Lone Star dreams: How Democrats plan to turn Texas blue

Originally published January 25, 2013

Democrats are finally ready to mess with Texas.

Indeed, many on the left think that the long-red Lone Star State has the potential to turn blue.

As Politico first reported, the Democratic Party is trying to take advantage of fast-changing demographics in the country’s second largest state. The rapid growth of Texas’ Latino and African-American populations could turn Texas from a GOP lock to a true battleground, some Dems hope.

That’s why a newly formed group, “Battleground Texas,” plans on pouring tens of millions of dollars over the next few years into the initiative.

Jeremy Bird, a former Obama for America national field director who’s spearheading the idea, told Politico that with its diversity and size, Texas should be a battleground state.

“Yet for far too long, the state’s political leaders, both in Austin and in Washington, D.C., have failed to stand for Texans,” said Bird. That’s why Battleground Texas, he said, “will focus on expanding the electorate by registering more voters—and as importantly, by mobilizing Texans who are already registered voters but who have not been engaged in the democratic process.”

It won’t be easy. Currently, Republicans hold every statewide office and both U.S. Senate seats (including Ted Cruz, the first Hispanic from Texas elected to Congress’ upper chamber), and Mitt Romney handily beat Obama by 16 points in the state.

The last time Texans voted for the Democratic candidate was in 1976 for Jimmy Carter.

But Democrats do have demographics on their side. Non-Hispanic whites make up only 45% of the population, according to the 2010 census while 38% of Texans identified themselves as Latino or Hispanic. And, their populations are growing. Hispanics made up 65% of the state’s growth since 2000, while the African-American population grew by 22%. Non-Hispanic whites had the smallest increase of any group—just 4.2%.

Of course, both blacks and Latinos tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Nationwide, 93% of African-American voters cast their ballots for Obama, while 71% of Latinos voted for Obama.

Another hopeful for sign for Dems in Texas: Rising Hispanic stars like the Castro twins. San Antonio Mayor Julian, and his brother, State Rep. Joaquin, are seen by many as the state’s future governor and Senate candidate, respectively. Indeed, Julian gave the keynote speech at this year’s DNC—a role a once-unknown man named Barack Obama filled in 2004.

“I’m encouraged,” Matt Angle, a Democratic political consultant and former chief of staff to former Texas Congressman Martin Frost, told MSNBC.com “Where Democrats have been adequately funded, we’ve won more than we lost” in Texas, he said, adding that going forward, money would be the main challenge.

The bottom line, he said is “You can’t wait. There’s a tendency to say ‘well the demographics are moving the right place. If you wait for demographics, you’ll wait forever,” he added.

Others aren’t quite so optimistic.

Walter Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, called turning Texas blue a “monumental task,” primarily because the minority base is so young. “The main minority voter base is going to have to do some growing up so it can be eligible to vote…turning Texas blue right away means appealing to a lot of Anglo voters in addition to minority voters.”

And historically, Latino voter turnout has been low. In 2008, just 50% of Hispanics eligible to vote showed up at the polls. That’s compared to 64.4% of whites and 64.7% of African Americans.

Perhaps that’s why Vincent Harris, a Texas-based conservative political strategist, calls the “Battleground Texas” initiative a mere “paper tiger.”

“The truth of it is, Texas is a conservative state both fiscally and socially. Texas really is the bastion of libertarianism in the country. It’s the home of Ron Paul for gosh sake. I simply don’t see Texas voting liberal anytime soon.” Democrats turning Texas blue, he says, would be like Republicans turning California red.

Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice University, agreed that it wouldn’t be easy. He pointed to GOP-friendly gerrymandering, which won’t change anytime soon.

Still, Stein said, the trajectory is positive. “With each of these elections, there’s evidence of increasing support for Democratic candidates, particularly of color,” he said, noting Texas could change one day… but probably not until after 2020. “It’s eventual, the question is when.”