Democrats in Texas see changing demographics as an edge

Dan Balz (c) 2014, The Washington Post. A year after she captured national attention by filibustering a bill restricting abortions in Texas, Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis heads into the decisive months of her campaign for governor against Republican attorney general Gregg Abbott still trailing in the polls and facing a Texas-size financial disadvantage.

That is the story line that now surrounds her candidacy. But there is a broader story in play as well, one less talked about but that speaks to years of neglect of Texas by national Democrats, dissonance with some national groups and especially the slogging work it takes to convert the slogan “turning Texas blue” into political reality.

Texas is conservative and deeply red in its voting patterns. Democrats haven’t won a statewide race in two decades. President Barack Obama wasn’t competitive there in either of his elections, and he is deeply unpopular among Texans. He acts as a weight on anyone who runs under the party banner.

Yet Democrats believe it is only a matter of time before the state’s changing demographics, highlighted by the rising Hispanic population, move the state back in their direction. Battleground Texas, a political action committee started by veterans of Obama’s campaign with the express purpose of building a foundation for future success, offers these statistics.

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More than 50 percent of the population in Texas is minority — Hispanic, African American, Asian American and others. This nonwhite vote, particularly the Hispanic vote, is growing, and the gap between those eligible to vote and those who actually vote is large. Overall, there are more than 5 million unregistered eligible voters in the state. About 63 percent of eligible African Americans, 42 percent of eligible Asian Americans and 39 percent of eligible Hispanics voted in 2012.

Without doing anything, Democrats say, they expect to see their vote totals grow slowly over time (though if Republicans do a better job of competing for those voters, the calculus is different). But demographic changes sometimes move at a glacial pace, despite the giddy predictions of partisans. Democrats need more than natural forces to become competitive anytime soon.

After her filibuster, Davis was seen as someone who might accelerate the demographic trends with a pump-priming campaign. Even before she became famous, she seemed to agree. In the spring of 2013, she lamented to journalist and author Robert Draper that too many Democrats were buying into the idea that it would take “six, eight, twelve, sixteen years” to convert Texas from red to blue. She told Draper that night, “Somebody has to step up.”

Davis had the courage to take a risk when other Democrats did not. Though the law she filibustered against eventually was enacted in a later special session, a political star was born that night in the Texas Capitol. Within months she was a candidate for governor, the most celebrated Democrat to run for the office since the late Ann Richards, who was elected in 1990 and defeated four years later.

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Since announcing her candidacy for governor, however, Davis has seemingly made little headway against Abbott. Fresh evidence of the mountain she must climb came with the release of the latest fundraising reports. She continues to raise substantial amounts of money, but with a little more than 100 days to go before Election Day, her campaign says it has about $12 million to $13 million in the bank. Abbott’s campaign has about $36 million.

Davis has generated considerable enthusiasm, attracting donations from about 140,000 contributors, according to her campaign. Her advisers say the excitement around her campaign is real — in Texas and nationally — but there are concerns that the roughly three-to-one gap in cash on hand and her own performance as a candidate could discourage some of her bigger donors from stepping up with more in the final months.

Davis is not blameless about the situation in which she finds herself. She has not delivered a clear or consistent message. As many or more people have an unfavorable view of her as have a favorable view, and that’s without Abbott running any negative ads against her.

Jeremy Bird, who set up Battleground Texas, said there is a path to victory for Davis: turning out registered minority voters who often stay home; registering unregistered minority voters; and attracting the support of suburban white women. She will do better among African Americans and Hispanics than the polls now show, he said.

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Her advisers see opportunities. Abbott, they argue, is more conservative and less skilled as a politician than the man he seeks to replace, Gov. Rick Perry, and has been thrown on the defensive repeatedly during the campaign. The Republican Party of Texas continues to shift to the right, potentially alienating some more moderate voters. By October, they argue, the race will look different.

Republicans say conservative Texas will never warm to Davis’ brand of politics. Dave Carney, top strategist for the Abbott campaign, described the Davis operation as having become a campaign of news releases, sophomoric tactics and some fuzzy math. But he also said of the race, “There’s not a single person . . . taking this for granted.”

Davis has gotten little but rhetorical support from Democratic Party organizations and sometimes not even that. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, publicly dismissed her chances last spring, drawing an instant rebuke from the campaign. Davis advisers feel the committee has used her for its own purposes, to raise money. She was reportedly furious about it. A campaign official said recently the relationship with the DGA has been patched up.

Obama has been in Texas on several fundraising trips for national party committees this election cycle. He was there the week before last to raise money. Davis will see next to none of that money, and that’s probably an overestimate. “They dragged the sack for money, with none of it coming back to Texas,” one Democratic strategist complained. That’s been the case for years.

Various outside groups have capitalized on Davis and her abortion filibuster to rally support and raise money. Emily’s List, a group that works to help elect pro-choice Democratic female candidates to office, has been “very helpful” to the campaign, a Davis adviser says. Planned Parenthood’s advocacy and political arm plans to invest $3 million to $5 million in the state, according to national president Cecile Richards. Some of Davis’ allies, however, have worried about conflicting agendas, and Davis has tried to make her campaign about much more than the issue that made her famous.

The most important part of the campaign is yet to come, when the two candidates begin their advertising and engage in debates. That will be Davis’ real opportunity to make the race competitive. The opening months of her campaign may not have been all that some people imagined, but she at least is in the arena. Meanwhile, Democrats collectively have yet to prove they prepared to work and invest as much to see if try to advance the timetable for those demographic changes to be felt politically. In other words, the race in Texas is about more than just Wendy Davis.