Democrats rally, but have far to go in Texas

CHRIS TOMLINSON,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The legislative debate over abortion laws and equal pay for women have rallied Democrats in recent weeks, but they have a long way to go before winning a statewide election in Texas.

The distance is not insurmountable, but the key questions are whether Democrats have the resources to bridge it and how long it might take them.

Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis attracted international attention with her 12-hour filibuster that temporarily blocked a law that limits when, where and how Texas women may obtain abortions. As Republicans attempted to derail her, hundreds of supporters watched from the Senate gallery and tens of thousands of people watched online.

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The drama ratcheted up when Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst stopped the filibuster and the crowd killed the bill by roaring until the midnight deadline passed, a Hollywood-ending that captured people’s imaginations. Gov. Rick Perry quickly called another special session, opponents of the bill staged even larger protests and a new political star was born. The bill also passed a few weeks later.

Since then Davis has become a sought-after guest at Democratic Party functions and supporters are urging her to run for governor, lieutenant governor or the U.S. Senate. While she may have captured the limelight, that’s not enough to win an election.

Statewide victory depends on turning out the most voters, and that requires infrastructure and organization across the state, two things the Texas Democratic Party has not delivered in over a decade.

At the 2012 Democratic Party convention, the party’s rising stars made speeches to a lackluster crowd in Houston about the glories of progressive politics. But behind the scenes they talked about the calculus for turning Texas blue.

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The magic number most frequently mentioned was 48 percent. That’s the portion of the electorate the state party needs to deliver in every election, no matter the candidate. If the party could deliver 48 percent, then that sets up a great candidate to close the gap and take 50 percent of the votes plus one.

In the 2010 gubernatorial election, though, the well-financed Bill White earned only 42.2 percent. In 2006, the Democrat trailed the Republican by 10 points and in 2002, Tony Sanchez collected less than 40 percent of the vote. In the 2012 presidential election, when turnout was high, President Barack Obama only got 41.3 percent.

While no one doubts Davis’ appeal as a candidate, observers question whether she or any Democrat can close the existing gap with Republicans. Most consultants argue that the best candidates can only swing 4 percent to their column.

Battleground Texas, a group founded by former Obama field organizers, exists to change the math so Democrats can win. Texas has one of the lowest voter registration rates in the country and ranks 49th in voter turnout. Democrats can never win with the existing electorate, so they need to add more voters to the roll and convince them to cast ballots. But that also happens to be the most difficult and costly job in politics, one with little glory that few donors want to finance.

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Texas’ changing demographics could offer some help, if Democrats can hold on to the Latino vote. Anglos make up less than 50 percent of the population and Hispanics will be the majority by 2020.

The One Texas political action committee, which supports Latino Democrats, conducted a poll in May that found 24 percent of eligible Latinos have not participated because they didn’t like either candidate, while another 21 percent said they did not have time to vote. About 18 percent said they did not register.

When asked what party best represented their views, 58 percent said Democrats and 24 percent said Republican. The rest were split between neither, both and not sure. About 71 percent said anti-Latino discrimination was a problem in Texas. These numbers give Democrats hope that they can change the math on election day by addressing and motivating Latinos.

Because the climb to relevance is so daunting, Democratic operatives originally saw 2014 as a building year, hoping to push their portion of the electorate up a few points and position themselves to be within striking distance in the 2018 governor’s race. Building turnout, though, requires Democratic candidates ready and willing to run in 2014 with the understanding they are unlikely to win.

Both Democrats and Republicans are watching to see if Davis and other top Democrats are willing to take on this suicide mission. And as every politico will tell you, sometimes the long-shot candidate pulls off a miracle.