Texans have become accustomed to occupying the nosebleed seats at the Democratic National Convention, extras in a production that favors states that are solidly blue or liable to swing that way. But this year, even the most cynical Texas Democrats say they sense a tangible shift — a feeling that that they’re being positioned to be closer to the front row.
There was the selection of San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, an ambitious young Latino with deep Texas roots, to give the convention’s Tuesday night keynote speech.
There’s the palpable energy behind several up-and-coming Texas Democrats running in key congressional races, a couple of them competitive enough to draw out-of-state dollars.
And there’s the sense, especially among longtime Democratic operatives, that there’s a new sheriff in town — a Texas Democratic Party chairman who has no qualms about asking the national party organization to make a serious investment in Texas, or else stop monopolizing the state’s biggest Democratic donors.
“I don’t want to overstate this,” Austin-based Democratic consultant Harold Cook said. “But they are suddenly showing some fight, some signs of life, which is a lot better than a quiet, sleepy little party.”
Texas Democrats have few misconceptions about the role they play on the national stage. At conventions, they’re generally relegated to far-away hotels, with little to show for themselves save a few high-profile speakers with Texas zip codes.
In presidential cycles, their home state is a source of deep pockets, a place where candidates swing through to pass the hat. (As of the end of July, Texans had donated nearly $11 million to President Obama this election cycle.)
“The Texas Democratic Party has always strained to not complain about the extent to which the national party takes more than it returns,” said Jim Henson, a University of Texas political science professor and Texas Tribune pollster.
No longer. Party insiders say they’ve reached a breaking point: They can’t sit by, losing “winnable” local races for lack of funding while they watch Texas donors fill national coffers. Former Cameron County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa, who took the helm at the TDP this summer, said his goal at the national convention is to “impress upon the leadership that Texas could be blue if we just got a little lovin’ from the national party.”
“Texas is the only state in the union that is majority-minority but doesn’t have a Democratic statewide elected official,” he said. “That’s something that needs to be talked about.”
TDP officials say the national convention gives them a perfect platform to spark this dialogue. They’ve got Castro, emblematic of the state’s young and expanding Hispanic population, to remind national party organizers of the red state’s Democratic potential. And they’ve got a toss-up congressional race — Democratic state Rep. Pete Gallego’s run against Republican U.S. Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco in CD-23, which runs from San Antonio out to El Paso — that could be a draw for out-of-state fundraising dollars.
In addition to the Gallego-Canseco matchup, a handful of other Democrats — including Fort Worth state Rep. Marc Veasey and Julián Castro’s identical twin, state Rep. Joaquin Castro — are running in heavily Hispanic (and likely shoo-in) Texas congressional districts. Even former Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson’s run for the coastal seat that Ron Paul is vacating could draw some attention; Lampson, a known commodity who is relatively popular, is facing former Republican state Rep. Randy Weber in a district that leans red but can be unpredictable.
Chuck Rocha, executive director of the American Worker Latino Project Super PAC, said he and other Texas Democrats are trying to capitalize on these races, working to keep Texas dollars invested in Texas races — and spark out-of-state interest in local campaigns. So far this year, the PAC has raised more than $700,000 for Texas races, half of it from within the state.
As big as the aspirations of the state’s Democratic party are, Cook said, the missing link has long been cash.
So far this election cycle, Democratic candidates for Texas' open U.S. Senate seat have received $500,000 in campaign contributions, compared to the $45.9 million raised by Republican candidates. In Democratic U.S. House races, Texas candidates have raised roughly $18 million this election cycle, a little more than half of what Republican U.S. House candidates in Texas have pulled in.
While he’s impressed by what he’s seeing at the top of the TDP, he said the jury’s still out on whether the party can take it to the bank.
“Are they going to be able to raise the kind of money that can connect with enough voters in a meaningful way to really make a dent?” he asked. “I kind of doubt it, but you never know.”
Ryan Murphy provided data analysis for this story.