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Texas Democrats Dream of the Wild Blue Yonder

The organizers hoping to make Texas a safe place for Democrats to run for office will know how they're doing by how their volunteers answer a simple question: Would they let a friend run as a Democrat, or would they advise against it?

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Here is a quick measure of the political climate in Texas, from one of the leaders of a group that wants to make this a competitive state: Texas Democrats don’t let friends run for statewide office.

Republicans like to say they have won 100 of the last 100 statewide races. They are undefeated in those races, dating from 1996.

Sick of it, Democrats are trying to get off the ground. One piece of that effort is Battleground Texas, launched by operatives from the Obama campaigns to turn Texas into a blue state, or at least a competitive one.

Their opening patter is familiar: Launch a sustained, well-financed operation in Texas to register more voters, identify Democrats among registered voters and try to get those people to the polls. It’ll take time, they say. It will be hard, they add.

The organizers have started holding meetings, with two of the first in San Antonio and Austin this week. The Austin event drew more than 200 people, who volunteered their services and ideas, but were also full of questions.

They asked who would get to take part, whether this group or that one would be embraced by the Battleground folks, and about the long losing streak.

“Can you post a win in one race in 2014?” said Jeremy Bird, a Chicago organizer for Obama who is heading the initiative, repeating an audience question for all to hear. “We cannot let it be the benchmark, but we can’t ignore it. Would you tell a friend today to run statewide? Maybe not. We have to create the environment for people to run.”

He reminded the audience that Democrats lost the presidential race in Texas by 16 points — “just now.”

It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing. Big announcements like this come and go. It’s hard to raise enough money. It is tough to keep volunteers engaged over the long haul. Organization is difficult. Texans like the idea of democracy more than they like to participate in it, if the numbers are any indication. Only 43.6 percent of the state’s voting age population turned out for November’s general election. The Republican primary drew just 8.1 percent. The Democratic primary drew just 3.6 percent. It was possible to win last year’s Republican primary — effectively, the election that actually determined the statewide races — with only 738,172 votes.

Bird told the prospects that they don’t have to win everywhere in the state — just do better than they do now. Move the numbers in a Republican precinct from, say, 25 percent Democratic to 32 percent. It worked, he told them, in Colorado, Nevada and Florida — red states that came into the blue column in recent elections. He cautioned repeatedly against expecting quick results.

“This is a long battle,” he said. “We don’t win this marathon if we don’t do this first mile.” It’s an enormous state. Somehow, nobody in politics gets that until they go out and run. Members of the Legislature, members of Congress, mayors and others from the provinces regularly enter statewide races confident in their popularity and political ability. Even those who prevail come back with the same lament: “This is a really, really big state.”

They are not talking so much about geography as about scale. Nearly two dozen media markets, 254 counties and the time it takes to organize in so many places.

The Republicans have a leg up. The Democrats used to have it. The voters became acclimated to the Republicans over a long period, starting during the Carter administration, through the 1980 election that turned on “Reagan Democrats,” through two decades of Texans named Bush at or near the tops of their ballots.

To compete, the Democrats will have to persuade a mob of people to change their habits, to start voting or to vote for Democrats instead of Republicans. They have to create the possibility in the minds of their own voters that it’s possible for them to win.

If they raise the money and sustain their efforts over several years — if it works the way they hope it will work — then they can tell their friends that the top of the Texas ballot is a reasonably safe place for a Democrat.

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