HOUSTON — Hundreds of Green Party members from across the country gathered at the University of Houston student center Friday morning, sporting green t-shirts, picking up copies of a Green Party coloring book and deciding which social justice-themed workshops to attend before the party's official presidential nomination kicks off tomorrow. The mood was cheerful, the chatter about converting Bernie Sanders supporters to Jill Stein voters excited.

But a shadow hangs over the event for the Texas Greens hosting the national convention: For the first time since the off-brand party won Texas ballot access in 2010, the Democrats are fielding candidates in every judicial race. That will make it much harder for a Green candidate to win 5 percent of the vote in at least one statewide race, which must happen for the party to automatically qualify for ballot access in 2018.

That means that the success of the Houston convention — and how much media attention it garners — could make the difference between growth and setback for the Green Party of Texas.

For Katija Gruene, secretary of the state party, the grim possibility of losing ballot access matters more than the Green Party’s national poll numbers, which show presidential hopeful Stein winning support from as much as 5 percent of voters, far higher than the 0.36 percent of the popular vote she won in 2012.

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“Unless the surge that’s coming in right now really holds up and people turn out and vote for statewide candidates, including the railroad commissioner, the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals,” Gruene said, “the odds are that the Green Party and the Libertarian Party are both going to lose access.”

State election law guarantees ballot access to minor parties that cleared the 5 percent hurdle in any statewide race in the previous election year. In 2014, a Green Party candidate won just more than 9 percent of the vote in a Supreme Court race that had no Democratic candidate. If the Green Party loses ballot access this year, it will have to secure nearly 50,000 valid signatures in less than three months. Because many signatures are found to be invalid, the party would need to collect more than 75,000, at a cost of about $300,000, Gruene estimated. 

Losing ballot access would be a major setback for the Green Party of Texas, which is one of the strongest in the country, said Mark P. Jones, political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. The state party boasts 47 candidates for state and local office, out of 142 Green Party candidates nationwide. Jones said the Texas Greens have slowly but steadily been building their organization since its founding in 1999.

“Because [the Texas Democratic Party is] relatively conservative compared to Democratic parties in states like California and New York, it does leave a little more space on its left flank for progressive candidates like those that the Green Party fields,” Jones said.

This year, the Green Party is fielding six statewide candidates — one for railroad commissioner, three for the Supreme Court and two for the Court of Criminal Appeals — in addition to presumptive presidential nominee Jill Stein.

At a press conference for Texas Green candidates on Friday, Gruene highlighted the candidacies of Stein, Martina Salinas for railroad commissioner and Rodolfo Rivera Munoz for Place 3 on the Texas Supreme Court as the party’s best bets for reaching 5 percent. When Salinas ran for railroad commissioner in 2014, she got 2 percent of the vote in a four-way race.

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Salinas said she is campaigning for railroad commissioner — a powerful position whose name belies its responsibility for overseeing Texas’s oil and gas industry — on a platform of ending the use of eminent domain to build pipelines and increasing investment in clean energy sources. She plans to campaign primarily in the Rio Grande Valley and along the Gulf, blue areas where she thinks Democrats might be persuaded to go Green.

The big challenge third-party candidates face, Salinas said, is letting people know they exist. That difficulty is compounded by the obscurity of the railroad commission, and Salinas said fundraising has been slow, even amid an election year in which third parties are unusually prominent.

Third parties’ constant struggle to gain media attention means that for the Green Party of Texas, hosting the party’s national convention in oil-slick Houston is more than just a seemingly improbably honor; it is an opportunity to build public interest at this critical moment. With Texas media outlets covering the convention — often in a tone of bemusement that the Greens are converging on Houston — people who didn’t know the party was an option may start researching it.

There was some evidence on Friday that that had already happened. Rob and Colin Hope, a father and teenager on from North Houston, decided to come to the Green Party convention after Rob heard about it on the radio. Rob Hope voted for Marco Rubio in the Republican primary but now says he can’t bear the thought of voting for either major party candidate. He’s deciding between Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson.

“I’m honestly not very familiar with the Green Party,” he said. “We’re here to learn about them. How often do you get to see something like this?”

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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