Texas Ain't Turnin' Blue

Even the sunniest Texas Democrats would tell you that 2008 was a rebuilding year. They didn't manage to make George W. Bush's home state competitive at the presidential level—though Barack Obama did rack up 43.8 percent of the vote, more than 5 points better than John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000. They couldn't claim victory in more than 28 of Texas's 254 counties—though Obama did pick off the three largest urban counties (Dallas, Harris and Bexar), a hat trick that no Democrat has made since LBJ in 1964. They didn't reclaim the historic majority in the Texas House that they lost in 2003—though they did come close, and headed into the 2009 legislative session only one seat down, at 76-74. Progress to be sure, but modest at best.

Not long after Election Day, soothsayers suggested that just as Colorado and Virginia (along with seven other states) flipped from red to blue this cycle, Texas was on the verge of political transformation, too. The reasoning went like this: as with those states (and, to a lesser degree, newly blue North Carolina), Texas has a growing Latino population that remains untapped; it's got younger, more-progressive transplants from other states moving into urban areas, while older, more-conservative rurals are dying off; and it's undergoing a migration of base Democratic types (civil servants, union workers, ethnic minorities) into the once blood-red suburbs, turning some purple or even light blue.

All true. The only thing wrong is the conclusion. Texas isn't poised to flip—yet—for three reasons:

Demographics aren't destiny. Texas Democrats do indeed hang their hopes on that rapidly growing Hispanic population: the state is already minority-majority, and a Hispanic majority is coming, perhaps within 10 years. It is assumed that an overwhelming number of non-Anglos will vote Democratic, and that that will be the engine of change. Trouble is, in Texas, as across the country, the Hispanic vote is no more monolithically Democratic than the Anglo vote. Bush and his Republican successor, Rick Perry, have regularly won a third or more of Texas Hispanics, who tend to be socially conservative and less reflexively antiwar, since so many of their sons and daughters are in Afghanistan and Iraq. And although young people are flocking here, they tend be Alex P. Keatons: John McCain beat Obama 74 to 25 percent among white Texas college students, while Obama fought him to a draw elsewhere. In the suburbs, Obama won nationally, but McCain won in Texas 61-37.

All politics is local. Before a state can be in play at the presidential level, it has to be in play at the state level. (The party infrastructure is too valuable a tool; little surprise that six of the nine states that switched from red to blue in 2008 had Democratic governors.) Texas simply isn't. No Democrat has won statewide since 1994—the party's highest-ranking elected official today is a district-court judge—and the prospects are bleak in the short term. The main reason is that the Democrats have a historic deficit of plausible candidates. The biggest Brand "D's" of this generation remain the late Ann Richards and Henry Cisneros, who is out of politics for good. The biggest of the moment, former state comptroller John Sharp and Houston Mayor Bill White, have opted to join a crowded field in seeking the Senate seat soon to be vacated by incumbent Kay Bailey Hutchison, leaving the party without a standard-bearer in the 2010 governor's race. No strong candidate at the top of the ticket will make it harder to recruit strong down-ballot candidates, generate turnout at the polls and build the kind of momentum necessary going forward.

Less red is still red. McCain's percentage of the Texas vote in '08 lagged behind Bush's in '00 and '04—but he still topped 55 percent and beat Obama by 950,000 votes. NBC News noted that in '08 exit polls, 46 percent of Texans identified themselves as "conservative," compared with only 34 percent nationally. (In Virginia and North Carolina it was 37 and 33 percent, respectively.) Bush's approval rating in Texas was 41 percent versus 27 percent elsewhere; Republican pollster Mike Baselice observes that the worst-performing Republican statewide candidate in '08 still won with more than 51 percent of the vote.

The unthinkable is not the impossible, Democrats are quick to argue. Matt Angle, executive director of the Lone Star Project, a federal PAC that supports Democratic comeback efforts in Texas, says that $7 million to $10 million from the state party stacked on top of a $20 million gubernatorial campaign could make Democrats competitive at the state level in 2010; another $6 million to $10 million from Democratic donors outside Texas could do the trick in 2012. But that's a pretty big provisional bet. It also bears noting that Tom DeLay's congressional district, a knot of aspirational Houston suburbs that are among the most conservative in Texas, had been represented the last two years by a Democrat—a byproduct of the ethically questionable doings that led DeLay to resign his seat in 2006. Of course, this Election Day, DeLay's taint having faded into memory, the district flipped back into GOP hands.

This is still a Republican state, and it will remain so for at least the next presidential cycle. Texas Democrats can dream, but the only thing likely to be blue in 2012 is their mood.