US Midterm Elections: Can Texas Turn Blue?

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Three weeks after the 2012 US election, I met with President Obama’s National Field Director, Jeremy Bird to discuss the future of Texas campaigning. Bird told me he had been “obsessed with the idea of turning Texas blue (Democrat) since the 2008 cycle” and he was serious about making it happen.

He mentioned what seemed to me then a fanciful expenditure of $40 million in the quest to turn Texas into a winnable state.

Two months later, Bird came to Texas to launch “Battleground Texas”. The Campaign to turn Texas blue had begun.

When most Australians think about Texas politics they think about George W. Bush, Rick Perry, and the JFK assassination. Not a great place to be if you’re a Democrat.

Republicans have controlled Texas since George W. Bush defeated incumbent Governor Ann Richards in 1994. Democrats have not won a state-wide race in two decades and the last Democrat Presidential candidate to win Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976.

However it has not always been that way, and there are more than a few Democrat strategists who believe it will not be that way for much longer.

This is largely because of the rising Latino population of Texas, of which 63 per cent voted for Barack Obama in 2012, despite him winning just 41 per cent of the state-wide vote.

Texas is the Holy Grail for the Democrats, the final piece of the Electoral College puzzle that is just out of reach. The 38 votes of Texas added to the safely blue 84 votes of California and New York make up almost half of the elusive 270 Electoral College votes needed to become President. Indeed, a Republican path to the White House becomes almost impossible without Texas.

So in early 2013, with Jeremy Bird and other senior Obama campaign staff on board, there was money, confidence, and a strategy. Now all that was needed was the perfect candidate for Governor.

Enter Wendy Davis.

Davis became a household name overnight as the woman in the pink tennis shoes who, whilst wearing a catheter, stood for 13 hours straight to filibuster a bill that would have led to the closure of most of the state’s women’s health clinics and banned abortions after 20 weeks.

This feat turned her into a household name overnight and also earned her the pejorative title of “Abortion Barbie”.

Davis has a compelling story. Through hard work and the opportunities she had as a result of public education, she progressed from a broke teenage single mother living in a trailer park, to a Harvard-educated state Senator running for Governor of Texas.

But what are her chances of actually becoming Governor of the second largest economy in America?

The demographics on paper say Texas is nominally a blue state and it is getting bluer. The Center for American Progress projects an increase of 432,300 new Latino voters since 2012 and 905,500 by 2016.

These projections show that within the next 10 to 20 years, Texas will have a Latino majority, and, if immigration reform bills get passed, there could be a million new Latino voters in Texas.

Bill Clinton summed it up at a fundraising event he attended in San Antonio in 2012 when he said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that if every single person in Texas who was eligible to vote, registered and voted, this would be a Democratic state”.

But the problem for Democrats is that the numbers are misleading. Of the 26 million people in Texas, 10 million are Latino, yet less than half are eligible to vote. And of those eligible, less than half actually turn out to vote.

In the 2012 presidential election 61 per cent of Anglos and 63 per cent of African Americans voted in Texas compared with only 38.8 per cent of Latinos. In other words, 2 million Latinos who were eligible to vote, didn’t.

This is only likely to get worse following the recent introduction of strict new voter ID laws where, remarkably, a student ID is not deemed as sufficient, but a gun licence is. It is predicted that up to half a million voters may be turned away from voting because of these new laws. The vast majority of these voters will be Latinos, African Americans, and the economically disadvantaged.

Turning this trend around will be one of the biggest challenges the Wendy Davis campaign faces. In the past year and a half, Battleground Texas has engaged with 31,000 volunteers, knocked on 1.1 million doors and called 3.8 million voters, a tremendous effort. But she’s coming from a long way back.

Current Governor Rick Perry is stepping aside, presumably to focus on a second Presidential run, leaving the way for Republican nominee, state Attorney General Greg Abbott. Most polls have consistently shown Abbott with a comfortable double digit lead over Davis since the beginning of the year.

To make matters worse early voting has started and state-wide voter turnout numbers are flat. Internally, Davis campaign staff are saying that exit polls show there are 12 per cent more Latino voters and 4 per cent more African American voters than this time four years ago, but those figures would still leave Davis well off the pace.

The field campaigner in me wants to ignore the polls. They don’t account for the last minute persuasion conversations, the final GOTV (Get out the vote) drive, and the thousands of newly registered voters who will cast their ballot for the first time on Tuesday. But even taking this into consideration, the numbers are still bleak.

Unfortunately Wendy won’t win.

Abortion, particularly late-term abortion, is not a vote winner in Texas. A strongly pro-choice candidate is going to find it very hard to do well among white suburban voters and Catholic Latinos, the two demographics who will decide this race.

Without a candidate who can unite these two groups, a Democrat will always be pushing uphill in Texas.

So will Texas eventually turn blue? With the right candidate at the right time, it certainly can. Who is that candidate?

Former San Antonio Mayor and current member of Obama’s cabinet Julian Castro is that candidate. Castro gave the keynote speech at the 2012 Democrat Convention – the same slot that propelled a young Barack Obama to national attention in 2004.

His name will be thrown around as a possible running mate for Hillary Clinton, but it is a big leap to go from Housing Secretary to Vice President.

Still, he’s my tip for the next Democratic Governor of Texas. Because of the strong campaign run by Wendy Davis, and the campaign infrastructure of Battleground Texas, he can win in 2018.

* Patrick Batchelor was the Regional Field Director for South Texas in the 2012 Obama campaign and the Field Director for the NSW Federal Labor Campaign in 2013.

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