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Obama campaigning in Austin during the Texas Democratic primary.

"Did I mention that it's fun to be a Democrat in Texas?" asks Matt Glazer, edito
r in chief of the Burnt Orange Report, the state's leading progressive blog. He
has, in fact, mentioned it a couple of times over beers at Scholz Garten, a lege
ndary liberal hangout in Austin, and always with the same glimmer of happy bemus
ement behind his black-frame blogger specs. I'd been seeing that look in Democra
ts' eyes all over Texas in early June--at their raucous, record-breaking state c
onvention, at local Democratic shindigs, in giddily overburdened Obama HQs. "It'
s like everyone who toiled on that Democratic death march for years, when it was
so difficult, is now seeing daylight," says Josh Berthume of the Dallas suburb
Denton, editor in chief of TheTexasBlue.com and another key player in a vigorous
blogosphere that has helped ignite the startling Democratic flare-up here, in t
he bright red heart of Tom DeLay and Karl Rove's "permanent" Republican majority
.
Bob Moser: Obama's "Southern strategy" pays off.
The very notion of Texas Democrats glimpsing daylight--of America's biggest chun
k of Republican real estate being shaded pink on the '08 election map--seems alm
ost absurd, a contradiction in terms, even to those who are making it happen. Li
ke many of the nuevo pols, bloggers and progressive activists who are constructi
ng a state-of-the-art Democratic machine in Texas, Glazer and Berthume are too y
oung to remember the last time skies were blue for the party that ruled Texas po
litics from Reconstruction clear through to Reagan/Bush. So is Burnt Orange publ
isher Karl-Thomas Musselman, who's 23. "The last time Democrats won my hometown"
--a small outpost in the central Hill Country--"was 1964," he says. "And that wa
s only because President Johnson brought the chancellor of Germany to Fredericks
burg for a visit."
The last Democratic presidential nominee to carry Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976
. The party hasn't won a solitary statewide election since 1996. Every November
from 1972 to 2004, the Democrats bled seats from their once-unanimous majority i
n the Statehouse. By the 1990s, national Democrats like Bill Clinton had come to
see Texas as "a money pot, period," says Molly Hanchey, a retiree who leads an
8,000-volunteer grassroots group called ObamaDallas. They flew in to raise cash,
but they didn't stick around to scare up votes--and Clinton's party did nothing
to help rebuild the state's hopelessly antiquated Democratic infrastructure. Ne
ither Al Gore nor John Kerry tried to compete here. By 2004, Democratic fortunes
had sunk so low that they carried just eighteen of 254 Texas counties at the to
p of the ticket.
Four years later, the Realm of the Bushes is now being described--in the Wall St
reet Journal, no less--as potentially "the next California." The next big Republ
ican stronghold, in other words, that is headed for a seismic partisan flip. It
won't happen tomorrow, of course. But unmistakable signs of a Democratic breakou
t are all around. In Dallas, linchpin of the Republicans' statewide ascendance i
n the 1980s, an innovative grassroots campaign in 2006 earned Democrats a sweep
of more than forty contested judicial races--and Harris County (Houston) seems p
oised for a similar switch. Democrats won back six Statehouse seats in 2006, bri
nging them within five of regaining the majority and having a hand in revising T
om DeLay's infamous Republican-friendly redistricting after the next census. Rec
ognizing the outsized influence of the state's estimated fifty active left-leani
ng bloggers, this year's NetRoots Nation (formerly called Yearly Kos) is coming
to Austin in July. And in the March presidential primaries, a startling show of
Democratic enthusiasm was the big story buried under the Clinton/Obama headlines
: just 1.3 million Texans voted Republican, while nearly 2.9 million voted Democ
ratic--more than voted here in either of the last two general elections for Gore
or Kerry. Political scientists are projecting that Bush Country will morph, by
2020, into the nation's second-largest Democratic state. "Texas," Democratic Nat
ional Committee chair Howard Dean enthused during the DNC's rules committee show
down in May, "is ready to turn blue."
Yes, Texas.
"Until three years ago, the Texas Democratic Party was just brain-dead and prost
rate," says Southern Methodist University professor Cal Jillson, author of Texas
Politics: Governing the Lone Star State. "They were beaten down. During the Bus
h years, people wouldn't even admit to being Democrats in Texas. Now they're up
on their hind legs, feeling confident. It's the Republicans who are sullen and d
owncast."
