Texas Democrats' unspoken predicament

Photo by Callie Richmond

The horse-race coverage of the state’s November elections has provided its share of fodder for political junkies and players in the state’s political machinery this year: Can that Rasmussen poll be right? Is Greg Abbott about to start spending all that money? Does Wendy Davis really expect to win?

The most interesting questions, however, have centered on the ways in which the first gubernatorial race without an incumbent on the ticket since 1990 has exposed the tensions within both state political parties. But while the friction within the Republican Party has fueled a relentlessly public back-and-forth, discord among Democrats has been the stuff of a thousand, notably off-the-record conversations.

The coincidence of strategic efforts to resuscitate the party’s infrastructure and Davis’ unexpected rise has exacerbated a now-familiar tension as Democrats seek an elusive balance between persuasion and mobilization in their efforts to pick off moderate Republican voters while also working to awaken a Democratic-leaning but historically inactive electorate.

But beneath this straightforward political dilemma is a less visible and harder-to-solve structural one, made increasingly apparent by the disconnect between Davis’ rock-star rise and the lounge band that is the state’s Democratic Party organization. However much potential the Davis campaign had to reverse the Democrats’ electoral fortunes (and that is still a matter of some debate), her candidacy and campaign are still, as of now, just as indicative of the party’s continuing structural weakness. For all her star power, Davis’ candidacy emerged in much the same way as those of her immediate predecessors — out of the organizational vacuum of strategic vision, resources, talent and candidates that has defined Democratic efforts for the last decade-plus.

The difference between the internal tensions in each party is that the Republicans, however inartfully, are having a public discussion about their issues. They’re trying to figure out how not to repel the state’s growing Hispanic population with the tough talk on immigration that their base demands, and how to woo the increasingly large proportion of the electorate that is unmarried while holding onto family values rhetoric aimed at an older generation. These discussions may have their awkward moments, but they lead to an evolution of the party through a continual refinement in messaging and tone — a much easier problem to solve than structural deficiencies.

The Democrats also have an important list of issues, but the nature of their problems in conjunction with the needs of maintaining a veneer of competitiveness means they can’t discuss them in public, much less find any simple or easy solutions. They can’t just say, “We should focus our efforts on Hispanic mobilization and outreach, even if it means turning off older, white voters.” They can’t just say, “The people who have been holding the fort during our long decline are no longer innocent bystanders to trends outside of their control but are now part of the problem.” And most importantly, they can’t just say, “Our candidate is probably going to lose, but if she loses by less than a lot, that’s okay.”

The Democrats are simultaneously trying to figure out how to recover from a state of perpetual organizational failure while remaining competitive in the 2014 election. And as the election nears, achieving the latter inevitably means soft-pedaling the former. But the question that matters here is not the rote theme that has animated so much of the recent coverage — whether Davis can really win. Rather, we should be asking: Is the Davis candidacy, win or lose, a sign that the Texas Democratic Party is beginning to cure what ails it, or will it turn out to be just another symptom of an uncured malady? And the real question is, are the Democrats willing and able to have this discussion with themselves?

James Henson

Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin

@jamesrhenson

Joshua Blank

Manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project

@JoshuaMBlank

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