Can Democrats win in Texas in 2012?
Remember that re-occurring scene in the “Peanuts” cartoon where Lucy holds the football for Charlie Brown only to snatch it away at the last minute, leaving him flat on his back?
That’s the story of Texas politics for Democrats over the last decade.
Time and again the party has insisted that this is the time or this is the candidate that will reverse their fortunes in the Lonestar State only to wind up flat on their back — politically speaking — by the end of the race.
But, undaunted, the party is taking another run at it in 2012 with Senate Democrats touting former Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez as a potential star recruit in the open Senate seat and President Obama picking the state for a series of targeted radio and television interviews to sell his deficit reduction plan.
“As enticing as the idea of Democrats winning statewide here is, we are still a couple of cycles away from an even playing field,” said Nathan Daschle, the former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. “But an extraordinary candidate can overcome those odds, and that may be what the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] has in Sanchez.”
So, is 2012 the year when Democrats will finally get to kick the Texas football?
Recent Texas political history suggests it will be a very tough proposition.
The last time Democrats in Texas won a major statewide race — president, Senate or governor — was back in 1990 when Ann Richards was elected governor.
Since that time, the party has struggled mightily to even be competitive. The best showing for a Democratic presidential candidate in Texas since 1990 was 43.8 percent for Bill Clinton in 1996.
Obama won 43. 7 percent in 2008, coming up 11 points short of Sen. John McCain.
(That margin became a point of contention in an interview Obama gave Monday with a Dallas television reporter named Brad Watson.Obama said that he had lost Texas by “a few percentage points” and Watson corrected him. When the interview ended, Obama told Watson: “Let me finish my answers the next time we do an interview.”)
The story at the gubernatorial and Senate level is no better for Democrats. Richards took 45.9 percent when she lost her bid for a second term to George W. Bush in 1994. And no Democrat for Senate has won more than 43. 9 percent of the vote in the last twenty years.
And, the poor showing by Democrats isn’t because of a lack of effort — or money.
In 2002, Democrats nominated wealthy, Hispanic businessman Tony Sanchez who proceeded to spent $67 million of his own money but win a meager 40 percent of the vote against Gov. Rick Perry (R).
That same year former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk was the Democratic nominee for Senate — drawing scads of national attention and money to his bid. But Kirk did only marginally better than Sanchez, taking 43 percent of the vote.
In 2010, Democrats took another run at kicking the football — nominating wealthy former Houston Mayor Bill White. The DGA spent heavily on the race only to watch White win just 42 percent.
Given all of that history, what makes Democrats think that 2012 will be any different?
The answer is the continued — and massive — growth of the state’s Hispanic community coupled with Republicans’ inability nationwide to win over that critical voting bloc.
Two thirds of all the population growth in Texas over the past decade came among Latinos and nearly four in every ten residents of the Lonestar State are now Hispanic.
That’s good news for Democrats as Hispanics — even in Texas where they were far more of a swing group than in other states thanks to Bush’s outreach to them — are moving more and more to the Democratic side in recent elections.
In 2010, Bill White carried Hispanics 61 percent to 38 percent over Perry. And in 2008, President Obama won the group by an even wider 63 percent to 35 percent margin.
Those numbers make clear why Democrats are so keen on the idea of Ricardo Sanchez as their nominee. (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Patty Murray included Texas as one of the six targeted races for the committee in 2012.)
Sanchez is Hispanic, having been born in Rio Grande City and now living in San Antonio.
The problem for Democrats, however, is that Hispanics still do not vote in anywhere near their population numbers and are still not nearly as effectively organized as they are in other states with large Latino communities — meaning that even if Sanchez can win them by a strong number, he’s still likely to come up short unless he can also win over white voters and independents.
Democrats have struggled mightily to do that in recent elections as evidenced by the decimation of white Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation over the past decade.
In 2002, there were 10 white Democrats in the Texas House delegation; today there is one.
In theory, Sanchez’s military background — he led operations in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 — could help endear him to conservative white Democrats. But, a campaign run on his military record will inevitably force Sanchez to confront the Abu Ghraib prison scandal that happened on his watch and led to his removal.
“The only way for a Democrat to win statewide is to grow the the Democratic vote and get those folks who consider themselves independents to move into their column,” said Chris Bell, a former Democratic member of Congress who lost a run for governor in 2006.
The other major question facing Democrats in Texas is just how much money they are actually willing to commit to the state. Texas not only has a number of costly media markets in which to communicate — Houston, Dallas — it is also a giant state by land mass, making voter contact and turnout efforts very costly.
Matt Angle, a longtime Texas Democratic strategist, said that the party’s focus on Texas is “encouraging” but added: “We will also be skeptical that the amount of money and the early commitment needed will materialize.”
It’s clear that demographic trend line in Texas is clearly moving in Democrats’ favor. But the rapid growth in the state’s Hispanic community has not — yet — been matched by political participation in equal numbers. And, the prohibitive cost of running for office in Texas means that Democrats need to be willing to spend millions — and maybe tens of millions — to keep their candidate competitive all the way through election day.
Sanchez is the latest in a series of impressive candidates on paper that Democrats have fielded in hopes of taking advantage of the shifting political dynamic in Texas.
But recent history suggests he will need to overperform most statewide Democrats by seven points in order to win — a tough task for anyone particularly a first time candidate.