Texas Democrats could win the state this year. But only if things go their way

by Christopher Hooks

Spare a thought this week for the Texas Democrat, God’s most unlucky creation.

Texas Democrats prospered in the 2016 and 2018 elections, leaving them with an outside shot at taking back the statehouse, winning half of the state’s congressional seats and even flipping the state in a presidential election for the first time since 1976. (And all that before a round of redistricting, no less.)

But only if a lot of things kept going their way. First among them: They needed a Democratic presidential candidate who is well-suited to the state. But alas, the people who run the party are coming to the conclusion that there isn’t one.

President Trump did for Texas Democrats what they’ve been unable to do for about 40 years: unite a coalition of new voters, along with moderate and Republican-leaning independents, under a single banner. That coalition might not outlast Trump, but while he’s in office it’s busting down doors all over the state.

To keep it going in 2020, the party would settle next for a fresh face with fuzzy politics who’d be broadly acceptable to both wings of the coalition — so as to better keep the focus on the crass, septuagenarian New York billionaire who had brought them together in the first place.

But the primary finalists include a second crass, septuagenarian New York billionaire, Mike Bloomberg; a cranky septuagenarian socialist, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; and, further down in the polls, septuagenarian Joe Biden, who cannot be reliably counted on to remember things.

The other hangers-on are not much better, as far as Texas Dems are concerned.

Other state parties might shrug and try to make the best of it. Texas Democrats, however, have a much easier time imagining that collapse is imminent than imagining that they might do something right in difficult circumstances.

So, the last few weeks have seen a great wailing and gnashing of teeth, a mounting panic. Here’s why: Democrats outside Texas want only to flip the state in a presidential election. Texans care more about flipping the Texas House, which could become collateral damage of a presidential campaign, even a successful one.

Yes, Sanders, Biden and Bloomberg all have plausible arguments to make about why they could win Texas this fall, even if none of them are likely to do so. Biden’s is the best case: He’s fuzzy and nonthreatening. For that reason alone, he’s gotten a lot of support from elected officials, and he may yet walk away with a good chunk of delegates in Tuesday’s primary. Their hope, perhaps naive, is that he’ll sort of settle into the background over the summer and let them keep the focus on Trump.

Bloomberg’s case is that he’s rich. Texas is a very expensive state to campaign in, and Mike is the cool stepdad who will buy Texas Democrats a lot of new toys. He could flood the state with cash, and the things that cash could buy. People here think cash could compensate for the fact that he’s likely to prove unexciting to the party’s core voters and that he exhibits the charisma and political aptitude of a bank loan officer. His paternalism is the kind of politics Texans love to hate. But organizers here would love to have a few hundred million dollars to play around with.

Then there’s Sanders, the chief cause of Texas Democrats’ current angst even though, in head-to-head polls of the state, Sanders performs about as well as other Democrats, and sometimes even a little better. Texans place such a high value on “authenticity” and “straight talk” that it can sometimes overcome unpopular positions. Whether all that authenticity can overcome the label of “socialist” is where the angst comes from.

But if the candidates would all win or lose Texas by the same margin, many Democrats would rather lose with Mike or Joe than with Bernie. That’s because the moderate voters who helped the party win its new congressional seats here don’t love paying taxes. Sanders might force them to think again about their pocketbooks which means, of course, the state House would remain beyond reach.

Sanders didn’t help himself when he vowed to “ban fracking.” That pledge threatens a lot of Texans’ livelihoods — not just executives in Houston, but, say, truck drivers in the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley making six figures with a high school education.

Historically, things that are good for the national Democratic Party prove bad for the state party, and vice versa. Sanders might well be the candidate the party needs to win back the Midwest for Democrats, and thus the presidency. But he might do it at the cost of hurting Texas Democrats’ ability to win back power before redistricting comes around next year.

Or at least that’s the theory. Take it with a grain of salt. Texas Democrats are not the best at figuring out what Texas Democrats need to do to win elections. Either way, the young voters who seem keen to put Sanders over the top in Texas on Tuesday are the future of the state, just as they are the future of the party. They just might have to wait a while.

Christopher Hooks is a writer-at-large for the Texas Monthly.

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