In the wake of Bill White’s entry into the Governor’s race, Texas Democrats are understandably — and dangerously — optimistic. In their minds, they’ve been riding a winning streak stemming from success in local legislative races where, for three consecutive election cycles, Democrats have gained seats in the Texas House.
As the Democratic narrative goes, it is only a matter of time before regional ripples in Dallas, Travis and Harris counties become a statewide tsunami that will swamp every corner of the state and sweep an entire new generation of statewide Democrats into office.
This isn’t the fist time I’ve heard such wildly rosy predictions from my Democratic friends. In 2002, the Democratic ticket was led by a wealthy businessman, Tony Sanchez, and buffeted by an expectation of increased minority turnout that promised to pave to way to electoral victory.
The 2002 Democratic ticket, or “Dream Team,” turned out to be a gigantic bust, even as the campaigns ended up spending a staggering $100 million. A certain Democratic operative still refers to her house as “the home that Tony built.” Ah yes, the good old days.
But the breathless optimism of the last two election cycles is confronting the cold reality of what it meant to run statewide as a Democrat in 2008. The picture was appallingly grim. Even as Democrats captured the White House and solidified their control of Congress last year, John McCain defeated Barack Obama by almost a million votes in Texas. Yes, almost a million votes.
A closer examination shows an even more disturbing trend. When John Sharp lost to Rick Perry in 1998, he won 126 of Texas’ 254 counties. Four years later, Sharp won 99 counties. In 2008, Obama won just 28 counties, including 13 counties whose combined turnout represented less than 1% of the total vote.
It is no secret that the decline of the Democratic Party has been most prominent in rural Texas, but less understood are the eroding margins for Democrats in suburban Texas. Suburban counties represent the key areas that have created the large margins of victory for Texas Republicans.
Let’s take Montgomery County, just north of Harris County, where the margin of victory for the Republican presidential nominee actually increased from 2004 to 2008 (when Bush led the ticket). The last Presidential contest produced an 83,000-vote margin for McCain in Montgomery County, almost equal to the margin of victory for Obama in Harris, Bexar, Webb and Cameron combined.
There are large sections of Texas where there is no active Democratic Party and the infrastructure cannot be pulled together in a matter of months. There is no check large enough to solve this regional quandary.
The lack of an effective Democratic infrastructure in certain suburban counties and in large parts of rural Texas is, at the core, a problem of logistics and message. Texas did not become a Republican state overnight and it can’t become a Democratic state overnight.
The painful truth? Texas Democrats have focused their efforts regionally because they were the only areas with enough Democrats to sustain their efforts. It wasn’t a strategy to only fund GOTV efforts in urban areas and the Valley; it was a move of geographic necessity.
The Democrats aspire to take a regional GOTV strategy statewide, but there are years of hard work ahead before dividends can be realized. Of course there are Democrats in Collin, Denton and Montgomery counties, just as there are Republicans in Travis and El Paso counties. It is the nature of get-out-the-vote operations to focus on the easy pickings and not the tough (and expensive) work in low-utility areas.
The math is obviously stacked against Democrats, but so is the message battle. To run a race as a Texas Democrat in 2010, you aren’t appealing to the Lloyd Bentsen and Charlie Stenholm crowd. No, this is a younger more progressive crowd, more in tune with Howard Dean than Howard County.
Bill White’s erstwhile Senate support is reflection of this new Democratic Party — he’s amassed a war chest with more than twice as many donors from California as from Fort Worth. That’s no way to win a statewide election for any office — at least, not a campaign in Texas.
It isn’t time for Republicans to celebrate. The Republican Party has significant challenges: rebuilding our conservative roots on fiscal responsibility, reaching out to Hispanics and conveying a compelling message to attract independents on border security and education. The New Jersey and Virginia elections show that there are severe misgivings about President Obama’s policies. Voters are trolling for an alternative; Republicans have less than a year to make their case.
Evaluating the prospects for a combined Democratic get-out-the-vote effort, you quickly realize that the Texas Democratic Party is more “urbany” than it has ever been and it is probably more liberal too. The hill that Farouk Shami, White, Kinky Friedman and others hope to climb to the office of governor is impossibly steep and more treacherous than Democratic operatives care to admit. A skilled and well-oiled coordinated effort by their combined ticket won’t change that.
Democratic statewide campaigns face a headwind in messaging and messengers that should cause even the most talented candidates, operatives and members of the press to pause and think: Is this really the election cycle to elect a Democrat to statewide office in Texas?
Ted Delisi is a Republican strategist who lives in Austin, Texas.