Analysis: For Democrats, a Long Game and a Short One

Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor of Texas, Sen. Leticia VanDePutte D-San Antonio,  during a campaign swing in Austin, Texas June 4th, 2014
Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor of Texas, Sen. Leticia VanDePutte D-San Antonio, during a campaign swing in Austin, Texas June 4th, 2014

Suppose you were a Texas Democrat and a realist.

You want your candidates to win in November and to break the spirit-killing string of losses that started after the statewide elections in 1994.

But you have been scratching for reasons that this year will be different, from the two women at the top of the Democratic ticket to the Battleground Texas organizing efforts to the current Republican tilt to the right that — to Democrats, anyway — seems out of step with mainstream voters.

But the realist within is thinking about Nov. 5, and how to keep the embers going on the day after an election that — unless there is an upset — will mark another set of Republican victories.

Short of winning a statewide election, what would constitute good news for Texas Democrats in November?

 

Jeremy Bird, a founder of the Battleground Texas effort to build a Democratic grassroots organization in the state, has his eyes on volunteers, energized activists and the sorts of activity that could expand through 2016 and 2018. His group started a little over a year ago with talk of a six-year plan to make Democrats competitive in Texas. The somewhat unexpected rise of state Sens. Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte as political candidates could accelerate that effort, even if neither takes office. His measure of a win, short of a victory: “Better than Bill White.”

White, a former Houston mayor, was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2010. He received 42.3 percent of the vote — better than any Democratic candidate for governor since Ann Richards’ loss in 1994, when she received 45.9 percent.

“Closing the margin is important; getting back to the Ann Richards numbers in 1994,” said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “There’s not much opportunity for pickups in the Legislature, but closing the margin would help set the table for 2016.” 

Glenn Smith, who managed part of Richards’ first campaign for governor in 1990, is not a fan of this kind of thinking.

“It’s my extremely strong opinion that you play every contest to win,” said Smith, who now runs the Progress Texas PAC, which supports Democratic candidates and causes. “You set everything on winning. There is nothing else. If you start even mentally thinking that we’re okay at 46, then you might end up at 42. You can’t get in that mind-set. It’s true in sports, in every competitive walk of life — you have to set a course to win. You can’t begin cutting the goal to something short of winning, or your plans will suck.”

Some see that difference in goals — winning now versus winning later — as part of the underlying tension that forced the latest shake-up in the Davis campaign for governor this week. Karin Johanson, who moved to Texas in October to run the campaign, is leaving, replaced by state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie. The outgoing manager was a favorite of progressive Democrats around the country who hope to eventually make Texas competitive and, by doing so, tilt national politics their way. The incoming manager is a veteran of campaigns — his own and others — where Democrats have to contend in somewhat hostile Republican territories and want to win right away.

Murray, the political scientist, is watching younger voters, especially millennials who might support Republicans on economic issues but not on social matters. He does not expect Democrats to gain much ground in the rural areas they once claimed, but shifts in turnout elsewhere — should that happen — could augur long-term changes in the electorate.

“Ticket-splitting will be one sign,” he said. “Voting is increasingly, top to bottom, straight ticket in Texas.” If voters start splitting tickets — picking a Republican for one statewide office and a Democrat for another, for instance — that would be bad news for the incumbent party and good news for the outsiders.

The optimism that feeds sports fans — like the current folk wisdom about the bright future of the recently laughable Houston Astros — does not always work in politics. But it’s all they have.

“If we fall short, the effort still helps seed the future,” Smith said. “If you set any goals short of winning, you are going to inhibit that future.”

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.