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The Future of Democrats in Texas

The fundamental problem for Texas Democrats will not be solved until the political class there and nationally finally does something about the elephant in the room.
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I have been involved in national politics in one way or another for about 25 years now, and have been part of literally thousands of national discussions on political targeting. For most of that time, the state of Texas sticks out as the great oddity, the exception to all other demographic trends that seem to hold true around the rest of the country. At the beginning, people in targeting meetings are always saying things like "If you look at the demographics in Texas, it ought to be winnable." By the end of every cycle, none of us at the national level is targeting the state and the state-wide Democratic candidate loses by 10-12 points.

It wasn't always this way. In the 1960s, a president from Texas led the way in getting civil rights legislation, Medicare and Medicaid, and many of the other progressive reforms of that decade. Even as the rest of the south was turning to the right and the Republican Party in those years, Texas elected crusading liberal Ralph Yarborough in 1964. A couple of decades later, Democrats - including legendary populist progressive Jim Hightower - swept to power in the 1980s, culminating with Ann Richards historic victory in the 1990 Governor's race.

But that was a while ago now. The Rove-DeLay machine has been remarkably effective over the last couple of decades. Democrats have not won a gubernatorial race since Richards' victory (and they haven't won a Presidential race since Carter in 1976). Republicans have controlled both Senate seats since Lloyd Bentsen stepped down in 1993. They have had the majority in both legislative chambers since 2003. And this has all happened as the number of Hispanics in Texas has steadily, inexorably risen year after year.

In the other big state where Hispanics have grown so dramatically and consistently as a percentage of the population, California, the state has become overwhelmingly blue in Presidential, Senate, congressional, and state legislative elections, even though it had consistently supported Republican Presidential candidates in prior decades. Only the most moderate Republican governor in the country has kept the gubernatorial chair in GOP hands. All the smaller states in the southwest with steadily growing Hispanic populations - Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada - have gone from being Republican strongholds to being purple - and all of them went for Obama last year.

Look at these Texas statistics (according to data from the Forward Texas Foundation):
  • Anglos will be down to 52% of the adult population by 2010, and 49.99% - less than half - by 2012.

  • 85% of the new adult citizens eligible to vote since 2002 are minorities, most of them Hispanics.
  • Barack Obama, who didn't spend a dime targeting Texas in the 2008 general election, lost Texas by about 950,000 votes. Between 2008 and 2012, there are projected to be 1.2 million additional eligible minority voters added to the population of the state.
  • With statistics like these, and the trends in other formerly Republican southwestern states, you would think Democrats would be confidently developing a Texas strategy for 2010 and 2012. With George Bush gone and discredited, the DeLay machine out of commission, and a really nasty 2010 gubernatorial primary in the works between Kay Bailey Hutchison and goofy incumbent Rick Perry, you would think Texas would be at or towards the top of Democratic target lists. But in two recent trips to Texas, one to Austin and one to Houston, my talks with Texas Democrats did not reveal anything close to that kind of optimism. Sentiments ranged from being very pessimistic about the gubernatorial race to some folks who thought it was "possible if everything went our way." And very few people I know either in Texas or in the Obama political operation are taking Texas seriously as a potential swing state in the 2012 election.

    So what is going on in Texas? It's not that there aren't some smart Democratic political operatives doing good work there. For example, Matt Angle, Martin Frost's former head of the DCCC, has led an effort to revitalize the state Democratic Party, and has made significant progress in picking up competitive state legislative seats, rebuilding the party's voter file, increasing candidate fundraising, and creating a strong opposition research and rapid response capability. Another example is the great work of Burnt Orange Report in becoming the Texas blogosphere's online hub for progressive political activism.

    But the fundamental problem for Texas Democrats will not be solved until the political class there and nationally finally does something about the elephant in the room: the abysmal turnout of minority voters, especially Hispanics. In 2008, Hispanics made up 32% of eligible voters in Texas, a number which will likely be about 35% by 2012, but they were only 20% of the electorate. In the 2006 off-year elections, while 45% of eligible Anglos voted, only 37% of African-Americans, 24% of Asian-Americans, and 25% of Hispanics voted.

    These voter turnout problems are not inevitable. Texas is 47th in the country in turnout of eligible voters. And other states, with investment of resources to make it happen, have shown dramatic increases in Hispanic voter turnout that Texas has not seen: Colorado increased Hispanic turnout by 86% in 2008 over 2004, while New Mexico had 50% Hispanic turnout in the 2006 off-year elections compared to 25% in Texas.

    It is a simple, undeniable fact: if Texas got the number in Hispanic turnout that these other states got, they would become a purple or even blue state overnight.

    This hasn't happened in part because Texas is a big state and it would cost a lot of money to run the kind of voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives that have happened in other states, and national Democrats have written off Texas year after year as unwinnable, so they haven't invested the resources. But money alone is not the reason: Texas Democrats have raised and spent tens of millions of dollars per election in statewide races over the last couple of decades, but they've spent the vast majority of their money on expensive TV advertising buys. The consultants who run Texas Democratic politics don't make money on voter registration or GOTV drives, they make money on TV ads, and they have never invested in the kind of project that would pick up far more voters for Democrats than most media campaigns. And while I don't believe you can win a statewide campaign without spending money on TV, I also don't believe you can win in Texas as a Democrat if you don't devote a whole lot more to the field.

    It's time to change this dynamic once and for all. Democrats already are the dominant party in California, New York, and Illinois, while Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan are purple. In the next tier of states in the electoral college, Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana became purple in 2008, joining long time blue (Massachusetts, New Jersey) and purple (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri) double digit states. Imagine if the last of the big states became purple again, making Georgia the biggest solidly Republican state. It would be extremely tough for the Republicans to put together an electoral college majority if that were the case.

    It's time for Texas and national Democrats to make this kind of investment in voter engagement work in Texas.