The politically charged battle over whether to restrict abortions in Texas ended late Friday when the state Senate passed legislation and sent it on to Gov. Rick Perry (R) for his signature. In the end, the fight underscored the challenges Democrats face as they look to break the Republicans’ grip on the state.

Democrats haven’t had a moment like this in Texas for years. The abortion clash provided a sudden jolt of energy to a beleaguered state party and created a new star in Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis, whose 11-hour filibuster helped block the abortion bill last month and forced Perry to call another special session to deal with it again.

All that led to a predictable conclusion: victory for abortion opponents. Amid noisy demonstrations in and around the state capitol in Austin by people on both sides, the bill was approved by wide margins on largely party-line votes in both the House and the Senate.

Perry and Republican lawmakers simply ground down the Democratic opposition, as they have been doing in state elections for most of the past two decades.

Changing fortunes

Democrats look at the changing demographics of Texas — a growing Hispanic population and an aging white Anglo population — and see an inevitable comeback. But the Democrats haven’t elected anyone to statewide office since the 1990s, and the prospects for doing so in 2014 are bleak, even though there is likely to be a wholesale turnover in those offices in next year’s election.

Democrats may have demographic forces on their side, but for now they lack many of the core components of successful campaigns. They are short of money, woefully short of candidates for the available statewide offices and still looking for a way to persuade a conservative electorate to start considering them again.

For Davis, all that makes for a discouraging stew. She galvanized Democrats in Texas and nationally with her filibuster and now is coming under great pressure to run for governor next year. Were Texas anything close to a competitive state, it would be an easy decision; given its current makeup, it is anything but.

Davis, who would have to sacrifice her Senate seat for an uphill challenge in the governor’s race, remains noncommittal in her public comments.

“I’ve been honestly honored that people are talking about that,” she said in an interview before the final votes on the abortion bill were taken. “I’ll make my own decision in my time, and I’ll do the one that I think is right for me and that I think is right for the state.”

Davis is aware that partisan divisions favor the Republicans but says she believes there is an opportunity now for a different kind of debate. “I do take exception with the fact the people vote only with partisanship in mind,” she said. “There is an awakening in Texas and elsewhere that leadership has left them behind. . . . I think Texans are wanting leadership that reflects them. If there’s an opportunity as a consequence of that, yes, I believe it exists today more strongly than it has for a long time.”

Many Democrats and Republicans doubt she will take the risk. Perry, whose differences with Davis over the abortion bill became personal, is among them. “She is a very, very capable, smart individual,” he said in an interview as the abortion debate was raging last week, “and I think her very smart, capable mind will tell her that 2014 is a political hill that is very hard for a Democrat to climb. Not her or anybody else.”

Davis’s dilemma highlights the Democrats’ problem. They can see future stars on the horizon. In addition to Davis, they look at San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who delivered the keynote address at last year’s Democratic National Convention, and his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, who was elected to Congress last year, as future statewide candidates.

What they lack are candidates ready to take risks today. If capable Democrats continue to wait until they are assured of winning, the party’s problems could last even longer. Is it worth running and losing to help prime the pump and possibly accelerate a shift back toward an era of more competitive politics?

String of losses

Perry’s decision not to seek a fourth full term means there will be an open gubernatorial race for the first time since 1990, when Democrat Ann Richards was elected. The favorite to succeed Perry is Republican state Attorney General Greg Abbott. It’s now possible that he will glide into office without having faced either a competitive primary or a competitive general election. That is a measure of the continuing mismatch between the parties in Texas today.

The Texas Tribune recently highlighted the gap between Democrats and Republicans in the state by running the numbers from recent elections. The Tribune noted that the closest the Democrats have come to winning any major races in the past decade were 11 percentage points in the 2008 presidential contest, 12 points in the 2002 and 2008 Senate races and nine points in the 2006 governor’s race.

“That’s how Democrats have done on a good day,” the Tribune noted. Bad days have been significantly worse, with Republicans rolling up margins of 18, 21, 27 and 30 percentage points in statewide races.

In the face of all this, veterans of President Obama’s 2012 campaign have formed the group Battleground Texas in an effort to accelerate what they see as the inevitable shift back toward the Democrats. Their expectations are in check, if the hype around the group sometimes hasn’t been.

Those steeped in Texas politics know that 2014 will not be a breakthrough year, and Battleground Texas is playing a much longer game with its organizing efforts.

Although the Hispanic population has grown rapidly, the percentage of Hispanics who vote continues to lag. Until Democrats change that, they will remain decided underdogs.

Some Democrats say 2016 could provide an opportunity for the party to make some noise in Texas if Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has long and deep connections in the state, is the party’s nominee and her campaign invests real money there. In terms of statewide gains, analysts in the state say that the first genuine opening may not arrive until 2018 or later.

The conversion of Texas from Democratic rule to Republican rule took decades, as it did in other Southern states. The state is likely to become more competitive in the future.

Whether Davis and her allies can change that timetable is the question coming out of the bitter abortion debate.

For previous columns by Dan Balz,
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