AUSTIN, Texas — For years, Texas has been a Democratic desert, a harsh and forbidding place where the party’s candidates shrivel and the dreams of liberals collapse and die.
It has been nearly two decades since a Democrat was elected to statewide office and nearly 40 since the party carried Texas in a presidential race; White House hopefuls stopped trying to win here a long time ago.
But after a generation’s worth of Democratic failure, many are convinced the state is on the cusp of competitiveness, thanks to the rapid growth of Texas’ minority population, especially Latinos, and a slow rebuilding of the party from the ground level — city, county, legislative offices — up.
“It’s inevitable,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic consultant whose Lone Star Project has chipped away at Republican dominance over the last several elections. “But only with a lot of hard work.”
Among those drawn by the prospect are some of the data-driven strategists of President Obama’s campaigns, whose targeting and mobilization boosted black and Latino turnout and twice helped win such battlegrounds as Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada. They have dispatched field teams throughout the state, hoping to apply their organizing techniques to Texas, where millions of eligible minority voters have either failed to register or haven’t bothered voting.
“They’re coming in not just with an idea but a track record,” said James Aldrete, an Austin consultant who produced Obama’s Spanish-language advertising and watched as previous turnaround efforts — including the 2002 “dream team” of a Latino-white-black statewide ticket — failed miserably.
Even the most optimistic Democrats believe it will be years before Texas becomes a true two-party state. The overnight celebrity of filibustering state Sen. Wendy Davis hasn’t changed that fundamental dynamic, notwithstanding the jolt of electricity delivered by her one-woman stand against tough new abortion limits.
The challenge, Democrats say, is stoking enthusiasm while keeping expectations in check, so that volunteers, activists and, especially, wealthy donors stay committed for the long-haul effort it will take to turn the state from red to blue, or at least make it more competitive.
Whether it’s 2014, 2016 or beyond, “it will occur sooner if we steadily keep at it,” Angle said.
The political significance of breaking the GOP lock on Texas, the nation’s second most populous state, cannot be overstated. Any realistic Republican path to the White House requires its 38 electoral votes, a number likely to grow in coming years as the population continues to boom. Texas is also a major source of funding for conservative causes nationwide and the home of the last two Republican presidents, both named Bush.
For Democrats, hope rests on the state’s rapidly shifting demographics and the faith that Latino, Asian and young voters will continue to support the party and its candidates in overwhelming numbers.
Two-thirds of Texas’ population growth over the last decade has come from Latinos, who make up about 38% of residents. By some projections, Latinos will surpass the white population, currently about 45%, by 2020 and become the majority in the state by 2030. The Asian American population, though much smaller than that for whites or Latinos, is growing even faster.
If these citizens, many of them new voters, are registered and cast ballots — two big ifs — Democrats are convinced they will transform Texas politics.
“If you could get people to turn out at a rate that reflects their percentage of the electorate ... we’d be neck-and-neck right now,” said Julie Martinez Ortega, a San Antonio native and pollster for PowerPAC, one of more than a dozen groups working to turn the state Democratic.
Texas Republicans are hardly panicked. They note that unlike elsewhere, their candidates routinely win about a third or more of the Latino vote, which, combined with overwhelming white support, is enough to ensure victory in any statewide election, from president to agriculture commissioner.
But neither are they complacent. Steve Munisteri, the party’s savvy state chairman, has made outreach a priority, recruiting minority candidates, installing a full-time director employing the “data mining” methods that Democrats used to boost their turnout and pushing for a more moderate tone on immigration.
“No one’s going to vote for you if they think you don’t like them, even if they agree with you,” Munisteri said in an interview at GOP headquarters, a few blocks from the state Capitol.
He said Republicans also needed to do a better job showing up — on college campuses, in neighborhoods — and not just courting minorities when they want their votes. “Outreach is not putting people on a stage,” he said. “Outreach is being in a community.”
Munisteri cited the candidacy of George P. Bush, the son of a Mexican mother and the fourth generation of his family to enter politics, as an important addition to the 2014 Republican ticket. Bush, 37, is running for Texas land commissioner, a post widely seen as a steppingstone to higher office, and part of his stated agenda is broadening the party’s appeal to Latino voters.
His bid, which has drawn national attention, points to one of the higher hurdles facing Democrats in Texas: the lack of viable statewide candidates. When Gov. Rick Perry said Monday he would not run again in 2014, the odds-on favorite to replace him, Republican Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott, already had more than $18 million in the bank. Democrats, meantime, are struggling to find a single plausible contender.
Building a campaign infrastructure, something Texas Democrats sorely lack, is vital. But “you also need to create some organic reason for people to want to vote for you and identify with you,” said James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas in Austin. That, he and others suggested, requires a compelling — or at least viable — slate of statewide candidates.
Democrats talk up the prospects of San Antonio’s mayor, 38-year-old Julian Castro, and his twin brother, Joaquin, a congressman from the city. Neither, however, is expected to run for higher office any time soon.
Davis, 50, was touted as a possible gubernatorial candidate even before her attention-grabbing filibuster, which blocked — at least temporarily — Republican passage of sweeping antiabortion legislation. But although the Fort Worth Democrat has expressed a desire to run statewide, she also knows of the challenges she would face in 2014.
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio lawmaker and head of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said Democrats were wise to rebuild their party from the bottom up, rather than counting on a candidate to do it from the top down. That’s been tried, he said, “and when the campaign folded, so did the computer that had all the data.”
“It’s different this time,” he said. Democrats are seeking to put in place “a real infrastructure, a real digital platform, a sophisticated voter file” that will “actually survive from one campaign to another.”
Something else is different, Martinez Fischer said, and it constitutes a small victory in itself: People no longer believe staunchly Republican Texas will stay that way forever. Strategists on both sides agree the state will grow more competitive. The only question is how soon.