All this week, NPR is taking a look at the demographic changes that could reshape the political landscape in Texas over the next decade — and what that could mean for the rest of the country.
For most of the 20th century, Texas was a stronghold for Democrats. But Republicans have dominated the state for decades now.
An organization created by veterans of President Obama’s presidential campaigns wants to change that. The group says the state’s shifting demographics — including a fast-growing Hispanic population — combined with an intense grass-roots effort can create an opportunity for Democrats.
A New Campaign
It’s 4 p.m. on a weekday afternoon in downtown Houston, where about 200 volunteers have gathered in a union hall to hear from a 34-year-old political whiz and data cruncher.
Jeremy Bird’s skill at identifying potential voters, getting them registered and turning them out was a key part of Obama’s election — and re-election.
Bird asks the group, “Are you fired up?” and they respond: “Ready to go!”
Clearly old habits die hard for the 2012 Obama campaign’s national field director.
But Bird is in Houston to talk about his new mission: Battleground Texas. He tells his audience it will be very hard work, but that it’s OK to believe that Texas is a place where Democrats can win.
“If you had told people in Virginia 10 years ago that it would be a Democratic state in the 2008 and 2012 elections, they would have told you, ‘You are crazy,’ ” Bird says. “And that’s exactly what people are trying to say now, that we’re crazy.”
The success Bird cites in Virginia, and in Florida, comes despite the fact that the Republican Party still thrives in those places, dominating the state Legislatures. But those states, along with North Carolina, are now battlegrounds in presidential races and in statewide elections.
It would be a victory to add Texas to that list.
Bird says it will happen and points to the words of conservative Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to support his proposition. Cruz has expressed concern about the overwhelming support Hispanics have shown for Democrats — last year, Obama won more than 70 percent of the Latino vote.
“I don’t agree with him on much, but Sen. Cruz maybe best put it in an interview late last year,” Bird says. “He said if Texas became a battleground state — if Texas became blue — it would change the entire electoral map. But I think that’s very true. Its … sheer size [gives] it an outsized sort of importance in national politics — and policy, I think, as well.”
A Chicken-And-Egg Question
The challenge for Texas Democrats is that even as the Hispanic share of the population increases, turnout rates for Hispanic voters remain low, lagging well behind Colorado, Florida and Virginia — other states with large Hispanic populations.
Battleground Texas will register new voters and then work to get them to the polls. It says it will be in all 254 Texas counties, relying on neighborhood volunteers.
In the big cities — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin — Democrats already do very well. But Bird says they need to improve in rural Texas, too. Even cutting the margin of loss by contesting races in big GOP strongholds is an important part of it, he says.
James Henson, one of Texas’ leading pollsters, says it’s a chicken-and-egg question. You need registered voters, he says, but you also need good candidates.
“And that’s been a big problem,” he says. “I mean, there are many, many races in this state both at the legislative level and at the statewide level where the Democrats either run no candidate or they run only token candidates.”
An activist at the Houston event asks Bird about that: “I’ve had some folks that say, ‘Well, don’t run in 2014 because you can’t win.’ And what I heard you say is that we ought to be looking for those county commissioners, those judges, those district attorneys.”
Bird’s response: “We can’t be afraid to lose.”
“In some of those seats, we need to go from 43 to 47 percent to set us up to go 51 next time,” he says. “But we got to start running now in those places.”
‘An ATM’ For Outside Candidates
State Rep. Rafael Anchia, who represents Dallas and is one of the rising stars of the Texas Democratic Party, says something not to be overlooked in all of this is that the money to help accomplish it is already there.
“In Texas, we have served as an ATM for the rest of the country,” he says. “Candidates from all over the country come to Texas. My friends from other places come and always ask me to hold fundraisers for them here in Texas because there’s a lot of wealth. I need to start telling my friends, ‘Thank you, but we’re going to keep some of our money at home and invest locally.’ “
Sherri Greenberg of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas says if Battleground Texas is to be successful, it will be over the long term — and only if it remains committed and aggressive.
“I don’t think that we’re looking at a few years. I do think that we’re looking at a longer-term proposition,” she says. “Yes, the demographics are in favor, but you have to have a plan, you have to implement it. As I say, you have to plant the seeds, you have to sow the seeds, then maybe you’ll have a crop.”
Bird, meanwhile, says in the short term, Battleground Texas will measure the number of voters registered, improvements in voter turnout rates, and the ability to field candidates in once uncontested local races. In the long term, people will expect actual victories in statewide contests — something no Texas Democrat has pulled off since 1994.