What in the name of Sam Houston is going on down here? Pretty much the same part
isan upheaval that's roiling several of the Southern and Western states that bec
ame staunch Republican turf in the Reagan '80s--and are now surprisingly temptin
g targets for Obama '08. Even more powerfully than in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexi
co, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia, a demographic tide is washing away the
political dominance of older white conservatives in Texas, which in 2005 offici
ally became the nation's fourth "minority white" state (after California, New Me
xico and Hawaii). At the same time, anti-immigration, ideologically rigid, starv
e-the-government Republican leaders are giving the GOP an ugly reputation with t
he rising generation of younger Hispanics--the swing voters who are displacing t
he old Reagan Democrats--and simultaneously alienating independent-minded, middl
e-aged "office populists" massing around booming metropolises like Dallas.
While Texas' swelling Hispanic population still registers and votes in smaller p
ercentages than blacks or whites, turnout soared in this year's primaries, and H
ispanics--once courted lovingly and successfully by Bush--are leaning increasing
ly Democratic. While GOP leaders spout anti-immigration tag lines, Texas Democra
ts are brimming with ambitious young Hispanic leaders like this year's US Senate
nominee, Afghanistan veteran and progressive populist Rick Noriega, who until r
ecently trailed by single digits in his long-shot race to unseat Republican John
Cornyn; State Senator Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, a firebrand who deli
vered the party's Spanish-language response to this year's State of the Union ad
dress; and smooth-talking State Representative Rafael AnchÍa of Dallas, whom Te
xas Monthly recently predicted would be "El Gobernador."
Demographics and immigration aside, Texas wouldn't be swinging so far so fast wi
thout a rejuvenated Democratic Party, which was hard to imagine just four years
ago. Nowhere did Southern (or Western) Democrats fall so far in the 1980s and '9
0s, and nowhere have they lifted themselves back up so quickly and dramatically.
As The Return of the Democrats becomes the latest legend in the colorful book o
f Texas politics, many will date the beginning of the tale to 2003, when Democra
ts in the Legislature reconnected with their party's hell-raising roots in the f
ight against DeLay's Machiavellian (and legally dubious) redistricting scheme.
"That's when Democrats really started to get our legs under us in Texas," says M
att Angle, former chief of staff to Dallas Congressman Martin Frost, who lost hi
s reconfigured district in 2004 when the dust had settled. After all those years
of being stuck in what Donna Brazile, Gore's 2000 campaign manager, calls the "
fetal crouch" of agreeable, Lite Republican centrism, Angle says, "we fought bac
k tooth and nail. And the public began to see that the Republicans were really o
verreaching, that they were willing to do anything, that for them it wasn't abou
t what was good for Texas." In the process, "Democrats realized that not only do
we have a moral commitment to fight back but also that we have a chance to beat
them."
By the time the redistricting fracas kicked up, Democrats had lost every signifi
cant vestige of power in Texas. Nearly forgotten were the many generations when
"calling yourself a Democrat was like declaring you had a pulse," in the words o
f former Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes. "If you were alive, you were a Democrat
." But there was an ironic upside to the Democrats' struggles: during its three
decades of slow, steady decline, the party shed most of its white conservatives.
While the loss of those Reagan Democrats meant short-term pain at the ballot bo
x, it also gave Democrats a chance to remake their party practically from scratc
h (as Republicans did in the 1970s), with the state's urban-centered, multiethni
c future firmly in mind, and with a whole new set of high-tech, grassroots techn
iques and resources on hand, thanks in part to Howard Dean's fifty-state nationa
l strategy. Elected in 2005, new party leaders like Dallas chair Darlene Ewing a
re reconstituting the historically disorganized party--in urban areas of the sta
te, at least--into a precinct-by-precinct, voter-by-voter, high-tech machine. An
gle's Texas Democratic Trust, a Washington-based group funded by legendary trial
attorney Fred Baron, the "Texas George Soros," lent organizers and polling expe
rtise to the "coordinated campaign" that took Dallas's long-entrenched Republica
ns by surprise in 2006, and it's providing similar aid to the Democrats' takeove
r effort in Harris County this year.
