Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Taking back the Texas Senate

Colin Strother says the Democrats should not overlook opportunities to make gains in the upper chamber of the Legislature.

The conventional wisdom is that Democrats need a miracle to pick up any single seat, much less turn the chamber Blue. The numbers show this reaction is based more on assumptions rather than any empirical evidence.

Here are some districts that should be immediate targets:

Low-Hanging Fruit

SD9 Kelly Hancock (R) Non-White VAP*= 47% (272,400) 2012 Total Vote=233,577

SD16 John Carona (R) Non-White VAP= 47% (288,695) 2012 Total Vote=181,746

SD17 Joan Huffman (R) Non-White VAP=47.5% (287,575) 2012 Total Vote=238,707

*voting age population

First of all, I am well aware that a sole reliance on non-White voters would mean we need astronomical turnout (except in SD 16 where a mere 35% turnout of non-white voters bests Carona). Non-White voters are a piece of the puzzle–not the panacea some think it is. I am also aware that Romney rolled in these districts, as he did in 20 of the 31 districts.

It is also important to note that the 3 districts hold meaningful populations in counties that are nearly 100% Blue from top to bottom (Dallas & Harris), so we are not exactly talking about a handful of voters scattered across a 37-county district like District 31. We are talking about large concentrations of non-white voters in large, urban counties where active GOTV programs are already in place.

For the sake of comparison, SD 10′s non-white VAP is 47.3%, the 2012 total vote was 287,759, Romney won it in the mid-50s, it has numerous down ballot Democratic officeholders, and it holds a meaningful population in an urban county where active an active GOTV program is already in place. Basically, it looks identical to 9, 16, & 17 on paper. The only difference? We made SD 10 a priority, got a good candidate, dedicated the resources, and made it happen.

These 3 districts have good bones, a good bench, and access to existing infrastructure. For a party that desperately needs to grow its market share, these look like a good place to start. (I can assure you that when the Republicans swiped SD 3 in 1994 and SD 5 in a 1997 special, their numbers didn’t look this good.) With a dash of candidate recruitment, a splash of smart staffers, and a chunk of cash, Texas Democrats can be knocking on the door of a 16-15 minority status…not in 10 cycles, but in 2-3.

I looked at the Senate district numbers back in February, and while I agree with Colin about which ones are the most targetable, I’m less sanguine about our chances in the near term. As a reminder, you can find the 2008 results by district here, and the 2012 results here. The basics are as follows:

Dist McCain Obama McCain% Obama% ====================================== 09 145,020 103,614 57.8% 41.3% 10 158,677 143,651 52.1% 47.1% 16 161,779 129,105 55.0% 43.9% 17 174,371 124,939 57.8% 41.4% Dist Romney Obama Romney% Obama% ====================================== 09 142,499 94,117 59.3% 39.2% 10 155,936 132,707 53.3% 45.4% 16 159,759 116,603 57.0% 41.6% 17 178,241 117,562 59.4% 39.2%

I think you can only call SDs 9 and 17 “low hanging fruit” in the sense that there is no fruit besides those districts and SD16. Romney not only did better than McCain in all three districts – and in SD10, home of Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis, whom I include for perspective – he also had a wider margin in SDs 9 and 17 than he did statewide. Other than the fact that every other district is worse, one normally wouldn’t look at these and see much in the way of opportunity.

That said, Colin is right that we’re not going to get anywhere if we sit around waiting for easy races, and whether we run a decent statewide slate this year or not, we need to aim at some targets bigger than State Reps. If nothing else, the VAP numbers suggest there’s material here for Battleground Texas to work with. There is a huge benefit for each additional Senator – among other things, without Sen. Davis, we wouldn’t have been able to block all those awful abortion bills this session – and the Senate is a great proving ground for future statewide campaigns. Even as longshots, there’s enough value in a Senate seat to support any good candidate.

