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Democrats Wait for the Political Winds to Change

Every Texas Democrat who has run for statewide office in the last 18 years has been defeated. Every Democrat on the ballot this year hopes to bust that slump. But Republicans in Texas have suffered a longer drought than what Democrats are currently facing.

Former State Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, shown here at the Texas Capitol in May, 2001, has announced a run for U.S. Senate.

Sooner or later, someone will become the first Democrat elected statewide in Texas since 1994.

Candidates from that party — with money, without money — have been bonking their heads on the ceiling for years. Bill White, running for governor in 2010, got 42.3 percent against Rick Perry. Rick Noriega pulled 42.8 percent running against Sen. John Cornyn in 2008. Barbara Ann Radnofsky received 36 percent against Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2006 Senate race.

It goes on and on like that, with most of the Democrats landing in the high 30s or low 40s.

The Oscar for Best Performance by a Democrat Losing a Statewide Election in Texas would go to Paul Hobby, who in 1998 got 49 percent against Carole Keeton Strayhorn (her name was Rylander then) in the race for state comptroller.

If this were high school football, we’d move the Texas Democrats into a lower league with smaller schools where they might be more competitive.

Former state Rep. Paul Sadler of Henderson is the best known of the current batch of statewide Democratic candidates trying to overcome that recent history. He’s one of six Democrats (Addie Dainell Allen, Daniel Boone, Jason Gibson, Sean Hubbard and John Morton are the others) in the race for an open Texas seat in the U.S. Senate.

Some candidates run because they think the party ought to be represented even when it will probably lose. Sadler contends that the personal costs of running for office are too high for that rationale, and he’s trying to make the case for why a Democrat can win here.

Republicans in Texas were in this situation for a lot longer than the Democrats have been. John Tower, then teaching at what is now Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, pulled only 41 percent in the 1960 election against U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson. But Johnson became vice president, and Tower won the special election to replace him. That shocker was the sum total of Republican success at the statewide level for a long time.

They got another upset in 1978, when the Dallas oilman Bill Clements won the race for governor. Those victories were the beachheads in the Republicans’ successful takeover of Texas politics. Even after Clements’ first win, it took 20 years for Republicans to get a clean sweep of statewide posts; the 1998 election replaced the last of the Democratic incumbents in statewide office.

Tower and Clements come up in a conversation with Sadler like they used to come up in conversations with Republicans — as examples of breaking through. Some of the state’s biggest counties — Dallas, Harris, Travis and Bexar — already elect Democrats to county office after years, in some cases, of electing Republicans.

“The state is turning,” Sadler said. “I think the right Democrat can win. The people of Texas are independent enough to do that.”

Maybe. Sadler has lost two races since leaving the House, getting 48 percent in a 2004 special election for the state Senate against Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and losing a local school board race — the main issue, he said, was whether or not a local coach should have been fired — by one vote. He said he lost the Senate election, in part, because the district was drawn for a Republican. (He also credits Eltife for running a strong campaign.) “I never want to be trapped in that kind of district again,” he said.

But isn’t Texas, with its current Republican bent, just a bigger version of the same thing? Isn’t this statewide Senate district just as unwelcoming to a Democrat as that state Senate district back in 2004?

“When I first ran for state representative, I had to overcome being a lawyer,” Sadler said. “I just asked them to listen for a minute.”

He’s promoting his record on education and energy issues and ignoring party lines to get things done. That’s not entirely original, but he’s betting on a change in the electorate. “There’s an awakening occurring that wants to elect people who want to solve problems,” he said. “To go to public office respectfully and with dignity to solve problems.

“The people of Texas will either respond, or they won’t.”

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Politics 2012 elections Texas Democratic Party