The GOP should have seen it coming in Dallas County, which lost 130,000 white re
sidents--and gained more than 220,000 Hispanics--just between 2000 and 2006. In
2004 George W. Bush had carried the county by a scant 10,000 votes. But it wasn'
t the population shift that turned Dallas blue in 2006; it was, in the words of
local organizer Kirk McPike, the fact that local Democrats "took a good situatio
n and made it extraordinary." Ewing persuaded most of the Democratic judicial ca
ndidates in Dallas--there were more than forty--to contribute to the party's new
coordinated campaign and trust their prospects to a radically newfangled approa
ch: a nonstop flurry of phone-banking, precinct-walking, direct-mailing and vote
-targeting. Every judicial candidate won, as did Dallas's first African-American
district attorney, progressive Craig Watkins. "It was a triumph of grassroots p
olitics," says Angle. "Dallas Democrats spoke one-on-one to the voters, and more
important, they communicated. It was research-based, targeted to things voters
really cared about," like the nation's highest utility rates, statewide cuts in
children's healthcare and an unpopular Republican push for toll roads.
Which brings us to the other indispensable contributor to the Democratic upsurge
: Texas Republicans.
Back at Scholz Garten, Burnt Orange blogger Karl-Thomas Musselman hoists his bee
r in a toast of sorts. "The best thing that ever happened to Democrats in Texas
is that the people who took over the Republican Party in Texas are running it in
to the ground," he says.
"They're out of touch because they're fanatically ideological," says editor Matt
Glazer. "They've failed to govern effectively by every measure you can come up
with."
"Say you've been voting Christian values, or along small-government Republican l
ines," says Musselman, who comes from a place where most folks have been doing j
ust that. "At some point, you have to start thinking, What does it do for me? My
taxes are not lower. My kids are not smarter. My job is not better. What are we
getting?"
Right now, folks are getting a heaping dose of right-wing bluster from the Texas
Republicans--most notably, and most disastrously, on the sticky subject of immi
gration. Party leaders like Senator John Cornyn and Governor Rick Perry have vee
red from Rove and Bush's formula and become fence-building border warriors. "The
y're just digging themselves deeper in a hole by moving right on immigration," s
ays Cal Jillson. "The only prospect for the Texas Republican Party to remain com
petitive in ten years is to be winning 35 to 40 percent of Hispanic votes, along
with 75 percent of whites and 10 percent of African-Americans."
But as the center of Texas political gravity veers inexorably leftward, GOP lead
ers like Governor Perry appear determined to go down, Alamo style, with ideologi
cal guns blazing. "The reason we lost our majority in Congress," Perry lectured
the California Republican Convention last fall, "is not because our ideas lost t
heir luster but our leaders lost their way.... It's a sad, sad state of affairs,
" he said, in a clear dig at fellow Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, "when...Repu
blicans govern like liberals to be loved." No such coddling would be forthcoming
from the governor of Texas. "We need to hold the line on what it means to be a
Republican," Perry said, "which is, of course, being conservative."
A converted Democrat who's jostled for supremacy in the GOP with Senator Kay Bai
ley Hutchison (a relative moderate) since they both won statewide office in 1990
, Perry is an intractable ideologue on "Christian values" and economic matters.
At his urging, the Republican Legislature has cut more than 200,000 children off
health insurance--and now, with a budget surplus, Perry is pushing for tax reba
tes. In 2006, after Perry's hard-right re-election campaign netted him just 39 p
ercent of the vote (enough to scrape by in a four-candidate field), he cheerfull
y declared of Texas voters, "They said, We like what you're doing--keep it up."
Such delusional thinking has many GOP leaders--the ones currently out of power,
at least--profoundly worried. "The grassroots has withered up and died," former
state chair Tom Pauken recently lamented in the Houston Chronicle. "The Republic
an Party has definitely peaked in Texas," says the party's longtime political di
rector, Royal Masset. GOP pollster Mike Baselice fears big numbers of "grumpy Re
publicans"--more than 50 percent in Texas say the state and country are on the w
rong track--will sit out 2008. Meanwhile, the party looks to be skidding toward
a bloodbath in 2010, when insiders expect both Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurs
t, a hellfire-and-brimstone Christian conservative, and Senator Hutchison, who e
mbodies the politer, Chamber of Commerce wing of the party (and says she's tired
of Washington and wants to come home), to challenge Perry in the Republican pri
mary. "And people say Democrats have circular firing squads!" says Glazer, clear
ly charmed by the prospect.
