It has been 26 years and counting since Mary Beth Rogers managed the last successful Democratic gubernatorial campaign in Texas for Ann Richards. It was a landmark victory, but the seeds of the coming Republican wave were clearly visible in statewide wins in 1991 for Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Today, surveying the subsequent decline of Democrats in Texas, Rogers has written about a possible path back to political relevance aptly titled “Turning Texas Blue.” She makes the case that while Democrats need to expand their base Latino vote, their success ultimately lies in appealing to white suburban voters who still dominate the state’s voter turnout.
It’s ironic that the national Democratic Party, which is soul searching after an unexpected defeat, is now dealing with the same challenge that Texas Democrats have increasingly faced during the past 20 years — how to appeal to white voters.
The reality is that no party can claim relevance if it can’t better the 25 percent of the white vote that Wendy Davis received in 2014. It’s also true that no party can win without trying.
Look at the state representative races in the Dallas-Fort Worth area this past election. In three districts — 105, 113 and 115, all districts where Hillary Clinton won — indications were that stronger Democratic challengers to Republican incumbents could have won, if they had better early financial support.
But Democrats lost all three. What’s worse is that in some districts, Democrats did not field candidates. For example, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions ran unopposed in a district that Clinton also won.
A party serious about governing needs to run and fund serious candidates, even if the road to relevance means losing elections. Much as the Republican Party ran losing campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s that eventually turned to wins as conservative Democrats moved into the GOP, contested losses by Democrats might lead to wins if the Trump presidency implodes.
But is the Democratic brand irreparable? Take a look at the 2008 election cycle when Democrats came within a handful of votes in a single Dallas state rep race of creating a 75-to-75 tie in the state House. They had the benefit of an increasingly unpopular Republican president in the White House, but they also had candidates running on an issue that suburban whites cared a lot about: public education.
With the upcoming state legislative session likely to significantly cut government spending, isn’t there an opening for a united party that shines a light on the consequences of education cuts when thousands of additional students enter the system every year? On a series of issues including public health, traffic congestion and infrastructure, child protective services, even immigration, isn’t there room for a second party in legislative debates?
That’s the challenge for Democrats. They must figure out how to make their voices and their issues heard so that they can answer how things would be different if they were in power.
Several years ago at the LBJ Library, former senior adviser David Axelrod was asked whether anyone in the Obama administration felt any responsibility for the collapse of Democratic numbers in state legislatures and Congress. Visibly annoyed, he said the Democrats would come back, that demography was dynasty.
That may be eventually true in Texas. Houston and Dallas have turned reliably blue, and growing diversity in places such as Fort Bend County near Houston portends a Democratic future as well.
A Latino electorate in numbers that reflect their status as the single largest ethnic bloc in the state will also materialize someday, but who knows when. In the meantime, Rogers writes that while Democrats have “a dozen different caucuses for every imaginable group,” there’s nothing “that focuses on the concerns or needs of suburban Texas communities where millions of white voters live. It is as if they don’t exist.”
Until Texas Democrats figure out how to make their policy priorities clear — especially to a significant number of white voters who might be their natural allies on key issues and without whom statewide victories and significant legislative gains are impossible — Texans are destined to live with a one-party system for the foreseeable future.
Paul Stekler is the producer of numerous documentaries on American politics and the chair of the Radio-Television-Film Department in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin.
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