Texas Democrats ask tough questions after midterm election losses

ROBERT T. GARRETT Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN — Senior Democrats in Texas have tried to numb the acute pain of the beating they received in this month’s midterm elections by emphasizing the positive:

Predictions of a GOP golf election failed to materialize, they note. For the most part, the Democrats fended off a nationally funded, highly publicized Republican incursion into South Texas — traditionally a Democratic stronghold. Democrats also recorded notable victories in some of the state’s major metropolitan and suburban counties, such as Harris, Dallas, and Collin.

Still, the momentum of the Democrats’ bravura performance in the previous midterm, 2018, has faded with each of the past two Texas general elections.

Some Democrats are asking hard questions about whether the party’s latest state slate was too masculine and white, the messages too stilted and the structures outdated.

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Some also want to demand more election campaigning and resource sharing by longtime Democratic members of Congress and the legislature. As their coffers have swelled in seats safe from GOP gerrymanders, they should be urged and shamed to campaign and give money to other Democrats on the ballot, critics say.

“The undeniable fact is that we are not built for statewide victories,” said Ali Zaidi, who led the lieutenant governor campaign of Houston businessman Mike Collier. Two-term Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick defeated him by 10.4 percentage points.

“We run the risk of becoming a party looking for relevance,” said Zaidi.

In 2018, then Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke lost to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz by nearly 2.6 percentage points. In 2020, successful Democratic challenger Joe Biden lost Texas to then-President Donald Trump by nearly 5.6 percentage points. Earlier this month, however, O’Rourke lost the governor’s race against Governor Greg Abbott by 11.

State Democratic chairman Gilberto Hinojosa nevertheless points to long-term trendlines and insists his party is making steady gains.

First elected in 2012, Hinojosa released charts of U.S. Senate contests that began with former GOP Senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison’s 23-point victories in the early 1990s. His aides published graphs of presidential and gubernatorial election results that used former President George W. Bush’s towering victories in Texas as a starting point. From those perspectives, the state Democrats’ losses have narrowed.

When asked why Democrats fell short this year, Hinojosa blamed two persistent thorns in their side: Democrats still can’t raise as much money as Republicans. Nor can hundreds of thousands of their lower-income, less educated supporters overcome the barriers to registering and voting, he said. Republican state lawmakers have passed election laws “designed to prevent grassroots Democratic voters from voting,” Hinojosa said.

“Come on, this is very hard to deal with,” he recently told The Dallas Morning News.

His nominee as state party executive director, Jamarr Brown, addressed those liabilities, bemoaning “lack of deeper investment from national Democratic organizations,” such as some of the six challenges Texas Democrats faced this year.

“2022 was the closest mutual gubernatorial election in Texas in decades — and in a year when the Republicans had all the wind behind them,” Brown wrote in a memo to staff and stakeholders two days after this month’s election. “The statewide trend continues to work in us – not in favor of Republicans.”

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said Democrats suffered from a poor distribution of money. O’Rourke raised $77 million while Collier and Attorney General Rochelle Garza struggled to raise a budget to pay for an effective statewide TV ad that would run for a week, Rottinghaus noted , who has closely watched the party since working for Democrat Victor Morales’ 1996 U.S. Senate losing campaign against Gramm.

“About 70% of all money raised and 75% of all money spent was at the top of the ticket,” he said. “Democrats had chances to beat some vulnerable Republicans, but there was no money left. And all the oxygen was more or less taken by the best candidates.

This year’s slate lacked diversity, some Democrats noted. No black candidate won a primary election for statewide office, except for the Supreme Court of Texas.

That may have contributed to the alarmingly low turnout of black voters, especially in Houston, Hinojosa and others said.

“There are a lot of votes that we leave on the table,” Odus Evbagharu, Harris County Democratic chairman, lamented.