A Perry-Hutchison showdown could open a sizable tear in the coalition of Christi
an and business conservatives that has made the Texas Republican Party--like oth
er state parties in the South and interior West--such a force in recent decades.
"Hutchison is closer to a Republican in a more moderate state," says Jillson. "
She's been booed sometimes at state conventions by the true believers. Perry mig
ht beat her in a primary, but she is more popular statewide." And if she were to
lose to Perry (or Dewhurst), a whole new bloc of moderate Republicans could be
giving the Democrats a fresh look. Even if the Republicans steer clear of such a
destructive internal battle, Jillson says, "there's no denying that every trend
is against them. You can't argue with demographics. And the issues are all line
d up against them. The grassroots energy is on the other side. They can see it c
oming, but they haven't reacted."
Rank-and-file Republican disquiet was all too palpable at the party's state conv
ention in Houston in June. Enthusiasm for the GOP's presidential nominee-to-be w
as so damp that a local reporter counted the applause that followed John McCain'
s campaign video at precisely eight seconds. Charisma-challenged Senator Cornyn,
running for re-election in a state where a 2007 poll showed that 40 percent of
voters had no opinion of him at all, unveiled an unintentionally uproarious vide
o set to the old novelty hit "Big Bad John," depicting the go-along senator as a
take-no-prisoners, Stetson-hatted reformer making corrupt Washington politician
s quake in their boots. Some of the weekend's loudest cheers were spontaneous, o
ff-the-agenda outbursts by supporters of rebellious Republican Congressman Ron P
aul. For his part, Paul was one of an embarrassing fourteen no-shows--out of nin
eteen Congress members--who were being introduced at the convention.
The Democratic convention, held the previous weekend in Austin, was a jubilant t
hrowdown by contrast. A broadly diverse, revved-up crowd of more than 12,000 che
ered new party heroes like State Senator Mario Gallegos Jr. of Houston, who last
year returned to the Senate floor with a hospital bed, against doctor's orders
after a liver transplant, to block a Republican-backed voter-ID bill that would
have disenfranchised thousands of Texans. And notwithstanding a cranky fellow wh
o circled the Austin Convention Center bearing a sign reading Small-town, gun-ow
ning religious Democrat bitter about Obama, lingering wounds between the Hillary
Clinton and Barack Obama camps were salved by such characteristically Texan mea
ns as Thursday night's "unity pub crawl," with downtown Austin's bars jammed to
overflowing with commingling drinkers of Obamarama 'Ritas and Hillary Harps. On
Saturday the delegates paused to watch as Clinton quit the race and endorsed Oba
ma--at which point, par for the course at a Democratic gathering, the video feed
sputtered. But around the convention hall, chants of "Hillary! Hillary!" soon g
ave way to a rousing, full-throated chorus of "United We Stand."
"Given the news coverage beforehand, I'd almost expected a Jets versus Sharks ru
mble to break out," says Berthume, the Texas Blue editor. Instead, "it was a Fra
nk Capra moment for me as a Democrat. It was ridiculous. You'd see people with C
linton and Obama shirts holding hands, hugging. People cried."
A few nights later Renee Hartley, vice president of the Dallas County Young Demo
crats, was still hoarse from her long weekend serving on the platform committee-
-but still making volunteer assignments to the forty folks who came out for the
DCYD's monthly meeting at Zúbar, a warm, woodsy drinking hole in East Dallas. H
artley originally backed John Edwards, then ended up as a Clinton delegate to th
e state convention--which brought her a certain amount of grief, since "I was un
der 35, an African-American female and people just assumed I'd be for Obama. How
could I not be?" Hartley's working-class roots inclined her toward Clinton's po
pulist pitch--but she said that, along with the vast majority of her fellow Clin
tonites, she was having no great difficulty making the switch. That's partly bec
ause, she said, being a Democrat in Texas is no longer just about "which horse y
ou ride."
"There's this overwhelming sense that we're moving forward now as a party--it's
not about any one candidate, whether it's for President or senator or governor."
