By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN Texas (Reuters) - Wendy Davis may have lost the battle for Texas governor by a wide margin on Tuesday, but Democrats are forging ahead in the belief that demographic trends will eventually help than conquer the Republican stronghold and alter the U.S. political map.
Democrats, who have not won a statewide election in 20 years, saw their top candidates suffer lopsided defeats. Republican Greg Abbott won the governor's race by about 20 percentage points over Davis, a state senator who grabbed national attention last year when she filibustered a proposal to limit abortion rights.
In 2010 the gap between the Republican winner, incumbent Rick Perry, and the Democrat in the governor's race was about 12 percentage points.
Yet despite Democrats' showing on Tuesday, demographics in the Lone Star State are shifting in their favor with Hispanics, a group that typically supports the party, on track to be the largest ethnic group in Texas by 2020 and the outright majority group by 2030.
If Democrats can turn Texas, the largest jewel from the Republican crown, blue, they will have a huge advantage in races to the White House. By adding Texas to the populous Democratic stronghold states of California and New York, the party would have nearly half the electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
But it will not be a fast or easy path. Democrats have had trouble turning out Hispanic voters in Texas, a state of 26 million. According to exit polls, Hispanics, who make up nearly 40 percent of the state's population, accounted for just 17 percent of the electorate.
For Democrats to have any hope of turning Texas blue, they need to increase Hispanic turnout and the number of Hispanic votes their candidates win, said Mark Jones, chair of the political science department at Rice University.
"Last night was possibly a step backward on both dimensions for Texas Democrats," he said.
Davis, who donned pink running shoes for her 10-hour filibuster in June 2013, was supposed to revitalize the party but ran what many saw as a lackluster campaign.
Alumni from President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign have tried to build a grassroots Democratic political army in Texas, setting up a group called Battleground Texas more than a year ago to increase voter registration and get supporters to the polls.
They are focusing on issues such as education, healthcare and protection of immigrants' rights, all important to the Hispanic population, and are planning to beef up their volunteer army.
"As we've said from the beginning, change in Texas won't happen overnight," said Jenn Brown, the group's executive director.
A 2014 Gallup poll said Hispanics in Texas favored the Democratic Party by about 2 to 1 over Republicans, but the poll also indicated Republicans have seen more growth in Hispanic support over the past five years than Democrats.
Abbott, who handily won the race among the Republican base of older white voters, scored 44 percent support from Hispanics, according to exit polling provided by CNN. That was up from the 38 percent Perry won in 2010.
Both parties have rising stars who can appeal to Hispanic voters. For Democrats, it is the Castro brothers, media-friendly, 40-year-old twins Julian (U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) and Joaquin (U.S. representative), who appeal to a cross section of voters.
On the Republican side, George P. Bush, the nephew of former U.S. President George W. Bush and grandson of President George H.W. Bush, easily won his race on Tuesday to be the Texas Land Commissioner.
The son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his Mexican-born wife, Columba, he is seen as a Hispanic candidate for a Republican Party that wants to appeal to Latino voters.
Republicans need to reinforce their message to Hispanics by continuing the drumbeat of bolstering border security without backing policies seen as punishing immigrants, political scientist Jones said.
Republican strategist Bill Miller said complacency could be costly for the party amid shifting demographics.
"The challenge for Republicans is to continue the state's economic success, attracting new businesses and industries, and avoid getting into political crossfire on social and immigration issues," he said.
(Additional reporting by Marice Richter and Lisa Maria Garza in Dallas. Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Douglas Royalty)