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Texas Democrats are Looking for a Pied Piper

Texas Democrats are hoping to fill out a statewide ballot that so far just has one candidate on it, and they're hoping a marquee candidate like Wendy Davis might prime the pump.

Sen. Wendy Davis addresses the Stand with Texas Women Rally crowd at the state Capitol the first day of the second special session.

Texas Democrats are hoping Wendy Davis has some political magic, and that it’s contagious.

Earlier this summer, Gilberto Hinojosa, the state party chairman, was asked where his candidates were hiding.

“If you get one strong candidate to jump in, others will follow,” he said. “The other thing you need is a strong party.”

That second item on his list will be harder to find than the first. Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth who rose to Ted Cruz-like stardom with a filibuster in June, has narrowed her political choices to two: She told an audience at the National Press Club last week that she will either seek re-election next year or run for governor.

Most pundits and other self-appointed experts took that to mean she will run for governor — probably more an expression of the fight they want to watch than of whatever Davis might be thinking.

For sheer political theater, a governor’s race that includes Davis would be a lot more interesting than one with a very well-financed Republican candidate and no Democrats, which is what the ballot looks like now.

Audio: Davis Discusses Filibuster, Political Future

And for the Democrats, it could be a jump-start of the sort Hinojosa is talking about. Whatever they think about the senator’s chances against Attorney General Greg Abbott in the top race, her entry could attract voters who might influence other races below the statewide level.

Legislative Democrats got small but important bumps in 2006 and in 2008, when Democrats on the statewide ballot were running well-financed but unsuccessful races. The 2006 race for governor was a strange and entertaining affair, treating voters to Rick Perry versus Chris Bell versus Kinky Friedman versus Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

Perry won, with 39 percent. Bell, the Democrat, came in at just under 30 percent.

Way down the ballot from that spectacle, the Democrats picked up six seats in the state House, leaving the Republicans with a relatively skinny 12-vote advantage in that 150-member body. It became very difficult to get anything done without bipartisan support.

In 2008, excitement generated by the presidential race raised turnout in both party primaries in Texas, in March, and in the general election later that year, which drew more than 8 million voters.

Barack Obama got 43.7 percent in the general election — an ordinary number, lately, for a Democrat running statewide in Texas. (Four years later, the number of votes slipped under the 8 million mark, and Obama got 41.4 percent.)

But in that election the Democrats picked up five more seats in the Legislature, bringing them to within two votes of the Republicans. It was enough to unseat House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and replace him with Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican who took office with the support of most of the Democrats and about one in every five of the House Republicans.

That was the recent high point for the Democrats. They were swamped in the 2010 midterms, ending up with only 48 of the House seats they held two years earlier. The Republican supermajority elected that year made its gains semipermanent by drawing political maps that could keep them in power for the rest of the decade. The maps are still being litigated, and Republicans lost a handful of seats in 2012. But that was expected by both sides, and they still have 95 members of the House and 19 members of the 31-member Senate.

Texas government runs red.

Davis might fail in a statewide race. She has to figure out whether it’s worth the risk.

The breakthroughs sometimes come at the top of the ballot: The Republicans who first breached the Democratic wall in Texas were John Tower, who became a U.S. senator, and Bill Clements, elected governor in 1978. Sometimes they don’t: while Clayton Williams and Rob Mosbacher were losing the 1990 races for governor and lieutenant governor, fellow Republicans Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rick Perry were winning the contests for treasurer and agriculture commissioner.

The Republicans that year had both of the things on Hinojosa’s wish list: big-time candidates up and down the statewide ballot and a political organization to back them up.

And something else: just a little bit of magic.

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State government 2014 elections Governor's Office Texas Democratic Party Wendy Davis