It’s the most common daydream of whichever consultant is masterminding Hillary Clinton’s campaign-in-waiting; for Republicans like Ted Cruz, there could be no greater catastrophe (leaving aside, naturally, the United Nations’ insidious designs on our golf courses and precious bodily fluids). The Lone Star State and its 38 electoral votes represent the sine qua non of the Republican national map. If Democrats find a way to storm the enemy citadel, powered by the steadily increasing presence of Democratic-leaning Latino voters in the state, their presidential victories will be so lopsided that it’ll look as though the Texas Longhorns decided to run up the score against the boys from Abilene Christian University.
It’s a vision as jolting as it is unlikely, at least in the near term: According to The New Republic’s crack elections guru, Nate Cohn, Team Blue would have to ride a massive wave of political good fortune to make the state competitive as soon as ten years from now. Without ushering millions more Latinos onto the voting rolls—and rescuing their share of white voters from the abysmal levels that President Barack Obama claimed in 2012—they may not come close for another decade after that. The next Democratic nominee would be wise to shore up their resources in the Ohio-Pennsylvania-Florida power corridor rather than getting lost in cattle country.
But Republicans with ties to the state take little comfort in the statistical forecast. Some warn of a Texas GOP grown stagnant and hubristic after twenty years of dominance. John Weaver, the architect of John McCain’s presidential runs in 2000 and 2008, is haunted by the state’s history. “When the Democrats had one-party control in the '60s and '70s, and Republicans were the outcasts and didn’t have a deep bench, no one thought Texas would become a reliably Republican state,” he told me over the phone. “I think we’re seeing that play out again, right in front of us.”
Weaver may be uniquely positioned to craft an insurgency playbook for languishing Texas Democrats; his rise to prominence coincided exactly with the emergence of the state Republican Party after over a century of dormancy. Though the structural factors—mainly a demographic shift as elderly, right-leaning voters are replaced by new, Obama-friendly cohorts—may already be in place for an uprising, he said, Democrats won’t win statewide offices or electoral votes until they start fielding plausible candidates in Texas. “The Republicans have moved to the right as the state has moved to the center; but the Democrats haven’t been able to take advantage, because they don’t have a perceived centrist to be their champion.”
Could Wendy Davis, the newly prominent darling of the national left, be that standard-bearer? Weaver has his doubts: “Unfortunately for Wendy Davis, who I think has incredible talent, she’s now seen as a left-of-center politician.… [If she ran for higher office] too soon, she’d get beaten badly and set the party back.” The man who could deliver the governor’s mansion—and, potentially, the White House—is Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio and recent keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, he said.
But Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based political consultant and cofounder of the political blog Must Read Texas, rushed to dump water on the left’s hopes for quickly upsetting the state’s party alignment. “Castro is a first-tier candidate,” he conceded, before segueing into a brisk and severe appraisal of the Texas Democratic establishment. “The organizational challenges are huge. They have one of the worst-run, worst-funded, least effective state parties in the country,” he said. “And there’s an enormous cost to campaigning in Texas, hiring a statewide staff, getting 250 county chairs.”
Before they set their sights on the prize seats, Mackowiak said, Texas Democrats need to roll out a few small-bore wins, develop a pipeline of lower-level candidates, and reintroduce themselves to the electorate. As an example, he specifically cited the Republican campaign of 1990; that year, the party was shut out of the major statewide offices, but elected future powerhouses Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison to more modest positions, from which they eventually ascended to governor and senator. “But operatives don’t think that way, and donors don’t think that way,” he added. “Nobody donates $100,000 and says, ‘Gee, I hope you move our vote share by 2 percent.’”
Local exigencies—finding those 250 county chairs and grooming the next Democratic railroad commissioner—are key in any state, but national trends (the Hispanic or Latino population grew by 43 percent over the last decade) and the sputtering of immigration reform are seen as potentially game-changing phenomena in Texas. Weaver advised Democrats to focus not merely to focus on Latinos, but also the newly minted Texans who relocate to the state for jobs and low cost of living. “People who are moving here from the West Coast, or the upper Midwest, or the East Coast, for economic reasons, they aren’t typical Southern Republicans either,” he said. “Those people are more moderate on social issues, and they see a [Republican] party that’s out of step with their values. Whether it’s a tsunami or not—for Republicans, you can still drown in it if you don’t fix it.”
Mackowiak was blunter still. Noting that Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of Latino voters last year, he said, “If we win 27 percent nationally, it doesn’t matter if we win in Texas. We’re going to lose."