Texas in Democrats’ sights

Wallsten is a Times staff writer.

As they review the results of Tuesday’s election victories and begin looking toward future campaigns, some Democrats have settled on a rallying cry: Texas is next.

It sounds improbable for the Republican bastion that produced President Bush and served as an early laboratory for Karl Rove’s hard-nosed tactics. But Texas is one of several reliably red states that are now in Democrats’ sights as party strategists begin to analyze a victorious 2008 campaign that they believe showed the contours of a new movement that could grow and prove long-lasting.

A multiethnic bloc of Latinos, blacks, young people and suburban whites helped to broaden the party’s reach Tuesday well beyond its traditional base in the Northeast and the West Coast -- carrying Barack Obama into the White House and expanding the party’s majorities in Congress.


That new formula was evident in state exit polls and county-level election results showing that Democrats scored gains from a voting base that is growing progressively less white than the population that helped forge Republican advantages in past elections. In state after state, from GOP strongholds like North Carolina, Indiana and Colorado, minorities made up a larger share of the vote than in the past, and in each case they helped turn states from red to blue.

A major shift in the Latino vote took place in Florida and the Southwest, where the Obama campaign spent at least $20 million on targeted appeals and organizing, including one television ad in the final days featuring the candidate reading Spanish from a script.

Latinos made up a greater share of the electorate than in the past in every Southwestern state, according to exit polls compiled by CNN. And in each Southwestern state, as well as Florida, the Democrat pulled a bigger percentage of the Latino vote -- a turnaround from 2004, when President Bush cut deeply into Democrats’ hold on Latinos and won that bloc in Florida, where many Cuban Americans remain loyal to the GOP.

“The Democrats have built what looks like a coalition they can ride for 20 or 30 years,” said Simon Rosenberg, head of the pro-Democratic group NDN, which has spent millions of dollars targeting Latino voters.

Obama’s winning coalition, some Democrats said, could mark a turning point in history: Republicans can no longer achieve an electoral college majority with their decades-old strategy of winning whites in the South and conservatives in the heartland. Now, Democrats have a path through the Rocky Mountains and even some states in the old Confederacy.

Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress who in 2002 co-wrote “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” said that Obama “was able to realize the political potential in the ways the country is changing.” That, Teixeira added, bodes well for the party’s future because “you have all these ascendant groups leaning increasingly Democratic.”


Texas, the nation’s second-most-populous state and home to 34 electoral votes, was not a 2008 presidential battleground, and Republican nominee John McCain won there by a comfortable margin. The Obama campaign spent little money there, apart from recruiting volunteers to work in other states.


More untapped potential voters

But strategists believe the large and growing Latino population there remains untapped, along with a large black electorate, which could make Texas competitive with a major investment of time and money from an Obama-led Democratic Party.

Similar possibilities exist in Arizona, another heavily Latino state that leans Republican, and Georgia, with a growing Latino population and a black electorate that grew from one-quarter of the overall voters four years ago to nearly one-third on Tuesday.

In turning Florida and Ohio, among other states, this year, Obama organizers focused for months not only on registering new voters but also on tracking down blacks, Latinos and young people who had been registered but never voted.

One top Obama strategist said the campaign had already sought to build the Texas state party, handing over a database with hundreds of thousands of voter names and phone numbers gathered when Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton competed in the state’s Democratic primary. Much of the campaign’s attention in that effort focused on Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley.

The strategist, Cuauhtemoc “Temo” Figueroa, Obama’s top Latino outreach official, said the state could be taken seriously as a presidential battleground if Democrats could win statewide races there in 2010. “I don’t know if it’s four years or eight years off, but down the road, Texas will be a presidential battleground,” Figueroa said.


The big question is whether Tuesday’s results can fairly be interpreted as a sea change in American politics when so many unusual circumstances were at play.

Many Latinos, for instance, are angry at Republicans for the harsh anti-illegal-immigration rhetoric used by some in the party in blocking a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. African Americans turned out in large numbers -- and voted almost unanimously for the Democrat -- because of the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy to be the first black president.

Moreover, polls showed voters moved to Obama when the global financial crisis hit and stocks plunged. And the percentage approval rating of the Republican president was mired in the low 20s.

Republican strategists concede that their party faces some demographic challenges with the Latino vote growing and moving toward Democrats. But they dismissed the idea that Tuesday’s results paved the way for a long-term GOP deficit.

“We’re certainly at a disadvantage right now, but these things tend to be cyclical,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. “We’ll find our voice again soon.”

GOP officials have already begun searching for that voice, with party leaders set to hold at least two different meetings this week, one hosted by the South Carolina party chairman and another by the conservative group GOPAC. Among the topics being debated: how to try to bring minorities back into the Republican fold.


Greg Strimple, a GOP strategist who advised the McCain campaign, argued that Republicans would regain their footing because elections are decided by centrist voters who tend to shift between the parties.

Independents split evenly four years ago but went decisively for Obama, 52% to 44%. Obama can keep those voters, Strimple said, only if he governs in the middle. “The only thing that really matters is where the center of the electorate goes,” Strimple said.


Little coattail effect seen

There were signs that a strong finish Tuesday by Obama did not necessarily help other Democrats down the ballot -- suggesting that this new ethnic coalition could have more to do with Obama himself than an overall shift toward Democrats.

Obama, for example, scored a dramatic win in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, beating McCain by 140,000 votes after an aggressive campaign to register minorities and get them to the polls.

But the GOP’s three Cuban American members of Congress in Miami-Dade all won reelection, beating well-financed Democrats who had hoped to ride Obama’s coattails. Two of those Democratic campaigns had even coordinated with Obama’s team on the ground.

The president-elect’s double-digit win in Minnesota did not rub off on Democratic Senate contender Al Franken, who finished narrowly behind an incumbent Republican and now faces a recount.


And in Indiana, where Obama poured in money and hundreds of staffers and beat McCain, the state’s Republican governor won reelection in a landslide, along with other GOP candidates.

Still, exit polls in Indiana showed the potential for a durable Democratic formula: a slight increase in the Latino share of the vote, up to 4%, with nearly 8 in 10 backing Obama, and a turnaround among Indiana voters ages 18 to 29 who backed Bush in 2004 but this time supported Obama.

Nationally, two-thirds of voters 29 and younger supported Obama, compared with just more than half four years ago who voted for Democrat John F. Kerry.

Obama also cut his losses in the Republican-leaning suburbs, such as Hamilton County outside Indianapolis, where Bush’s 2004 victory margin of more than 50,000 was nearly cut in half. And he trimmed margins in some exurban counties such as Pasco on Florida’s west coast.

Nationally, the African American vote rose from 11% of the overall electorate to 13% -- a small but substantial gain, particularly when 95% of that group backed Obama.

The Latino share of the vote nationally rose slightly from 2004, but the increases were sharpest in a few states: rising from 8% to 13% in Colorado, from 10% to 15% in Nevada, and from 32% to 41% in New Mexico.


The Latino share rose even in Arizona, McCain’s home state. Obama lost there, but his campaign purchased advertising in the final week, perhaps setting the stage for a pickup in four years.


Times staff writer Cynthia Dizikes contributed to this report.