New Braunfels insurance agent Sharon Hall was an “informed voter” but not particularly active in politics until the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.
“I got up off the sofa,” says the Central Texas grandmother of 18. “I couldn’t stand what was going on.”
Now a precinct judge and volunteer for Houston Sen. Dan Patrick’s lieutenant governor’s campaign, Hall is a member of a small but powerful army that has chosen every statewide elected official since 1994: Republican primary voters.
With only 1.4 million voters participating in the GOP primary, that means as few as half the participants – some roughly 700,000 voters – have selected all statewide officials serving Texas’ 26 million residents in recent years.
“It is a tiny fraction of the population who sets the agenda,” says Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. “It is amazing how much influence you can have if you get involved in politics.”
Woody Allen once observed, “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” and nowhere is that axiom truer than in Texas politics. If voters like Hall have an outsized influence, it is because they show up – and millions of their fellow Texans do not. Texas has one of the lowest voter turnout records in the country, sometimes last among the 50 states.
Democrats also have to show up on the ballot: This year, no Democrat has filed for election to a county government position in 86 of Texas’ 254 counties. In 168 Texas counties, no Democrat is running for the office of county judge.
Hence the importance of the Republican Primary voter. While 6 million to 8 million Texans vote in November elections, Republicans have dominated that contest for two decades. Put bluntly, the only real competition in Texas politics occurs in the Republican Primary.
“How many Texans really understand how many elections are determined in the primaries?” asked University of Texas professor Regina Lawrence, co-author of a study on civic participation in Texas. “When two-thirds of Texans are sitting on the sidelines, it raises the question of how representative our elections end up being.”
The 2013 UT study, called the Texas Civic Health Index, used Census data to rank states according to their residents’ engagement in community affairs in a variety of ways, from voting to volunteering with local charities. Texas ranked dead last among the 50 states in voter turnout for the 2010 general election, with only 36.4 percent of Texans participating; the national average was 45.5 percent.
Census data does not profile voters according to party affiliation, but it does show that, in general, Texas voters are older, better educated and wealthier than nonvoters. The Texas voting population also is more Anglo than the rest of the population.
Now, highly motivated groups such as Battleground Texas – pledging to “turn Texas blue” – hope to wrest power from the Republicans by registering new Democratic voters, specifically by targeting poor participation among minorities.
Lawrence, however, said the study found voter engagement is deeply affected by sociological and political factors that cannot be overcome with a typical get-out-the-vote campaign effort. Cultural habits are not likely to change in an election cycle, she said.
Battleground Texas can play an important role in “getting more people registered,” but to be truly successful, the group will need to change habits, not just encourage people to show up for a particular election, Lawrence warned. “Trying to work with local issues, so people feel empowered in their communities is a smart approach.”
People do not vote because they do not think their input matters, she said. Many elections are a foregone conclusion from the outset, which gives candidates little incentive to engage voters and the press little news to report.
Texas has not been in play in a presidential race since the 1970s, the study noted: “As one Texas-based observer recently put it, ‘The 2012 presidential race in Texas might as well have been in Mexico, so little did the Democrats campaign for the state’s 38 electoral seats.’ ”
Lower on the ballot, gerrymandering has created “safe” districts. The UT study pointed out that in 2010 “only 5 out of Texas’s 32 U.S. House seats were competitive, with most candidates that year winning by a minimum of 20 percentage points.”
While turnout in the Republican Primary has been building, participation in the Democratic Primary has been spiraling down from a high of 2.8 million voters in the 2008 Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton contest, to a quarter of that in 2012.
‘A nonvoting state
Texas Democratic Party spokesman Manny Garcia said Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa and Executive Director Will Hailer have logged 42,000 miles in the past year to meet with local leaders in hopes of reversing that trend.
“Texas isn’t a red state. Texas is a nonvoting state,” he said.
In the 2010 gubernatorial race between Houston Mayor Bill White, a Democrat, and Republican Gov. Rick Perry, the vote gap was 631,000, he said. Meanwhile, “there were 3.2 million Latinos eligible to vote, but not voting,” he said.
While he acknowledged that Democrats have not fielded strong states in the last decade, the 12 candidates running for statewide office this year are the most on the ballot since 2002.
Author Wayne Thorburn, whose new book “Red State: An Insider’s Story of How the GOP Came to Dominate Texas Politics” will be published this spring, believes a widening Republican advantage in lower ballot races will ensure his party’s continued strength.
Democrats have fielded candidates in only 12 of 15 statewide offices this year, and things get worse down the ballot. For the 150-member Texas House, only 40 percent of the seats have Democratic candidates. Fifteen of the Texas Senate’s 31 seats are up for re-election this year, but only about 40 percent of those races have Democratic candidates.
Courthouses, once the fiefdom of Democratic officials, are turning more red as well. With Democrats bowing out of so many county judge races, Republicans are guaranteed control of that influential position in 168 counties, a trend that has spread to populous suburban counties, such as Montgomery County.
The dearth of Democrats running for local offices has implications for that party’s strategy of increasing Hispanic turnout, Thorburn says. Hispanics no longer are living in segregated communities but are increasingly dispersed throughout suburban Texas. If they want a voice in picking the county judge, they will have to vote in the Republican Primary, he said.
Sharon Hall lives in GOP state Rep. Doug Miller’s district, an area that reliably votes Republican – in great numbers
“I got more votes in the general election than any other member of the House,” said Miller. “People are conservative and civic-minded. An extension of that is they really care about their elected officials.”
His constituents are unique in other ways: 73 percent are Anglo, compared to 45 percent of the statewide population. Seventeen percent of residents over 65 vote, compared to 10 percent of that age group statewide. Eighty-one percent speak only English, compared to only 65 percent statewide. Only 9 percent live in poverty, compared to 17 percent statewide.
Last Tuesday night, while frigid cold gripped the state, some 350 Comal County Republicans attended a forum to hear from dozens of Republican Party candidates, including several running for statewide office. The New Braunfels Civic Center was a sea of white hair; the mostly Anglo crowd responded approvingly when candidates disparaged Obama. Hall handed out literature for Patrick and spoke on his behalf.
It was not her first volunteer duty of the week.
“We did voter registration in churches last Sunday,” she said. “Those are people who will participate. I’m just trying to make a difference.”
By the numbers
463 percent of Texans earning more than $75,000 voted in 2010, compared to 26.7 percent of those earning less than $35,000
52.4 percent of Texans with college degrees voted, compared to 22.8 percent with less than a high school diploma
16 percent of Texans under 30 voted, while 42.7 percent of the over-30 crowd participated
43.8 percent of white Texans voted in 2010, compared with 38.7% of African Americans and 23.1% of Hispanics
Source: Texas Civic Health Index, U.S. Census bureau