The hottest new trend in Democratic politics these days is running for Congress — everybody’s doing it. So far, more than 200 Democrats have filed to challenge Republican incumbents and raised at least $5,000. That’s more than the number of Democratic congressional candidates who had announced at this point in the cycle in the last four elections, combined. Trump’s election freaked people out, and this is how they’re responding. Obviously, it’s an encouraging sign for Democrats. You want people running everywhere, even in beet-red districts where they may not stand a chance.
There are a boatload of people running for Congress in Texas, too. Which, again, is good! Strangely, though, the Democratic slate for statewide offices — from the governor down to the land commissioner — is so far mostly empty, or lacking credible candidates. And there’s no sign (yet) of people lining up to run for the Legislature, where Democrats have traditionally been most in need of worthy candidates.
The filing deadline isn’t until December, so all that could easily change. But the imbalance seems to speak to a broader issue. Over the last few decades, American political culture has become more and more defined by an overemphasis on federal government over local government, and an overreliance on sweeping, top-down gestural campaigns to create political change. It’s a national, bipartisan problem, one which has been greatly exacerbated by the Obama and Trump presidencies, but it’s particularly acute for Texas Democrats.
That’s not a new thing, and it’s not surprising or necessarily irrational. People on both sides of the aisle are rightly terrified of the power of the people who run the federal government. They can start dumb wars that ruin entire subcontinents, and they can provide or take away health care from tens of millions of people. For people who have a limited amount of time to follow politics, it’s natural that national crises tend to crowd out what’s happening closer to home.
So, more and more, politics has become an all-or-nothing game to win the presidency, or, failing that, to win control of Congress. That’s a cancer, and it’s ruining America. State parties and state politics used to matter more — now a lot of donor money flows through huge, shapeless organizations in Washington, D.C., and top-dollar consultants fly in for regional elections when they’re not getting drunk on U Street and watching Morning Joe.
But it’s also perverted our understanding of how politics works. For one thing, the quality of the schools your kids go to, the transportation systems you use, the wages that workers earn, access to higher education and the availability of health care and mental health services are all most directly affected by what happens in state capitols. And of course the partisan composition of Congress flows from the maps state legislatures draw, which means your representation in D.C. is determined partly by state House races, often hyperlocal and low-turnout affairs that can hinge on a handful of votes.
Republicans have done a much better job at organizing at the local level. The tea parties of 2010 were comprised largely of the kind of dedicated activist who gets excited about community college trustee board races. Democrats, meanwhile, have suffered extraordinary losses at the local level in the last 10 years. One of the foremost lessons of the last decade is that political change that filters from the bottom up is more durable than change that flows from the top down.
In Texas, these problems are particularly acute. In huge swathes of the state, there simply is no Democratic Party to speak of. The local infrastructure doesn’t exist. Particularly in rural areas, local elections may feature no Democrats at all, and decades may have passed since the last competitive race outside of the Republican primary.
Without local representation, the “face” of the Democratic Party becomes, at worst, the caricature presented on talk radio, or, at best, Barack Obama or Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi — Chicago, New York and San Francisco — which produces the sense that Democrats could never be champions of their communities.
But it also means marginalized communities go unrepresented. As this great 2016 Austin American-Statesman series relates, the Panhandle, which has some of the most ideologically conservative elected officials in the country, has huge populations of Hispanic and nonwhite voters who have very little say in their local communities, let alone in Austin. Deaf Smith County, west of Amarillo, is more than 70 percent Hispanic, but every elected member of county government is Anglo. That’s a pattern repeated throughout much of the state.
Reversing that trend is gonna require a lot of local work, in places where Democrats are not necessarily strong and where they won’t reap benefits right away. In Lubbock, where Democrats have a tiny footprint, two Democrats have already declared their intention to run against each other to challenge U.S. Representative Jodey Arrington. Trump beat Clinton by almost 50 percentage points in Arrington’s district.
You could make a plausible case that a vigorous, two-year congressional campaign is a good way to boost local organizing. But the candidates most able to reach out to individual voters are those with the smallest constituencies. Inside Arrington’s district is Lubbock’s state House District 84, represented by Republican John Frullo. Frullo’s district was teetering on the brink of being a majority-minority district at the time of the 2010 census, but a Democrat has only run once in the last three election cycles. In 2014, Frullo crushed a retired teacher named Ed Tishler, whose sole campaign expenditure was his filing fee. So far, nobody’s stepped up to run this year.
The point isn’t that Democrats are likely to turn the Panhandle blue. But the broader retreat from local politics allows Republicans to depress the nonwhite vote and run up high margins in red areas that cancel out Democratic votes in blue ones during statewide elections. Recently, $60 million was flushed down the toilet as part of Jon Ossoff’s losing congressional bid in Georgia. What would happen if some rich person donated a few grand to the Deaf Smith Democratic Party and paid for a few advisory trips from some veteran organizers?
Maybe nothing! My role is to second-guess, and I’m often wrong. But nothing is also what Ossoff’s loss left behind, which is the problem with blockbuster electoral bids in general. A lot of money will be raised by losing congressional candidates this cycle, and a lot of money will be spent in the top-dollar media markets of Dallas and Houston to buy ads to beat Pete Sessions and John Culberson. That gets a lot of people paid, which is partially why it happens. But I don’t know how much it actually accomplishes. Investing in people, in the places they live, seems like a better bet.