Democrats hoping for a blue Texas

It won't happen fast, but renewed energy in party and state's changing demographics give them hope

Democrats in Texas hope for a future with more of their candidates actually winning elections.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

DUNCANVILLE, Texas -- On an August afternoon in this Dallas suburb, nine Democrats gathered in the living room of Alice Kinsey, a 57-year-old mother of two, to celebrate President Barack Obama’s 52nd birthday and discuss their party’s future over chocolate cake and lemonade.

Kinsey, wearing a T-shirt declaring “Working Hard to Turn My Texas Blue,” is used to being in a political minority -- her parents felt they were the lone liberals in her 9,000-person hometown of Lamesa in the Panhandle. But in recent years Kinsey has found herself among more like-minded company. She and the others in the room have worked phone banks together and canvassed all over North Texas.

Democrats in Texas have had little to celebrate during the past 30 years. Since President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texas Democrat, signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the state has shifted progressively rightward. In 1976, Jimmy Carter became the last Democratic nominee for president to receive the state’s electoral votes.

But Kinsey and the others are convinced that their party is finally -- really, this time -- on the cusp of a comeback, and that Texas could sooner rather than later elect a Democratic governor and help send a Democrat to the White House. With 38 electoral votes, a Democratic Texas would make it near impossible to elect a Republican president.

Kinsey’s living room buzzed with renewed hopefulness.

Political battlegrounds

The nameplate of state Sen. Mary Gonzalez. Her election gave Democrats in the state hope of a blue Texas.
Eric Gay/AP

Talk turned to state Sen. Wendy Davis, who in late June arrived at the Legislature in pink sneakers and embarked on an epic 12-hour filibuster of anti-abortion legislation. Although the legislation ultimately did pass, Davis' filibuster catapulted her to national prominence, with Democrats in the state feverishly hoping she decides to make a play for the governor’s mansion in 2014. Davis says she will announce her plans at the end of the month.

Among the group at Kinsey’s gathering was Caitlin Karbula, a staffer for Battleground Texas, a nascent political organization that set up shop in Austin seven months ago with the ambitious goal of ending one-party rule in the state. The project was started by Jeremy Bird, who ran the national field operation for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and has exhibited a talent for coaxing Democratic-leaning minority and young voters to the polls in key swing states. The organization, which has 19 full-time staff members and has raised $1.1 million this year, according to its latest financial disclosure reports, is directing much-needed resources to the state’s starved Democratic Party.

There are smaller victories for Democrats, too. Last year Mary Gonzalez, a 29-year-old, openly LGBT and unapologetically progressive graduate student and activist, ran for a state House seat in a socially conservative West Texas district, won her primary against two male Democrats and went on to win the general election uncontested.

"No one thought that someone like me would get elected, and I think it is an indicator of things that are changing,” she told Al Jazeera. “People are now realizing Texas has much more potential to be progressive than anyone ever thought.”

Democrats in Texas, like Kinsey and her friends, believe that prolonged one-party rule has disregarded the needs of the state’s most marginalized populations -- the legions of low-wage workers in the state, the uninsured and poor minorities. They also charge that decades of GOP dominance have created a culture of chronically low political participation.

But they see hope in the long-shimmering but unfulfilled promise of changing demographics in Texas, where 38 percent of the population is Latino, a segment that sides with Democrats nationally by a 2-1 ratio. Add in the new political infrastructure being built by Battleground Texas, plus the recent infusion of energy in the party, led by Davis, and a Texas Democrat could believe that a purple Texas is at least in the realm of possibility.

Demographic destiny

A polling place in Austin on Election Day 2012. A new voter ID law in Texas could complicate things for Democratic hopes of a blue future.
Eric Gay/AP

Although Texas Democrats are almost uniformly more optimistic about their prospects than they were even a year ago, most concede that the hurdles are high and it might take a few cycles until competitive politics returns to the state. The GOP’s financial advantage, for one thing, is enormous: Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott has already raised $20 million for his bid to follow Rick Perry as governor.  

“An immediate turnaround would be very difficult,” said former Sen. Bob Krueger, one of the last Democrats to have held statewide elected office in Texas -- and that was for all of five months in 1993.

Making matters more difficult is Texas’ new voter ID law, expected to take effect in 2014, which opponents say is designed to disenfranchise minorities and other Democratic-leaning voters. Under the new law, concealed-carry gun licenses are an acceptable form of ID at the polls; student ID cards are not. State GOP lawmakers have also used their dominance of the Texas House and Senate to redraw districts to maximize Republican voting power.

