There's a sense among some casual observers of Texas politics that Democrats are very lucky to have Bill White entering the race for Texas Governor. I would happily concede that White's entering the race is extremely fortunate, but "luck" has nothing to do with it.
Those who categorize White's entry as luck are the same folks who tend to dismiss the progress Texas Democrats have made in recent elections by saying it's the result of natural demographic shifts and changes in participation patterns. There may even be some who assume Texas may eventually return to Democratic control simply because "demographics is destiny," as if political success for a party and its candidates would come as an accident of nature.
The view is naïve.
Elections don't win themselves. It's not an accident that Democrats have been winning races in Republican-held urban and suburban districts, and narrowing statewide Republican margins. That Democrats are attracting A-team candidates like Mayor White is testimony to years of hard work, not coincidental political evolution.
Based on demographics alone, a solidly red Dallas County was poised to vote Democratic several years before it did, but it didn't turn blue until Democratic and Democratic-leaning interests worked together to plan a well-funded, coordinated effort to attract voters, increase participation, and sweep Republican incumbents out of office in 2006 and 2008.
Dallas County isn't unique. In Harris County in 2008, Democrats planned, funded and executed an effort that won 43 of 47 races on the ballot — the first countywide Democratic victories in over a decade.
In state House races in every region of the state, Democratic candidates have won on Republican turf, achieving a net gain of eleven seats since 2005. Time after time, Democratic challengers have defeated Republican incumbents in districts Republicans drew to elect Republicans. Back in 2001, when the Republican-dominated Legislative Redistricting Board created those districts, House Republicans boasted that their plan would eventually elect no more than 50 Democrats. All other things being equal, that may have happened, but other things stopped being equal.
With the formation of the Texas Democratic Trust, a coalition effort was developed that recognized and utilized the Democratic potential within the House Democratic Campaign Committee, The Texas Democratic Party, Annie's List and other key Democratic-leaning organizations to change that equation. Earlier in the decade, the organizations hadn't existed, were underfunded, or had operated alone in a vacuum. Instead of conceding the state to Republicans, they worked together to build an infrastructure that provided professional support for key Democratic victories that surprised the pundits who rarely leave Austin. They've funded and executed voter outreach and contact programs providing winning margins on scores of races.
But because of the lack of high-profile Democratic "marquee candidates" at the top of those tickets, many in Austin haven't even noticed those highly-successful coordinated efforts — ironic, since the results of those very efforts are what lead to marquee candidacies like Bill White's.
To be sure, the Republican leadership has also helped Democrats win, because they haven't had an effective conversation with general election voters in years. As their consultants tell them general elections don't matter because the Republican primary winner will take office, their party shrinks. And as the Republican leadership continues to cater to its far right wing, Democratic legislators have prioritized issues of broad importance to Texans: passing a teacher pay raise, fighting against and then partially mitigating draconian cuts to children's health insurance, proposing tripling the homestead exemption, and standing up to utility and insurance companies. Some suddenly vulnerable Republican legislators are now echoing many of these Democratic positions, or at least the rhetoric, in an effort to avoid being called "former Republican legislators."
The fact that Democrats have worked hard and smart has paid off not only at the polls, but also in attracting the kind of viable candidates most likely to win elections. We've seen it at the district level, and now we're beginning to see it statewide. That's why we're very fortunate, but not the slightest bit lucky, to have a powerhouse candidate like Bill White running for Governor.
Democrats have a long way to go, and building a winning organization is a continuous process that doesn't end on Election Night. Any number of factors could determine next year's winners, but don't think for a moment that Democrats reached this point by some inevitable demographic accident. Democrats enter 2010 having worked hard and invested heavily to prepare for statewide success, and now, the race is on.
Harold Cook is a Democratic political and public relations consultant, the former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, and the author of a blog: LettersFromTexas.
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