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Analysis: Hard Advice for Texas Democrats From One of Their Own

A new book, written by a veteran of the last days when Texas Democrats were winning statewide elections, takes a hard look at what hasn't been working for the last 20 years, and what might get the party's candidates out of their long, long slump.

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It’s not easy being blue.

It is easy, though, to find Democratic lamentations in Texas politics. They haven’t won a statewide election since 1994. Only one Democrat has served in statewide office since 1996 and that one — Judge Larry Meyers — was elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals as a Republican before changing parties. Important state elections have effectively moved from November, when Republicans regularly stomp the Democrats, to the Republican primaries in March, where the winners of those November elections are actually chosen.

Mary Beth Rogers is done with all that. Rogers, a lifelong Democrat and a top adviser and friend to Gov. Ann Richards, got frustrated enough with the 2014 Texas elections to write a book, “Turning Texas Blue,” about and for her fellow Democrats.

It’s not exactly what you might expect. Rogers is more of a nuts-and-bolts political operator than some of the players in recent Democratic efforts. She acknowledges successful players on the other side, like Rick Perry and Karl Rove. She rolls through some of her team’s failures over the two decades since Richards lost in 1994, including 2014’s much-hyped effort to flip the biggest red state in the country.

And after a look at the various Democratic wrecks on the political circuit in Texas, she finishes off with some observations and advice for anyone who wants to try again.

Rogers’ book pairs pretty well with “Red State: An Insider's Story of How the GOP Came to Dominate Texas Politics,” written by one of her contemporaries on the other side. Wayne Thorburn was executive director of the Republican Party of Texas when Texas was as blue as it is red today.

His book is a “how the Republicans did it.”

Rogers’ book is a “how the Democrats might do it.”

They share the mechanic’s view of politics: How to recruit candidates, finance campaigns, develop issues, turn out voters. You know — basics.

Put a political party into a deep hole, and two of the factions that live there are dreamers and mechanics. The dreamers want to rebuild the party on the basis of things that might happen but have never happened before: New voters, new money, the other side’s voters having a change of heart.

For the Democrats, there was the turn to the rich Hispanic who succeeded in business and can self-finance a race — no need to raise money from skeptical donors — and can galvanize voters in the fastest-growing part of the state’s population. Tony Sanchez and his “Dream Team” lost to Rick Perry and the other Republicans on the ballot in 2002.

In 2006, Democrat Chris Bell was part of a three-candidate general election challenge to Perry, along with Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and entertainer Kinky Friedman. Perry got 39 percent and four more years.

Then there was Bill White, a successful big city mayor whose résumé included business success and bipartisan accolades for his work at the helm of Houston’s city government. The winner? Perry again.

Wendy Davis was the latest standard-bearer, trying to leverage her political celebrity — she was the central figure in a rallying filibuster on an abortion bill in the Texas Senate — into a blue streak across the political skyline. A group of out-of-state political organizers who dubbed their organization Battleground Texas promised to provide the ground game. The only significant difference, however, was the name of the winner. Greg Abbott replaced Perry in the mansion.

Rogers writes like she has had it with the dreamers. She’s solidly in the mechanics’ corner.  Her prescription for Democrats includes some of the things they have tried at least once since Richards left office in January 1995: Find the right person, have a big idea or two, run a statewide campaign instead of one depending on a few important places, and attack the other side for extremism.

At the same time, she disagrees with some of the basic tenets of those recent campaigns, saying Democrats have to reach white voters they’ve been ignoring, persuade Texas donors not to throw all of their money to campaigns in other states and stop relying on hype and magical thinking.

It worked for the Republicans, as Thorburn’s 2014 book attests. Rogers lists 10 things Democrats might do to turn things around, including this one: “Assume the role of a Republican strategist.”

George W. Bush did it when he brought former Democrats Matthew Dowd and Mark McKinnon — both of whom worked with Rogers on Richards’ campaigns — into his circle. Democrats, she writes, need people in their campaigns who think like Republicans.

That sort of thinking will require some re-engineering. But the Republicans did it. And if you want to win, you have to do what winners do. 

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