Evbagharu, whose Nigerian-born parents brought him to this country when he was 5, said younger voters are unaware that Texas Democrats fielded a racially diverse “dream team” two decades ago. It included Laredo banker Tony Sanchez, who is Hispanic, for governor; former mayor of Dallas, Ron Kirk, who is black, for the US Senate; and then-Comptroller John Sharp, a former real estate agency owner from rural Victoria County, who is white, for lieutenant governor. They lost by 18, 12 and 6 percentage points respectively.

“It’s probably a terrible thing to say, but I couldn’t even tell you who was part of that list in 2002,” said Evbagharu, who is treasurer of the state party. “Young people want to see people who are like them. That’s no secret. We haven’t had a well-funded, qualified black candidate statewide in a while.

Buda Democratic adviser Colin Strother said the party’s structure and playbook are not working – and need to be thoroughly overhauled.

“Why Doesn’t the Texas State Party Have Austin More?” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. How much are we going to improve our margin in Travis County? We’re not going to. … We need satellite offices in Lubbock, Longview, Lampasas, Laredo — satellite offices across the state focused on organizing the whole year round.

Strother called for more extensive voter registrations and a greater focus on loyal black Democrats in major cities and East Texas, as well as Hispanic party members south of Interstate 10.

“We need to get back to organizing and mobilizing and spinning our base and stop trying to change hearts and minds” of non-Democrats, he said.

Hinojosa responded that building the sustained Texas voter registration efforts seen in Georgia in recent years would cost at least $30 million per cycle. That’s double what the Texas party raised this cycle, he said.

Hinojosa said he has unsuccessfully pleaded for donations from the “billionaire Democratic activists” who helped former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams fund Fair Fight Action in Peach state. Strother’s satellite office proposal could cost up to $30 million more, he said.

“If he can tell me where we can raise that $30 million to $60 million to do all these things, he can raise it and he should be chairman of the Democratic Party,” Hinojosa said. “Because that’s just really impossible in the environment we live in today.”

Party director Brown said in his memo that Texas Democrats need to shed an image of being “aloof or oblivious” to concerns about illegal immigration and border security. Also, they must be “more forceful in proactively reiterating our support” for the police and desire to eradicate crime, he wrote.

Jason Lee, O’Rourke’s deputy campaign manager, said Abbott and the Republicans enjoyed an advantage they’d built over two decades: They’re the most trusted party on the border and crime front. Trying to dispel such “established narratives” was too costly given Abbott’s 2-to-1 money advantage, he said.

“It hadn’t escaped our attention that these problems weren’t good for us, that they hurt us,” Lee said. “But we had to make serious choices about the options we have, in the time we have and with the resources we have, to change the narrative” to a discussion of abortion, health care, education and guns — issues on that O “Rourke had ‘credibility,'” Lee said.

Strother, the consultant who says he was “sort of anti-establishment, on the outside of the Democratic Party,” said most Texans agree with Democrats’ positions on “gun safety,” casino legalization, and marijuana, pay more for teachers and expand Medicaid. But Democrats are crazy. They need to talk more like ordinary people do, tell stories and emphasize values.

“We’re still getting beat in the ‘who would you rather have a beer with’ poll,” he said.

Incumbent congressmen and senators in safe Democratic districts should share their wealth and campaign vigorously to “raise the score,” which would help the party’s hopefuls, said Zaidi, Collier’s aide.

“The people most pessimistic about Texas statewide victory are the incumbent Democrats. They are our Achilles heel,” he said.

Rottinghaus, the Houston professor, said the “state party autopsies are too sprawling,” a list of woes but no plan of action.

“You read the leadership memo that basically had 10 different reasons why the Democrats didn’t do well,” he said. “That’s probably true. But this is not a round table discussion. They have to… assess the damage and try to fix the problem. That’s more of a Hinojosa problem than a candidate problem. The party must be able to contribute to that.”

Hinojosa, 70, a lawyer and former district judge in Cameron County, has said he wants to remain on the presidency to continue pushing Texas toward a competitive, bipartisan state.

At the Dallas party convention in July, he defeated retired Air Force Colonel Kim Olson and Houston activist Carroll G. Robinson for a third four-year term.

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