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Two Different Parties, Two Very Different Moods

Texas Democrats are looking for a place at the table. Texas Republicans control the table, but are trying to stop the food fights. Running a political party isn't easy.

David Dewhurst makes a final statement during his speech to the Texas Republican Convention on June 9, 2012.

Texas Democrats are trying to attract voters, financiers and candidates. They’re in the desert, stuck in endless ruminations about what might bring them back. Superstar candidates? Rich ideologues? Fractious Republicans? Demographic changes?

Texas Republicans are trying to hold their coalitions together, to keep their voters and their financiers and their candidates inside their big tent. They’re in a political land of plenty, fighting one another over the spoils and bickering over who is true to which conservative orthodoxies. Tea Party? Movement conservative? Traditional Republicans?

The Democrats are reorganizing. They just elected a new chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa, the first Hispanic to hold the job. He has been campaigning for months. One thing he has been saying that seems to make Democratic activists happy is that the party has spent too much time trying to win over non-Democrats and not enough time appealing to its base — the people who, if energized, might turn the tide. That’s a popular message, as you might expect, with the people who elect the chairman of the party.

The Democratic party doesn’t have any marquee officeholder bossing the partisans into line, telling everyone what the platform should say. Nobody has much weight to throw around.

Half the conversations at that convention seemed to be about whether the comeback would come from party organization or from hot candidates.

The ruling partisans have all the stars and organization they can stand. Their officeholders dominate all three branches of state government, and the competition comes mainly from inside — from other Republicans. They argued about who is a real conservative and who is a RINO (Republican In Name Only). They made news at their convention by cheering for this and razzing that. Boos for Mitt Romney and, at least twice, for David Dewhurst. Go figure: Dewhurst has been a Republican standard-bearer for years, winning four statewide elections in a row and now serving his third term as lieutenant governor.

To anyone outside the walls, he looks an awful lot like a conservative. But he is in a runoff with Ted Cruz, who has never held office, in one of those new blood versus old blood races. Cruz was popular at the state convention, where delegates were in torch-and-pitchfork mode, ready to clobber establishment Republicans. Dewhurst came out fine, but it was clearly Cruz’s crowd.

The tribes assembled at the Democratic state convention, meanwhile, were just looking for some good news. The outgoing state party chairman, Boyd Richie, gave a carnivorous valedictory speech that had some of the audience wondering where that guy has been for the last six years. He served red meat, and they gobbled it up. There weren’t many moments like that. There were more moments where Democrats were talking among themselves about how to revive the party.

Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 1994. It makes them sound like the lizards that keep popping up as prospects for the endangered species list. But they were in contention, legislatively, until the 2010 elections undid the gains that had put them within one vote of parity in the 150-member House. The real gloom started there. That election knocked them on their heels — back to what is now a 102-48 Republican advantage. Plus, it happened in the worst year possible, right before the Legislature reworked the district maps — maps that put that overwhelming advantage in place for the next decade.

While the Republicans fight over their riches, the Democrats dream of deliverance. Maybe somebody famous will run on their ticket and put them back into contention. Or maybe somebody rich, who can hot-wire an election without waiting for the party.

Or maybe the demographic changes in the state’s population will show up at the polls. Democrats hope the growing Hispanic population will vote like Hispanics vote now. Republicans hope the new voters will share their values.

Hispanics were a common subject of conversation at both parties’ conventions last week. Those demographic changes are coming, and everyone sees it.

But in the meantime, Democrats are trying to find their way out of the hole they’re in, and the Republicans are trying not to fall into one.

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2012 elections Republican Party Of Texas Texas Democratic Party