Texas Democrats limp into Houston on Thursday for yet another state party convention that will highlight how far they have sunk into statewide oblivion.
“All they can really do at the convention is continue what seems to be a decade-plus process of rebuilding with no real end in sight to that process,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and a Texas Tribune pollster. “If you ask people who are the statewide candidates in the next cycle, you hear crickets.”
No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994, and this isn’t shaping up to be a year of change or hope for the state party. While a surge of minority voters and redrawn political maps will give the Democrats a handful of new state House seats, the party is fighting an uphill battle to retain the Senate district held by embattled incumbent Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.
Absent some unforeseen scandal or collapse on the Republican side, it’s hard to envision a victorious scenario for Democrats statewide in November. Nearly all of the action, attention and money — not to mention votes — were concentrated in the GOP primary as usual.
This year the turnout in the Democratic primary, about 587,000 people, represented less than half the number who showed up to vote in the Republican contest.
There are two Railroad Commission races on the statewide ballot, but Democrats only fielded a candidate in one of them. And in the U.S. Senate race, a political novice who didn’t report spending any money — or even file required federal financial reports — has wound up in a runoff with former state Rep. Paul Sadler, an East Texas Democrat whose own fundraising was so lackluster he called it “shocking.”
Sean Hubbard is a Democratic activist who appeared to be headed for a runoff with Sadler but wound up coming in fourth place. He said he lost count of all the donors who wouldn’t cough up any money for the race.
“The donors didn’t see it as a winnable race, particularly after Bill White,” Hubbard said, referring to the Democrat who lost to Gov. Rick Perry in 2010. “That made them feel that Texas wasn’t winnable for a Democrat, and they’re putting their money elsewhere.”
The four Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate raised less than $200,000 combined. On the Republican side, a single candidate — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — spent more than $15 million of his own money and is now in a closely watched runoff with former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz.
The Democratic convention hoopla begins Thursday at the Hilton Americas in downtown Houston. San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, a rare rising star in Texas Democratic politics, is one of two keynote speakers. The other is Ron Kirk, one of the last Democrats to run a credible statewide race. He lost the U.S. Senate race to Republican John Cornyn in 2002 and now serves as U.S. trade representative in the Obama administration.
There is a bright spot for Democrats as their convention begins: The ranks of Hispanic Republican members are almost guaranteed to dwindle, and party officials are hoping to keep it that way.
Currently, the GOP boasts seven Hispanic Texas House members. However, veteran Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, and freshman Jose Aliseda, R-Beeville, decided not to seek re-election. And a new recruit, Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, who switched to the GOP in March, faces a tough runoff challenge next month.
Rep. Raul Torres, R-Corpus Christi, is running a long-shot race for Texas Senate, and El Paso Republican Dee Margo faces a general election contest with former House member Joe Moody. So it’s possible the GOP’s Hispanic members will be reduced to two lawmakers.
To underscore the message that Democrats should remain the party of Hispanics, the convention will feature a panel highlighting the Texas Democratic Party’s Promesa Project, a Latino outreach program created this year.
Rebecca Acuña, the party's communications director, said the project wasn’t created for the sole purpose of countering the efforts of the Hispanic Republicans of Texans, a outfit co-founded by George P. Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush and nephew of President George W. Bush, and Juan Hernandez, a former Mexican cabinet member who served under former Mexican President Vicente Fox.
“We used [Hispanic Republicans of Texas members] in one of the videos to point out the hypocrisy, and that the rosy rhetoric doesn’t match their actions,” Acuña said.
Instead, she said, the inspiration for the project was based on research, which began in 2009, showing that “young Latinos, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, are increasingly the trusted sources of political information in their families and social circles.”
Additional motivation was a study that found that the internet had surpassed television as the main sources of political information for people younger than 30.
Both the Democrats and the Republicans are holding their convention this weekend, which is unusual. Typically they are held at different times. But the court-ordered delay of the primary elections threw a wrench into the gears of both party conventions.
Normally, the convention process begins at the precinct level on the night of the primary. This year, though, both parties started recruiting delegates before the May 29 primary vote. The Democrats have struggled to get enough delegates selected and had to resort to an online outreach campaign.
Delegates to the convention will adopt the state party’s platform, elect party officers and other members of the State Democratic Executive Committee. They will also select delegates and alternates to represent Texas at the Democratic National Convention.
Party officials say they are expecting 7,036 state delegates and an equal number of alternates in Houston.