Meanwhile, Democratic hopes that Texas could turn blue, if demographic trends persist and the GOP is unable to expand its appeal to Hispanic voters, are nothing new -- political analysts and pollsters have been making those predictions for almost a decade.

Hispanics accounted for two-thirds of the state’s growth from 2000 to 2010, according to census figures. But so far, Hispanic voters have not helped tilt elections toward Democrats as they have in some other states, like New Mexico, Nevada, California and even Virginia. Nate Cohn of The New Republic posits that Latinos’ share of the voting-eligible population is just too low -- 26 percent, versus the 57 percent of the electorate that is white -- and that Democrats would have to achieve record minority turnout and increase Obama’s popularity among white voters in order to win.

Progressive activists insist that the deeply rooted culture of voter disengagement in the state is to blame, but that it can be changed. Texas ranked 48th in voter turnout in 2012, with 50.1 percent of all eligible voters showing up at the polls, according to an analysis by Nonprofit Vote, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to increase civic participation. Hispanic turnout in the state was even more dismal: 38.8 percent, according to census figures.

Tilling the soil

Wendy Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, woke up Texas' Democratic-leaning citizens with her filibuster against a restrictive abortion bill.
Eric Gay/AP

Democratic consultant Jason Stanford, who has worked in politics in Texas since 1994, says that the minority and low-income voters Democrats need to win are too distrustful of the government to show up at the polls.

 “People tune out government, and the people who tune it out the most, they’re more likely to be women, they’re more likely to be poor, because they don’t have any hope that they can effect change, and they haven’t for a long time,” he said. “We haven’t had a credible story to re-engage them.”

Stanford said the Davis filibuster was the only political event that had engaged ordinary Texans in a long time. He said it would be a victory for Democrats even if Davis ran for governor and lost by 10 points, because that margin might be enough to persuade the next Democratic presidential nominee to devote significant resources to Texas and force the Republicans to play defense.

Celia Israel, a candidate for a state House seat in a special election this fall, said there are minority, low-income and rural Texas voters who have yet to be touched by the political process at all. Turning them out to the polls is about doing the hard work of “tilling the soil” -- having conversations on doorsteps, getting them registered and talking to them about the stakes in local elections.

“This is not a red state. This is a state that doesn’t vote very well,” Israel said. “There’s a lot of new people that need to be touched, and they are touched by these down-ballot races, by real candidates saying, ‘This is who I am, and I’d like to ask for your vote.’”

The state has a robust economy and a relatively low unemployment rate of 6.5 percent. Republicans credit low taxes and a predictable regulatory environment for the state’s economic growth.

But the rewards of that economy have not extended to everyone, and the state government has been loath to spend any of its budget on safety-net programs. Texas has the highest number of uninsured individuals -- 6.3 million people, including 1.2 million children -- and the highest proportion of hourly minimum wage workers in the country.

Looking for a normal life

Whether Democrats can start winning elections depends in large part on convincing people like Fidel Hernandez that the party represents their interests.  

Hernandez immigrated from Mexico in 1985, met his wife, had three children and bought a house in the North Dallas suburb of McKinney. On weekdays, he works for a large optical manufacturing company where he has had a job for the past 25 years. On weekends and evenings, he fixes air-conditioning units.

Increasingly, Hernandez, 48, feels that no matter how hard he works he is not getting ahead. His day job pays him $16.25 an hour -- about $33,000 if he does not take any vacation time. His raises are given in quarters and dimes. He struggles to pay his bills on time and worries about his kids’ education. He has no savings.

“I’m not looking for rich,” he said. “I’m looking for a normal life.”

In the last presidential election, Hernandez, a devout Roman Catholic whose wife works for the local diocese, voted for Republican Mitt Romney because he was against abortion rights and same-sex marriage. But really, Hernandez does not think that anyone in government is looking out for people like him -- Democrat or Republican.  

He says he will keep on voting Republican for the party's social conservatism until there is a better alternative.  

Then there is Angel Calderon, 49, who has lived in Austin all her life and works three jobs -- none of which cover the cost of her health insurance.

“We’re not making it. I’m not making it,” she said. “My job should be worried about my health.”

Calderon votes sporadically and supported Obama in the 2008 presidential election, but does not consider herself particularly politically engaged.

Kinsey, the longtime Democratic activist, says that people like Calderon and Hernandez desperately need a state political system that works for them. She’ll be banging on doors and making telephone calls in her native state until she sees it happen.

“We just got to convince people,” Kinsey said. “It’s not a lost cause.”

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