Democrats Energized, but Still Face Uphill Climb

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, at an abortion rights rally on July 9, 2013.
State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, at an abortion rights rally on July 9, 2013.

When Gov. Rick Perry announced this week that he would retire from statewide politics after more than a dozen years at the helm, a cheer went up in the office of the Dallas County Democratic Party.

“Somebody said, ‘Let’s have a party,’” said Darlene Ewing, the chairwoman of the group. “When you’ve got 12 of the worst years in the history of Texas, it’s time to celebrate the ending of it.”

So a soiree was planned, complete with party hats, cake and drinks.

But when the last piece of cake is polished off and the final toasts are made, Texas Democrats may not be much better off politically than they were before the invitations went out. Some political observers argue that the Democrats could be worse off, now that they have lost their favorite piñata.

The leading contender to succeed Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott, also a Republican, is every bit as conservative as the governor. But Abbott, who is expected to declare his candidacy on Sunday, does not carry the baggage that Perry accumulated during an often tumultuous tenure in the governor’s office — not to mention Perry’s gaffe-plagued 2012 presidential run.

Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, said that 2014 is looking like yet another blowout year for Republicans, which means more dashed Democratic hopes of turning Texas blue, or even gaining a statewide toehold. Democrats have not won a statewide office since 1994.

“Democrats were going to lose every statewide race in 2014 with Rick Perry running, and they are going to lose in 2014 without him running,” Jones said. “If a Democrat does poorly, this sends a signal to the national Democratic Party that the blue food in Texas isn’t ready to pick.” 

Hopes of a Democratic resurgence in Texas soared after this year’s first special session when state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, helped stop an abortion bill with a filibuster and an assist from protesters who disrupted the proceedings with their screa

It was a temporary victory: The Republican-led Legislature is on the verge of passing the same legislation in a second special session.

But the fight energized the moribund Democrats, and activists are urging Davis to run for governor next year. She would face long odds against Abbott, who has a huge war chest and support from the same Republican grass-roots machinery that propelled Perry to one victory after another. Democrats might also lose Davis’ hard-fought Senate seat, the only one seen as competitive under the current district maps, if she were to give it up to run for governor.

In an interview in her office at the Capitol this week, Davis said it was a privilege to be mentioned as a possible candidate for governor. Wearing a bright orange dress, the unofficial color of the abortion-rights protesters, Davis said she would be “very disappointed” if Democrats did not field a serious candidate for governor.

“I don’t know whether it’s me, but I do think it’s terribly important that we have a general election dialogue and debate,” she said. “I really do, particularly because this is an open seat now, and it just brings a new opportunity for those sorts of conversations.” She said she would decide in the next few weeks whether to run.

If she does not run, it is hard to imagine another Texas Democrat with the same stardom and fundraising potential who could step up. Texas has ambitious Democrats, like Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio; his twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio; state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin; and U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth. But none of them has signaled a desire to run statewide in 2014.

Given the beating that Democrats have taken over the last two decades, it is no surprise that they are staying out of the ring. Still, if no serious Democratic contender jumps in next year, the party will have given a pass to Republicans at a time of upheaval up and down the ballot.

For the first time in several years, most of the major statewide offices will have no incumbent. Texas voters last saw an open contest for governor in 1990, when Ann Richards beat Clayton Williams, a Republican, in a race the GOP had been favored to win. The last open contest before that was in 1968, when two Democratic titans, President Lyndon Johnson and Gov. John Connally, stepped aside.

Tanene Allison, a spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party, said that right now, the party was focused on the current special session.

“The crucial thing to be paying attention to right now is standing up for women’s rights,” Allison said. “As we move beyond a legislative focus, we will pivot more so onto the campaign and making public announcements for candidates in the coming months.”

In the meantime, a group of former organizers for President Obama has started Battleground Texas, a high-profile effort to make the state competitive again. On paper, Texas is ripe for a Democratic challenge. It is the only reliably Republican state where minorities outnumber whites, and a recent study found it had the lowest voter turnout in the country in 2010.  Estimates have also shown that 40 percent or more of the growing Hispanic population, which has traditionally favored Democrats, is not registered to vote.

Many longtime Democratic operatives are urging candidates and voters to look past the conventional wisdom. Last year in Missouri, for example, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican, was considered a safe bet as he challenged U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who was seen as endangered. But after Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape,” he lost by a healthy margin.

Texas history is littered with upsets. In 1978, the state’s popular attorney general, John Hill, beat the incumbent governor, Dolph Briscoe, in the Democratic primary. The election came at a time when Democrats dominated Texas politics in the way that Republicans do now, and Hill seemed such a shoo-in for the general election that people began calling him “Governor Hill.”

But the wealthy oilman Bill Clements beat him and became the first Republican-elected Texas governor since Reconstruction.

Glenn Smith, a Democratic consultant and former aide to Richards, said it would be “folly” for Democrats to sit on the sidelines at a time when so many opportunities have opened up.

“If Democrats sit and wait for a safe bet at some date in the future, that date will never come,” Smith said. “They’ve got to make it happen.”

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