Bernard Erickson switched parties on the last day of 1993, becoming a Democrat before his 1994 attempt to get re-elected to the Texas House.
He lost narrowly — the most painful way to lose — to Arlene Wohlgemuth, a Republican homemaker and pilot from Burleson. Wohlgemuth won by just 46 votes on Election Day, and Erickson asked for a recount. She prevailed, then ran unsuccessfully for Congress. She is now executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, based in Austin.
After the election, Erickson went home to Cleburne, having secured the distinction of switching just as the political tide was turning strongly in favor of the Republican Party.
George W. Bush unseated Gov. Ann Richards in that same election. Republicans beat Democrats in two races for the Texas Railroad Commission. And no Democrat has won a statewide election since that year.
That’s not exactly the situation today. Texas Republicans aren’t on their heels, and the Texas Democratic strategy to come roaring back, if it exists, is a closely held secret.
Still, the Republicans can’t defend everything they’ve won, partly because they outpaced their own expectations two years ago.
In the 150-member Texas House, their numbers jumped to 99 from 76 in that election. Two Democrats — Allan Ritter of Nederland and Aaron Peña of Edinburg — jumped ship, making the number 101. And last week, Rep. J.M. Lozano, a freshman of Kingsville, made it 102, saying he talked to George P. Bush about it, felt more at home in the Republican Party and had decided to make the leap.
That’s significant for the Republicans. They’re stuck, having won as many seats as it is possible to win — either by elections or by creative political mapping — without turning more Latinos into Republicans. They’re in a situation where they can’t protect the seats they won in 2010 unless they solve this puzzle.
It’s simple: Hispanics tend to vote for Democrats. Hispanic voters in Texas are among the groups protected by the federal Voting Rights Act. If Republicans have to draw Hispanic districts, they have to win Hispanic votes to increase their own numbers.
Lozano is important to the other side, too. For one thing, he beat the machine in 2010, defeating Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra, D-South Padre Island, in the primary. She got help from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a lawyer-bashing tort reform group that has become a 600-pound gorilla in Texas politics.
Lozano was getting help from TLR’s blood enemies on the trial lawyer side. He won the primary and coasted through the general election, and the Democrats had a new House member.
This is where his story and Erickson’s hit a harmonic. Johnson County never went back to the Democrats after Erickson’s switch; his effort to duck a Republican primary opponent by switching parties turned out to bite him later, when Wohlgemuth won the general election.
Lozano, by switching, will have a posse of Republicans running interference for him in the primary. His pledge of allegiance was attended by the governor, the attorney general, the House speaker and the comptroller, among others. Nice list of endorsements. It means, in this redistricting year, that he won’t have to face a Democratic primary opponent.
Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles, D-Alice, has the Wohlgemuth role this time. She’s a former state representative ousted in the same 2010 election that put all of those unexpected Republicans in the House. She (like some other Democrats, as well as some Republicans) thinks that election might have been a one-time thing — the political equivalent of a 100-year flood. Instead of challenging Lozano’s status as an unproven freshman in the primary, she’ll challenge him as a Republican in a part of the state where Democrats are more common.
If nothing else, Lozano is buying some time. He’ll still probably face Gonzalez Toureilles in November, in a district where the voters’ tendencies are pretty evenly balanced. However it goes, Lozano put himself out there as an example.
He could be proof that it’s safe to put Latinos and Republicans in the same room, that the Democrats can’t just assume Hispanics will be with them. Or his could become a cautionary tale, like Erickson’s, that your new friends can’t always protect you from your old ones.
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