Fail: Democrats Are Not Turning Texas Purple

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Nov 10, 2014 7:00 PM
Fail: Democrats Are Not Turning Texas Purple

After Wendy Davis’ epic loss to Republican Greg Abbott in the Texas gubernatorial election, Democrats have to face reality: they failed in their ambition to turn Texas purple. Davis lost by 20 points. That’s quite the catastrophe.

Democrats have been salivating over the prospect of making Texas competitive, or even blue, given the racial demographics of the state. It’s also the largest bloc of guaranteed electoral votes for Republicans in national elections. You take that away and perhaps the GOP gets wiped out in the Electoral College.

Yet, those plans blew up, as Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel noted last month:

Bottles of beer cost $3 at the Hollywood Bar. After dark, bottles of very necessary mosquito repellant are passed around, gratis. It’s a hot night, fifty or so locals have come to talk and meet Republican candidates, and nobody’s got anything kind to say about the immigration detention center down the road. The Mexican border is just a few miles away. The reporters who trekked down to cover the late summer’s child migrant crisis? Long gone. Yet the building goes on.

“They’re actually opening up stuff faster for them than they are for us,” says Jose Pena, who works at a local appraiser’s office.

“Yeah, they put up a school for the immigrant kids like—whoosh—like that,” says Manny Rosales, a Navy veteran who’s still looking for work. “They took an old building, but they rebuilt it and got it up and running in a month. They couldn’t do it fast enough!”

It’s early October, right before the start of early voting in Texas’s elections. Rosales, Pena, and a few dozen other people who’d grudgingly shown up to support Carlos Cascos, a Cameron County judge who’d recently been winning elections as a Republican. The county, which runs along the Mexican border to the Gulf, is nearly 90 percent Hispanic. In the 2012 election, Barack Obama won it by 31 points. But when I ask him what he thinks of the president, Pena sounds like this year’s ever-growing posse of squirming Democratic Senate candidates.

“Obama 2008 or Obama now?” he says with a laugh. “Man, don’t get me started on that.” He switches the subject to Hillary Clinton, whom he’d be happy to support, because she’s always seemed competent. Over plates of brisket and tortillas, Rosales tries to convince Pena that Clinton’s past her prime. They finally reach an accord on the upcoming gubernatorial race between Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis.

“All I know about Davis is that she made that stand in the Capitol,” says Pena. He shrugs. “That got my interest, I guess.”

Neither is excited about that Democrat. They’re intrigued by Abbott. At a table nearby, Cascos is showing off photos of the pachanga he held this year, the one where Abbott showed up and stayed late. “Ninety percent of the people there were Democrats,” says Cascos, “but they see themselves as independents, and Abbott reached out to them.”

Weigel noted a Texas Tribune poll that showed Abbott with a double-digit lead over Davis. Davis and Abbott were virtually splitting the Hispanic vote as well 48/46, with Davis leading by 2-points:

None of the “purple Texas” plans contemplated a Republican candidate pulling 46 percent of the Hispanic vote. They assumed a backlash among Hispanics to the GOP’s right turn

The majority party’s candidates responded to the Battleground [Texas, a left-leaning group] threat with a very strategic panic. They knew that Texas Latinos tended to have deep roots in the state, and weren’t going to embrace the Democrats on immigration the way that more recent immigrants did.

There was also the abortion issue:

And there was another plank to their Hispanic platform. Davis had risen to national prominence with an epic, and briefly successful, filibuster of an abortion restriction bill. Republicans had numbers, including a 2013 Wilson Perkins Allen survey that found Latinos in the states identifying strongly as “pro-life,” by a 2-1 margin. When he traveled to the valley, Abbott started reminding voters that he, too, was “pro-life and Catholic.” According to strategist Dave Carney, a veteran of Perry’s campaigns, the brain trust looked at the lost Davis counties and identified more than 1 million Hispanic voters who might be receptive to a social, economic conservative message.

I [Weigel] meet investor and Democratic mega-donor Alonzo Cantu at his usual table at McAllen’s Peppers restaurant. Cantu, a bundler for Hillary Clinton, had plowed even more money into his own long-term registration effort—the Advocacy Alliance Center of Texas.

“There’s a perception that Wendy Davis is pro-abortion, and that’s hard to overcome with us Latinos,” says Cantu. “It’s been hard for her to get away from that.”

Republican inclusion of Hispanic voters in Texas has yield small, but noticeable results.

As for Election Night last Tuesday, Davis lost pretty much across the board (via Mother Jones):

When Battleground Texas first launched, 2014 was considered too much, too soon. But when Davis entered the race, fresh off of an 11-hour filibuster of an anti-abortion bill, the calculus changed. The group merged its offices with Davis' gubernatorial campaign, set about building an army of 34,000 canvassers, lawyers, and voter-registration volunteers, and looked to pick off low-hanging fruit wherever it could.

The idea was that an Obama-style organizing operation could make a real impact in down-ballot races, which are traditionally less sophisticated. It didn't.

Battleground invested in a dozen state-legislature races, targeting House and Senate districts that will have to turn purple for anyone at the top of the ticket to have a chance—East Dallas, the Houston suburbs, and a South Texas seat held by a party-switching state represenative. Democrats didn't win a single one, and most of the races weren't even close. In Harris County (Houston), where Democrats talked of tapping into the roughly 800,000 nonregistered potential voters, Davis lost by four points. (The Dem's 2010 nominee, Bill White, won it by two.) In the final indignity, Democrats even lost Davis' state Senate seat to a pro-life tea party Republican.

Even though Battleground boasted of having trained 8,700 new voter-registration volunteers, the overall voter turnout dropped by 300,000 from 2010. Absent any sort of marquee victory to call its own, the fate of Battleground is now outside its control. Texas Democrats won't have another big election for four years—plenty of time to lose interest—and, well, something else might come up in the interim.

As I posted earlier today about Dan Balz’s piece in the Washington Post, the lack of Democratic strength at the state-level will see their state political apparatuses “atrophy.” He used Texas as an example; Democrats haven’t won a statewide race since 1990.

I'll leave this here as well.