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Demise of the Democrats: How the party lost Texas -- and how it can win it back

Democrats in Texas have not won a statewide election since 1994, the longest streak in the nation.  How did Texas shift from Democrat to Republican - and how can Democrats change the tide?

For the party of Lyndon Johnson, Ann Richards and Barbara Jordan, it’s an almost unfathomable losing streak.

Candidate after candidate, race after race, Democrats have lost and lost again. It’s been 23 years since a Democrat has won a statewide election in Texas, a streak that spans 123 races.

The changing of the political tide happened far before the Democrats final victory.

“The shift to Republican domination actually began with Bill Clements -- actually began with John Tower back in the 70s,” explained Harvey Kronberg, the publisher of the Quorum Report, a Texas political website.

Tower and Clements were the first Republicans elected to those offices in Texas since Reconstruction.

After those victories, Ronald Reagan targeted Texas as a state he could potentially flip in the Presidential election.

“He campaigned very hard in East Texas, and told those people ‘they can be Reagan Democrats, be a Democrat, but vote for Ronald Reagan.’ And they did, and they stayed there.’ They stayed with the Republican Party and that Conservatism turned into Republican Conservatism, and they abandoned Democrats as time went on around the state,” explained political consultant James C. Moore.

Reagan handily carried Texas in 1980, winning more than 55 percent of the vote, upping that total to nearly 59 percent of the vote in the 1984 elections.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush, who had served as the Harris County GOP Chairman and a U.S. Representative from Texas’s 7th District, ran and won the presidency.

Moore also pointed to party defections, namely Phil Gramm and Rick Perry, as blows to Democrats.

Gramm served as a U.S. Representative from Texas’s 6th District as a Democrat, before switching to run as a Republican during a special election in 1983. A year later, he was elected to serve in the U.S. Senate as a Republican, a position he would hold for 17 years before retiring in 2002.

Rick Perry was first elected to the state House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1984, serving for five years before switching to the Republican Party in 1989. A year later, he ran for Agriculture Commissioner, and won.

According to Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak, the focus on lower-level races such as Agriculture Commissioner was part of a Republican statewide strategy.

“The state of Texas did not become Republican overnight. It was a process that built throughout the 80s, that began in the early 90s, and continued through today,” explained Mackowiak.

Mackowiak pointed to that 1990 election cycle, where Rick Perry was elected Agriculture Commissioner and Kay Bailey Hutchison became State Treasurer.

Hutchison eventually became a U.S. Senator, and Perry served as Governor.

The success of Texas Republicans in larger roles extends farther than that -- the past two Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, both served in Texas prior to winning the White House.

Bush defeated Ann Richards in the 1994 gubernatorial election by about 8 percent; no gubernatorial election in Texas has been as close since then.

Democrats haven't won Texas in any presidential race since 1976, but the 2016 results have led some to believe that momentum could be building.

Hillary Clinton lost the state by about 9 percent -- the party's best showing since 1996.

“The demography of the state is going to change, which is going to benefit Democrats,” explained Moore.

“Democrats have believed for some time if Latino voters turn out to the same extent that white voters turn out, if they continue to win Latino voters as they have in the past, they could win statewide elections. Number one, it’s obviously very tough to turn out voters who do not have the same kind of voter behavior history that you want. It’s very expensive, it’s very difficult, it’s very difficult to change voter behavior. But number two, we have a history of Texas of Republicans performing very well with Hispanic votes,” Mackowiak contended.

Pew Research reports the Latino voter rate nationwide was 47.6 percent in 2016, slightly down from the 2012 presidential election. It should be noted that despite the slight dip in percentages, population growth still accounted for an additional one million votes -- a record.

According to date from the U.S. Census Bureau Community Population Survey, the Hispanic vote in Texas rose from 38.8 percent in 2012 to 40.5 percent in 2016, which the Texas Tribune said equaled 48,000 additional votes. By comparison, white Texans saw a spike of 818,000 votes.

Dating back to 1980, Pew Research reported Democrats have won at least 56 percent of the Hispanic vote in each presidential election, with George W. Bush’s 40 percent showing in 2004 as the best Republican effort in that time period.