Which is no small development in a state where Democratic politics long orbited
around such outsized personalities as Lyndon Johnson, longtime House Speaker Sa
m Rayburn and Governors John Connally and Ann Richards. Now Texas Democrats are
competing on Republican turf--at the grassroots, that is--and developing a messa
ge that resonates with old-style and new-school Texas populists. "Democrats have
started learning this everywhere," says Matt Angle, "but nowhere more than in T
exas: you can't be afraid to say that you want government to work, that some thi
ngs are a higher priority than cutting taxes."
The Democratic resurrection in Texas could hardly be happier news for the nation
al party's long-term future. But in the short-term calculus of a presidential el
ection year, it does create a dilemma--albeit a rather pleasant one--for Barack
Obama's campaign.
On the one hand, Texas Democrats stand to gain more ground in local and legislat
ive elections in November, and they could surely make good use of the rocket-boo
st of grassroots energy and big money that is Obama's to spread around. Those in
vestments, in turn, would build momentum for a quicker statewide turnaround--mea
ning, among other things, more members of Congress to bulk up the majority behin
d Obama's policies. Down the road, of course, it would also bring the Democrats
closer to a potential mother lode of electoral votes--thirty-four at present, wi
th more than forty projected by 2030--that could make national contests vexingly
difficult for Republicans to win.
On the other hand, there is no realistic prospect that, barring a national lands
lide, Obama can carry Texas--until 2012, perhaps. And while Texas Democrats have
a progressive, attractive Senate challenger in Rick Noriega, he's struggling to
rustle up the big bucks he needs against the well-heeled Cornyn. Besides, no ma
tter how financially fat the Obama organization might be, running a full-scale c
ampaign on Texas' vast landscape of media markets is dauntingly expensive, with
candidates needing to fork over some $1.4 million per week from Labor Day forwar
d to get sufficient advertising on the air statewide. That adds up to a minimum
of more than $11 million--money that might pay more immediate dividends in North
Carolina, Nevada, Virginia, Colorado or New Mexico, toss-up states where Democr
atic turnarounds are further advanced.
In the consultant-driven, micro-targeting days of the not-so-distant Democratic
past, the Texas dilemma would have been solved easily enough: look at the polls-
-screw it!--shovel everything into Florida and Ohio! As former DNC chair Terry M
cAuliffe reportedly declared in a strategy session during the Gore campaign, "Al
l we care about is getting to 270"--electoral votes, that is. Winning the White
House, in turn, was supposed to be a magic bullet for building the party nationa
lly--though Democrats in states like Texas reaped no benefits from President Cli
nton's two wins.
But it's not only a new day for Democrats in Texas--it also looks like a new day
for the national party. In May the Obama campaign dispatched hundreds of traine
d voter-registration volunteers to seventeen states, including Texas, where they
will focus their efforts on the "blue boom" areas of Dallas, Houston, San Anton
io and Austin, where hundreds of thousands of Hispanic voters are eligible but u
nregistered. In June, after the nomination was clinched, Obama deputy campaign m
anager Steve Hildebrand announced in an e-mail that the presidential campaign wo
uld extend Dean's fifty-state strategy by running something close to a genuine n
ational campaign. "Our presidential campaign will be the first in a generation t
o deploy and maintain staff in every single state," he wrote, vowing to "provide
help where we need it and impact races up and down the ballot this November."
Just how much help Texas will be getting--"As in every presidential election, so
me states will be more competitive than others, and we will scale our resources
accordingly," Hildebrand carefully added--is anything but certain at this point.
But Obama's campaign guru, David Axelrod, promised in a series of Texas fundrai
sers in early June that fifteen staffers would be dispatched to Texas for the ge
neral election. "He was cagey about their level of investment," says Molly Hanch
ey, the ObamaDallas chair. "But he was clear that we won't be just an ATM this t
ime." And that's more important, she says, than making Texas a full-scale presid
ential battleground in November.
"We're going to do what we're doing regardless," she says. "They didn't get us s
tarted--we did, even before Obama declared his candidacy." And Texas' newly focu
sed Democrats have plenty to shoot for down the ballot. "The Dean strategy, and
now the Obama strategy," says Matt Angle, "recognizes that there is something to
win in every state. And that, as we've learned in Texas, you don't build a part
y from the top down."
Here's to that.
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