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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.
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.”