Time once again for the biennial eulogy for Anglo Democrats in the Texas Legislature.
Rep. Donna Howard
When Donna Howard of Austin won a seat in the Texas House in 2006, she was the only white woman among Democrats in the state Legislature.
Over time, several others joined her briefly. But four elections later, Howard will once again be the only white woman among Democrats in the Legislature.
After the winners of Tuesday’s elections are sworn in, 63 of the 181 seats — 31 senators and 150 representatives — will be held by Democrats. Seven will be white. In contrast, Republicans will hold 118 seats. Only eight of them are minorities.
The tally of white Democrats in the Texas Legislature has been decreasing at a time when the legislative redistricting process and the state’s changing demographics have fueled the relative rise of minority winners from Democratic districts. The party has been trying to broaden its voting base, in part by mobilizing Hispanic supporters and attracting politically unaffiliated Texans.
But some Texas Democrats worry that the loss of white lawmakers could complicate efforts to attract independent voters if they are unable to argue that they represent all Texans, including Anglos.
Texas Democrats acknowledge that Republicans have been particularly successful in defeating white Democrats in rural districts.
Republicans have focused on white Democrats in a “very calculated” way “because they wanted to push this idea that the Democratic Party was just about minorities, which is not true,” said Jim Dunnam of Waco, a former representative who lost his seat to a Republican in 2010.
Political analysts said Democrats have been losing in rural areas because they are easier targets. Jerry Polinard, a political-science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American, said Republicans have focused on capturing districts with a majority of white residents, lightly redrawing district lines to favor their candidates.
Districts made up largely of minorities, which tend to lean Democratic, are not easily redrawn without inciting legal challenges, Polinard said.
“Obviously, in terms of the demographics of voting, Republicans pull much more strongly from the white vote,” Polinard said. Historically, minorities in Texas tend to vote Democratic.
Craig Murphy, a longtime Republican consultant, said white Democrats in rural areas became “inherently weak” when Republicans realized that they voted along party lines in the Legislature but went back to their Republican-leaning districts and pretended to be conservative.
“They were just very vulnerable incumbents,” Murphy said. “Many of them should not have had the right expectations to survive.”
But he brushed off the idea that Republicans were attempting to marginalize minority voters. The party was focused on winning as many seats as it could, he said.
I began this piece before Thanksgiving, and procrastinated long enough for the Statesman to write more or less the same piece this past Sunday. I covered a lot of this ground two years ago when there were 11 Anglo Dems in the Lege. What I said then is largely true now. There remain opportunities for Dems to reverse this trend a little – the three Dallas districts 105, 107, and 113, plus 136 in Williamson County are all potential targets for Anglo Dems in 2016. Beyond that lie the suburban counties, where if Texas’ electoral makeup ever changes Democratic gains will have to occur. No guarantees, obviously, and any gains made in 2016 could be balanced by retirements and/or primary challenges elsewhere, or wiped out in 2018. But it’s hardly hopeless.
I should note that of the 98 GOP-held districts right now, all but 5 are majority Anglo according to the 2008-2012 ACS report. Two of those five – HDs 117 and 144 – I’d expect to revert back to the Dems in 2016; they may flip again in 2018, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. The two ways that a Democrat could win in one or more of these other districts is 1) altering racial mix of the electorate, either via demographic change or better turnout efforts; a lot of these districts are between 50 and 55% Anglo, so it wouldn’t take much; and 2) doing better among white voters. I’m not sure which will be the greater challenge, but those are the choices. Fortunately, they’re not mutually exclusive.
You wonder if Dems have hit bottom in how little support they can get from Anglos, which is probably in the mid 20s right now, or if there are further depths to plumb. There’s no way to avoid the fact that this happened while Barack Obama was President – Republicans were certainly fervent in their opposition to Bill Clinton, but race wasn’t the factor it is now. This has led to some speculation that things could turn around at least a little with Hillary Clinton on the ballot, and hopefully in the White House.
The top minds in the proto-Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign infrastructure are already gaming out Electoral College scenarios. What they think they have is a candidate who could compete in a handful of traditionally red states, putting Republicans on the defensive and increasing her chances of winning the White House.
Mitch Stewart, Obama’s 2012 battleground state director who is now an independent consultant advising the grassroots group Ready for Hillary, laid out the electoral math to TPM in a recent interview. Clinton will start with Obama’s map, he said, and can build from there.
There are two buckets of states potentially in play. Arkansas, Indiana and Missouri comprise one bucket. The first is a somewhat unique case, given Clinton’s history there, while the other two were razor-thin in 2008, but the principle is the same: Clinton has a record of appealing to white working-class voters — especially women — and they could be enough when paired with the Obama coalition to pull out a win.
“Where I think Secretary Clinton has more appeal than any other Democrat looking at running is that with white working-class voters, she does have a connection,” Stewart said. “I think she’s best positioned to open those states.”
“I think Hillary Clinton can be a temporary salve to Democrats’ fading chances with white voters, primarily because she will attract women,” Carter Eskew, a top adviser to Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, told TPM. “If she supplements her gender appeal with a real contrast on the economy, then all the better.”
That will be key, Stewart agreed. Clinton has already been testing a 2016 message that heavily emphasizes wage growth and expanding the middle class. That’s how she’ll attract those voters that could bring these additional states into reach.
“For whatever reason, Democrats have not been able to articulate a message that resonates even though our economic values align with that working-class family’s economic values,” Stewart said. “It’s something that we have to figure out.”
It is not a universally shared opinion, however. Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum outlined why Democratic struggles with the white working class have become so ingrained in recent years. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, sounded skeptical when asked by TPM about Clinton’s ability to break through with that population.
“It’s possible, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said in an email. “The hardening of party lines during the Bush and Obama years make switches more difficult unless they are propelled purely by demographic shifts.”
Texas isn’t explicitly mentioned in this analysis, but if Dems do better with white voters in places like Arkansas and Missouri, one would expect them to improve by some amount here as well. It’s a nice thought, if you believe it to be possible. I for one am old enough to remember when a Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2008 was going to be the death of Democrats in Texas, because she got Republicans so riled up. I argued at the time that any Democrat would have that effect, and I think I’ve been proven right. Things are different now – there’s less ticket-splitting, for one thing, and I just feel like a lot of attitudes have hardened. I believe, or at least I want to believe, there could be something to this. I’ll need to see some polling data, and to hear the idea floated seriously by someone other than a member of Team Hillary.