing up strong for what Democrats believe and organizing around it.

In Texas this year, the party’s marquee candidate was a throwback to the Lloyd Bentsen days of conservative, business-friendly, “non-threatening” Democrats promising only to run things smarter. The Democratic Party was largely run by a gaggle of consultants, the most powerful being Matt Angle of the Texas Democratic Trust. Good consultants are aces at the politics of the past—emphasizing big media buys, expensive direct mail and “messaging” that targets white, middle-class, suburban voters who were formerly a swing demographic. The politics of the present and future sometimes elude them.

Texas Democrats had high hopes for 2010, and they weren’t half crazy. The state’s evolving demographics continue to move, at least on paper, in their favor. They picked the most viable candidate they had to lead the ticket. Bill White made mistakes, but he impressed with both his smarts and his doggedness. (Also with his accessbility to the media and willingness, therefore, his willingness to be accountable to the public. It was quite a contrast to Perry.) White ran a vigorous better-government campaign, straight into a ferocious anti-Washington headwind.

But both White’s message and, to some extent, his tactics came from an earlier era’s playbook. In the 1970s and ’80s, when Democrats couldn’t win without pulling back some of their more conservative white voters who’d strayed to the GOP, there were Democrats like Lloyd Bentsen who succeeded by running as “Lite Republicans.” They were business-friendly, smart and prepared, low-key and reasonable and completely unobjectionable. It wasn’t a particularly exciting breed of politician, but the style sometimes worked.

It doesn’t work now. That’s partly because the voters that Democrats need to win states like Texas have changed dramatically. Compared to the small slice of Anglo “swing” voters—independents, mostly—whom White’s campaign heavily targeted (and visited), the potential for growth among Hispanic Texans is enormous. If you want to “hunt where the ducks are,” as the consultants like to say, you need to be hunting in the cities, in South Texas, and in the “rainbow suburbs” of Dallas and Houston and San Antonio, to name a few.

Texas Democrats made gestures toward Hispanic voters—the proper emphasis being on the word “gestures.” They recruited Linda Chavez-Thompson and Hector Uribe to run for statewide offices, but they didn’t give them enough backing to become competitive candidates who’d have been more persuasive in wooing Hispanic voters. White, while visiting South Texas and San Antonio often, concentrated on “flipping” white Anglos mostly inclined to vote Republican. There simply aren’t very many to flip, even if you have the kind of magnetic, Bill Clintonesque campaigning personality that can convince folks to give a Democrat a chance.

Bill White ran hard, and ran into a Republican buzzsaw along with the 22 Democratic state House members who went down. (For our complete election-night coverage, read here.) 

I can’t help wondering: Could a candidate from what Howard Dean called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” have fared a whole lot worse on Tuesday? Might a more full-throated progressive have been able to bring new Democrats into the fold, and at least build for the future?

Texas remains a state where Democrats should be competitive. Should be, but aren’t. The reason is as plain and obvious as the solution is elusive: Hispanic voters, who lean Democratic by a wide margin, don’t turn out here the way they do in other states like California. The Democrats can’t blame that on anybody but themselves. And they have to learn from it. Symbolic gestures don’t work. Only organizing will do the trick. Year-’round, relentless, creative ground organizing.

A crushing defeat like Democrats suffered on Tuesday in Texas is also an opportunity. With nothing to lose, damn near literally, the Texas Democrats have a chance to build a new party from the bottom-up. If they can emphasize organizing over “strategy,” if they can rethink their whole idea of what makes a good candidate and a good campaign, if they can convey a hearty belief in what their party stands for (aside from a different brand of fiscal conservatism), this state might yet have a two-party system. But it ain’t going to happen tomorrow. Old habits die hard.