In Texas, Pew Research reported Sen. John Cornyn won the Hispanic vote in 2014, while Governor Greg Abbott garnered 44 percent of the Latino vote in his 2014 race against Wendy Davis.

Moore believes there is hope for Democrats moving forward -- but points to a glaring issue.

“There's no list of candidates -- there's no bench, there's no high-profile candidates,” Moore said.

Arguably the state's two most well-regarded Democrats, Joaquin and Julian Castro, have opted against running in statewide races.

“The statewide offices in Texas have generally not attracted candidates that are exciting or interesting to the (Democratic) party. The party has struggles with organization, it struggles with turnout, it struggles with identifying candidates that are attractive to voters, and it has sort of fallen in recent years on what can only be described as hard times. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have viability, but at the moment, they’re still figuring themselves out. And I think that’s a painful place to be right now,” said Moore.

So the focus turns in part to vulnerable Republican seats. There, both Moore and Kronberg pointed to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick as a target for Democrats.

“The problems that we have in Texas are directly attributed to one-party rule. One-party rule does not work. If you have one party firmly in charge, they cease being responsive to taxpayers,” said Mike Collier, the Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor.

Collier said he’s encouraged by the feedback he’s received on the campaign trail.

“We haven’t won in a while, but there’s a tremendous amount of energy as I travel the state. People are pouring in, good candidates, good Democratic candidates, talking about kitchen-table issues. People are very concerned about the state of politics,” said Collier.

In 2014, Collier challenged Glenn Hegar for Texas Comptroller, losing by about 20 percent. He said despite the party’s struggles in statewide elections, his focus is on this race.

“It doesn’t faze me a bit. I know how steep this hill is. I’ve run once before, it doesn’t faze me a bit. It’s one of the things that animates me, because we must have political competition in this state. If I’m going to give up the best years of my life to trying to solve this problem, this is where I want to be, so it doesn’t faze me at all,” explained Collier.

Much of Patrick's perceived vulnerability revolves around the proposed "bathroom bill."

“The business community does not like the culture wars, and we’ll see if they put their money where their mouth is. But none of that is particularly auspicious for Democrats, going forward,” cautioned Kronberg.

Mackowiak argued it's tough to make a major issue out of legislation that ultimately failed.

“It's easy when something passes, and there's an effect, and there's a winner and a loser. You can then prosecute the case over that policy. When something didn't happen -- it's just hard to get a broad range of people mad about it,” explained Mackowiak.

Another major advantage for Republicans -- fundraising. Patrick currently has about $19 million to spend on his campaign, while the Abbott campaign has amassed more than $40 million.

The race that has garnered the most attention thus far has been the U.S. Senate Race, between Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Ted Cruz.

“(O’Rourke) has shown immense popularity for them. And he’s turning out big crowds, he’s raising money. And he seems to be a relentless and tireless campaigner. So wherever he goes, he’s taking the temperature of people who are unhappy with Donald Trump,” explained Moore.

“If Ted Cruz had stayed on the same trajectory that he had done the first two years, I think he would have been eminently defeatable, because he wasn’t paying attention to the constituent service. After he got rebuked essentially by not endorsing Trump at the Republican National Convention, he started doing constituent service,” Kronberg said, adding he’s unsure if O’Rourke would be able to mount a challenge to Cruz.

A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, showed that Cruz held far greater name-recognition over his challenger.

Even the way the electoral map is drawn has been an obstacle for Democrats, explained Kronberg.

“There’s currently a redistricting case in front of the United States Supreme Court, and nobody knows how that’s going to play itself out. If they’re forced to actually draw lines that reflect communities of interest, then it’s entirely possible that incrementally we can see the state start to turn purple,” said Kronberg.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has challenged rulings to redraw districts.

"Democrats have also had two major issues. One is probably the only place that we still allow segregation is in redistricting, where we start based on race and ethnicity, and it creates opportunities once Republicans gain control of the Legislature," Kronberg said.

Analysts have also said that Texas's voter ID laws was a barrier, specifically towards minorities. Leading up to the 2016 election, the Texas Civil Rights Project reported they received more than 600 phone calls expressing concerns over how the ID law was enforced at the polls.

A study from the Brennan Center of Justice at New York University School of Law named Texas as one of seven states with significant partisan-bias in their redistricting, with Republicans gaining seats from the process.

