WASHINGTON — In the coming weeks, the phones of Texas political insiders will likely explode with calls from some of the most powerful Democrats in the country.
Democratic presidential candidates and their allies will be on the line seeking support from a special class of party elders — Texas' Democratic “superdelegates” whose independent convention votes could become crucial amid what looks to be a protracted nomination fight.
Superdelegates helped swing the party's nomination to Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008. And while Texas Democratic insiders say they've seen little superdelegate lobbying so far, they expect that to change as soon as the Iowa caucuses conclude on Monday.
Texas AFL-CIO President John Patrick, an undecided superdelegate as a member of the Democratic National Committee, said if past is precedent he's prepared for the inundation. Looking back to the Democratic 2008 superdelegate fight, all was dormant until Obama’s Iowa caucus upset of Clinton.
“It intensified greatly, especially when it became apparent that Obama and Clinton were going to be the two candidates,” said Patrick, who said he held meetings and calls with Obama and both Clintons — all within 36 hours — that year.
Known in party nomenclature as “unpledged” delegates, the Texas-based superdelegates are generally Democratic National Committee members and members of Congress. They will be bound to no candidate at the party's late-July convention in Philadelphia. Currently, there are 27 Texas superdelegates, but the number is in flux, since more could be added after the March 1 primary. Some are relatively obscure players on the national scene, but all can be pivotal in a close nomination race.
The Democratic establishment created the designation in the 1980s to take back control from the party's activist class — the very type of people supporting Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
That advantage is playing out for Clinton, even as she struggles on the ground against Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report projected she begins this nomination fight with an eight-point advantage, thanks to superdelegates.
Patrick said there is "no question" Clinton has strong superdelegate support in the state, even as a Clinton aide expressed concern earlier this week about the campaign's on-the-ground infrastructure.
Of the Texas superdelegates who responded to a Tribune survey, twelve pledged their support to Clinton. Sanders' Texas state director, Jacob Limon, confirmed that as of now the Vermont independent has no Texas superdelegates in his corner.
While a deeply conservative state, Texas’ population gives it outsized relevance in the Democratic primary race. Cumulatively, Texas has 193 Democratic delegates, counting superdelegates and those that will be earned on March 1 based on voter turnout. In comparison, Iowa has 38 and New Hampshire 21. (These numbers are subject to minor changes in the coming months.)
There is also the Clintons’ long history with Texas, dating back to their work in the 1972 presidential campaign. The Clintons returned to Texas again and again over the years for presidential campaigns and continued to build their network.
Those alliances include members of Congress, who provide Clinton a power base among Texas superdelegates. According to a Roll Call tally, nearly every Democratic member has endorsed Clinton. The exceptions are U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Al Green of Houston and Beto O'Rourke of El Paso.
Green, however, donated to Clinton’s campaign earlier this year.
Four Texas DNC members told the Tribune they are pledged to Clinton: Lenora Sorola-Pohlman, a Houston political player; Dennis Speight of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association; state Sen. José Rodriguez of El Paso; and Garibay Montserrat, a teachers’ union activist.
State Rep. Garnet Coleman said he has made no decision but leans toward Clinton.
Why the widespread support for Clinton? Most delegates mentioned her experience, while others cited her positions on immigration and abortion, her long ties to the state and a hope to see the first woman president.
There is also suspicion of Sanders’ Democratic bona fides. He is officially an independent in the U.S. Senatebut caucused with the party. Upon filing last year, he stated he was a Democrat.
That was not enough for one Texan.
“I committed early on,” said Sorola-Pohlman of her Clinton support. “I believe she’s the only true Democrat candidate for president.”
“Many of us who are superdelegates from Texas have said that we ... [would] keep our powder dry,” Anchia said, adding that he will likely decide closer to the March 1 primary.
Anchia had party building in mind: He wants to encourage campaigning in Texas.
“We want them to compete here,” he said. “We want them to develop infrastructure here in Texas. We want them to get people excited.”
Texas Democratic insiders told The Texas Tribune that the Clinton lobbying effort is quiet so far due to an intensive focus on Iowa, where the two Democrats are locked in a tight race for first place.
But soon the campaign will turn to the March 1 states. And it’s expected that Bill Clinton will be calling his old Texas friends on behalf of his wife.
Sanders' state director Limon concurred that he has a difficult task ahead.
“None of us are going to out-charm delegates if the former president is calling,” he said.
But he is encouraged by his superdelegate conversations, and the Sanders campaign has a plan of its own. He said the Sanders team will concentrate on getting out the vote at the ballot box, using any electoral victories to make Sanders’ case to uncommitted superdelegates.
This is without doubt an insider’s game, but a consequential one. Clinton watched in horror over the winter of 2008 as superdelegates slid over to the Obama side, one by one, and she eventually lost the nomination.
The consequences played out for years, as Democratic Party members who backed Obama in 2008 discovered they could not count on Bill Clinton’s support in their own primary fights.
But sometimes, it all just comes down to personal loyalty.
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, a longtime member of Bill Clinton’s “kitchen cabinet” recalled to the Tribune last year in excruciating detail her decision to back Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008. She received calls from Bill Clinton, leaning on their decades-long friendship.
Not wanting to oppose her old friend again, she offered her support to Hillary Clinton as soon as it was clear there would be a second presidential run.
“They’ll always be indelibly in my mind, in a lot of ways closer than Obama, because I started out with them so young,” Johnson said.