AUSTIN — Texas hasn’t put a Democrat into statewide office since 1994 and despite demographic trends that a liberal group says could soon change things, Republicans don’t seem to be running scared.
Texas Progress laid out its analysis of the good news for Texas Democrats in a recent report, “Flipping Texas in 2018.”
“Texas saw more than 2 million new registered voters from 2004-16, yet during that same 12-year period the Republican ticket only increased its vote haul by 158,130 votes,” according to the report. “Republicans have been in the range of 4.5 to 4.6 million votes since 2004.
“During that same period Texas Democrats have increased their vote haul by 1,045,164.”
But as the Dec. 11 deadline to file for the March primary approaches, the GOP is quick to note that potential and demographics aren’t necessarily political destiny.
“They can’t even convince their own team to run for the highest office in the state; that’s pretty sad,” said Jamie Bennett, press secretary for the Republican Party of Texas. “They’re assuming the best case for Democrats and worst case for Republicans in 2018.”
Gov. Greg Abbott’s war chest tops $40 million, and while the deadline for the March primary isn’t until Dec. 11, the Democrats who have filed to run lack both the incumbent’s money and name recognition.
As for the voters who are moving to Texas, “if it’s so negative then why do people keep moving here? They’re applauding us for all their new voter growth,” Bennett said.
Still, Ed Espinoza, executive director of the not-for-profit Progress Texas, said “there’s no reason to be afraid in 2018. We don’t think it’s a lost cause.”
In addition to demographics, the report argues that Democrats can replace some of candidates’ campaign spending for television ads with a digital strategy.
“Democrats, who benefit from the support of millennials and Generation X, don’t have to compete at the same level,” in TV spending, according to the report. “The average age of Fox News viewers is 68.
“Republicans still make big live TV buys because they cater to older audiences that still consume it in heavy doses.”
But while millennials and Generation X may be cutting the cord in favor digital media, Republicans have money.
And Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist said that donors like to back winning campaigns.
That is something Texas Democrats can’t point to in recent statewide races.
“Those checks may be harder to come by,” Rottinghaus said.
Winning also requires motivation.
Motivating voters to get to the polls takes at least six “touches” Rottinghaus said: emails, a visit from a campaign worker or a text, for example.
Some of those touches can be applied at a relatively low cost, but volunteers have to travel, they need water and a place to meet.
And, there’s the other key: messaging.
“It’s clear that Democrats have a messaging problem” that “creates a difficulty in connecting to moderate voters,” Rottinghaus said.
Espinoza said Texas Democrats don’t have an overriding No. 1 issue.
“There’s a collection of values that people subscribe to,” he said. “It’s anything that ends in rights: human rights, civil rights.”
Democrats have picked up about 1 million votes in Texas since 2004, with “new voters in red counties ... flocking to Democrats over Republicans by a rate of better than 3-to-1,” according to the report.
But Democrats have overcome structural issues to win: gerrymandering that favors Republicans; unresolved legal challenges to voter ID laws; and the fact that straight-ticket voting ends in 2020.
Democrats cast more straight-ticket votes in many of Texas’ big counties during recent presidential contests than Republicans did.
As for recent Democratic wins in big Texas cities, Bennett said “that’s where they’ll stay.”
As for filling the big tent?
“There’s potential for the Democrats to wake up a sleeping giant,” Rottinghaus said. “But it takes more than numbers on a page.”
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.