The law was passed in 2011, and has faced several legal challenges since. In September, a federal appeals court ruled the state could move forward with a revised voter ID law.

While Democrats have pointed to shifting demographics as a potential path to victory, the cost associated with breaking into Texas are greater than other potential toss-up states.

“It’s such an enormous state. There’s (about) 20 media markets inside the state. So if you’re the Democratic National Committee and you’re trying to establish a beachhead in a new state, or regain another state, you look at Georgia, it has (fewer) media markets. Wisconsin’s got (fewer) media markets. Texas has (about) 20, and four of them are among the most expensive in the country, and as a result, if you’re the Democratic National Committee looking at targets of opportunity for statewide races, Texas is not on your list,” said Kronberg.

Texas has 19 media markets -- the most in the country -- and several other out-of-state markets air programming in the state.

By comparison, Wisconsin and Georgia each have six media markets. California, the lone state with more electoral votes than Texas, has 12 media markets.

As for the number of large media markets, Texas is one of three states with four media markets in the Top 40 (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin), and one of two states with two media markets in the Top 10 (Dallas and Houston).

With so much land to cover, even grassroots campaigns can be difficult. Texas is the second-largest state by land mass in the country (trailing only Alaska), and is more than 100,000,000 square miles larger than the third-biggest state (California).

As for a party platform, Kronberg says Democrats need a unifying message to rally behind.

“The Democrats have to get past identity politics, and have to speak to a broader audience, and communicate that they share their values,” explained Kronberg.

While President Trump is not on the 2018 ticket, his presidency is expected to be front and center of many campaigns throughout the country.

“I think the president has mystified a lot of people, and created some targets of opportunity,” Kronberg said.

“Another thing that is working ... in the favor of Democrats right now is the immense unpopularity and disapproval of Donald Trump,” said Moore, who added that analysts don’t yet know of the “deep, residual impact” the administration will have on the voting electorate in 2018.

A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll showed Trump maintained strong support amongst Texas Republicans, and overall a higher approval rating from Texas voters than voters nationwide.

After 123 consecutive losses, can Democratic candidates motivate voters to go to the polls?

“I think that they’re motivated, and whether or not they have candidates in their state legislative races, or U.S. Congress district that they’re motivated by, I think that they’re coming out to vote, to make any kind of statement they can against what’s happening in Washington, and against what’s happening in the governor’s office in the state,” said Moore.

“The old rule of thumb used to be that the suburbs were so Republican that all you needed was the seven suburban Republican counties, and if you turned them out, you’d get 70 percent Republican vote. But if you look at Williamson County for instance, or Hays County, as Austin expands and becomes less affordable, you’re seeing more and more traditional Democratic voters moving to the borders of these two counties. So if you can -- the best hope Democrats have is that urban populations explode into the suburbs,” said Kronberg.

Midterm elections traditionally draw lower turnouts than presidential elections, though Kronberg pointed to recent history that showed that wouldn’t necessarily keep voters from the polls.

“Congress shifted in 2006 because President George W. Bush was being rebuked nationally over the war in Iraq. So it doesn’t have to be a marquee race in Texas, per se,” Kronberg explained.

Regardless, getting people to actually vote has been an issue for years in Texas. In 2016 presidential election, Texas had the third-lowest turnout amongst all 50 states and the District of Columbia. That low turnout was also seen in the 2014 midterm election and 2012 presidential election.

Texas voter registration and turnout numbers dating back to 1970 can be viewed here.

Somewhat complicating efforts to draw voters out is Governor Abbott’s strength. A June 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll showed Abbott maintained strong support in Texas, with a July poll from Morning Consult listing Abbott as the country’s 12th most popular governor.

“I don’t think (Greg) Abbott is challengeable at this stage,” said Kronberg.

In late October, Austinite Garry Brown announced he was running for Governor. (Editor’s Note: KVUE spoke about the Governor’s race with both Kronberg and Moore prior to Brown’s announcement).

Brown is joined by Balch Springs Mayor Cedric Davis, Dallas businessman Jeffrey Payne, and former U.S. Representative candidate Thomas Wakely as Democratic challengers to Abbott.

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