Another Losing Season for Texas Democrats

Texas Democrats have become a political version of the Baltimore Orioles. If Ann Richards were alive, she and Earl Weaver would be comparing notes — in salty language — on what went wrong with their old teams.

The Orioles have the misfortune of playing in the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. Tough, but at least they regularly win 40 percent of their games. The Democrats in this state would kill for those results.

In the latest election, they lost record numbers of incumbents up and down the ballot. The statewide numbers reveal another in a series of Republican sweeps, of course, and it’s well known now that the number of Democrats in the 150-member state House fell to a historic low of 51 from 74. But Republicans made unprecedented gains at the local level, too: They got 115 county judges in the state’s 254 counties, picked up 339 county commissioners, 209 constables and 78 sheriffs. GOP officials say they gained 234 elected officials at the county level in Texas.

Bill White actually did pretty well, given the year,” a Democratic consultant told me this week. You have to be accustomed to losing to buy that. White, the Democratic candidate for governor, got 42.3 percent of the ballots cast and lost by more than 600,000 votes.

Four years ago, Chris Bell got only 29.8 percent running for governor. Yes, there were two serious independents in that race, but Gov. Rick Perry finished 9 percentage points ahead of the major-party nominee. Tony Sanchez got 40 percent against Perry in 2002 — if you round his percentage up. In 1998, Garry Mauro barely cracked 31 percent against incumbent Republican Gov. George W. Bush. Richards got 45.9 percent against Bush in 1994 after beating Clayton Williams in 1990 with less than 50 percent.

The last Democratic candidate for governor to finish with more than half the vote in Texas was Mark White, in 1982. That was also the last time Democrats won every statewide race on the ballot. (The Orioles won the World Series the next year went to the playoffs twice in the 1990s, so maybe the comparison isn’t fair to them.)

Texas Republicans were in the basement for years, but there are adults in that party who only hear about those days from their parents. And it’s been 50 years since the GOP had no one in statewide office in Texas, as is the case for Democrats today.

Republicans got their toeholds at the top, with critical wins in the 1960s (U.S. Sen. John Tower), the late 1970s (Gov. Bill Clements) and the 1980s (U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm). They didn’t crack the nonjudicial statewide ballot again until 1990, but that year’s wins by Perry, who won the race for agriculture commissioner, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, elected to the now-defunct office of State Treasurer, started the run. Richards fell in 1994. In 1998, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican, won the job of comptroller with less than 50 percent of the vote.

The Democrats haven’t come that close in a statewide race since. In fact, they’ve broken the 46-percent mark only once since then, in 2002, when John Sharp was losing the race for lieutenant governor to David Dewhurst.

So why does anyone still invest in these guys? Forgive another sports reference, but recent actions just blocks from the Capitol inspired this thinking. The University of Texas Longhorns have entered a period of self-loathing and self-examination. Their football program, one of the best on the planet over the past decade, came undone this season. They lost to inferior teams — to enough of them that they aren’t going to a bowl game. Shoot, SMU is going to a bowl game.

The official response? Longhorns Coach Mack Brown will stay, but at least three of his assistants are goners. The program is being remade, with visions of future bowl games dancing in boosters’ dreams.

And what are the Democrats doing in response to their epic failures at the state and local level? Nothing. There’s no equivalent to a head coach. Usually that’s the highest-ranking elected official from the party, but the Democrats don’t have one — they have to win an election before there’s someone to yell at. The money people can’t be scolded because they might not come back. The political consultants redirect the blame onto an unpopular president.

How long can you consistently lose statewide races so badly and still be taken seriously? It’s no wonder the Republicans in Texas are breaking into factions: They need the competition.

[Editor's note: An earlier version said the Orioles won their division twice in the 1990s; they won once and went to the playoffs as a wild card once.]

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