It may be instructive to review Sen. Davis’ two wins to see what we can learn from them for future campaigns. A lot of stars came into alignment in 2008. It all began with Wendy Davis, who was an excellent candidate and who has proven to be an outstanding Senator, but equally important is the fact that she was available and ready to take on the race in the first place. She was a term-limited Forth Worth City Council member, so had no incumbency to lose by filing for another office. That’s an important consideration when you remember that the bulk of our up and coming stars are State Reps, who would be giving up their seats to challenge a Senator in a regular election. She went up against an ethically-challenged incumbent, which is always a bonus. The seat was clearly winnable and was seen as such, which surely helped Davis with fundraising and campaign energy. And of course, 2008 was a pretty good year for Democrats – no doubt, Davis was helped by the Obama surge.

As an incumbent herself in 2012, Sen. Davis needed less help, but she still got a gift in the form of her opponent, then-Rep. Mark Shelton, who was one of only a handful of House members to vote against a bill by Davis to provide state grant money to local law enforcement agencies to help clear rape kit backlogs. It was such a bad vote that even Sen. John Cornyn, who was sponsoring similar legislation in Washington, couldn’t defend it. Votes like that are an oppo researcher’s dream, and making it in the same cycle that gave us the likes of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock was icing on the cake. We know Sen. Davis drew crossover support in her successful re-election bid. I don’t have polling data handy, but I’d bet good money a significant chunk of that crossover support came from female voters.

So what lessons can we take from this? Well, first and foremost, the best candidate is no help if he or she is unavailable or unwilling to make the race. We all agree that the future of the Texas Democratic Party is largely in the House, but we can’t expect tomorrow’s stars to risk that status on races where they’d be big underdogs. That means we need to be thinking outside the box for potential Senate candidates, and as a corollary to that it means getting involved in city, county, and school board races, where new talent can be incubated and other offices can at least some of the time be explored because there’s no filing conflict.

Two, it means seek out candidates that can best exploit the weaknesses of the incumbents. In the case of SD09, Sen. Kelly Hancock is a slash-and-burn teabagger, and I’m sure his House record will show plenty of anti-education votes, and surely more than a few anti-women votes. A female candidate with an education background, perhaps a school board member, would be high on my list. Sen. Joan Huffman is coming off a session where she carried a lot of water for the prosecution lobby, and got was responsible for an emotional outburst by the brother of Tim Cole, the man who died in prison after being convicted of a crime for which he was later exonerated. Here, a person of color with a background in criminal justice reform and/or innocence advocacy would be ideal. Do such people exist? Very likely. Is anyone talking to them about their future in politics? Very likely not.

And three, keep focus on the stuff we’re already working on, or at least that we say we’re working on. Register those unregistered folks, and engage them in a manner that will get them to the polls. Remind our Presidential year voters that we need them in other years, too. Figure out why Texas Democrats aren’t doing as well with female voters – specifically, Anglo female voters – as Democrats elsewhere. I’m thinking Wendy Davis and her campaign team might have some insights of value there. As Colin says, this isn’t rocket science. I’ve given Battleground Texas plenty of goals already, but taking back at least one Senate seat this decade needs to be on that list. The targets may not be easy, but they are there. We just have to make sure we take our best shots at them.

Related Posts:

4 Comments

  1. N.M. Horwitz says:

    We can’t defeat Huffman when the HCDP doesn’t run a bleeping Democrat against her. She was unopposed in 2012, and all signs point to another oppositionless race in 2014.

    I certainly agree that we need to take our best shots at these Senators, but honestly, I’d be happy with any shots.

  2. Mainstream says:

    This analysis is so misleading. While these three districts in total population may be nearly 50% minority, when you take out the non-citizens, these are all overwhelmingly Anglo districts.

    In Carona’s district, for example the adults are 24.4% Hispanic, but the registered voters are 9.9% Spanish-surnamed in 2008. Basically, subtract 10% from each of the figures for minority presence in each district.

    Additionally, the Huffman district has large and diverse Asian populations, for which there is little evidence of forming political coalitions with black and Hispanic voters.

  3. […] Kuff’s adds quite a bit to this conversation regarding types of candidates and issues to run on, Taking back the Texas Senate. […]

  4. […] later. That sort of thing didn’t work out very well for the GOP in 2012. Davis herself was a beneficiary of that in her 2012 race. It’s fine by me if the GOP wants to go there. I just don’t […]

Bookmark and Share