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Texas Democrats are asking tough questions after losing midterm elections

ROBERT T. GARRETT Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN — Senior Texas Democrats have attempted to numb the acute pain of a blow they suffered in this month’s midterm elections by emphasizing the positive:

Predictions of a GOP “wave election” have not materialized, they note. For the most part, Democrats fended off a nationally funded, well-publicized Republican incursion into South Texas — traditionally a Democratic stronghold. The Democrats also recorded notable victories in some of the state’s major urban and suburban counties, such as Harris, Dallas, and Collin.

Still, the Democrats’ bravado in the previous half, 2018, has waned with each of Texas’ last two general elections.

Some Democrats are raising hard questions about whether the party’s most recent national list was too male and white, its messages too stilted, and its structures outdated.

Some also want to call for more campaigning and resource sharing by longtime Democratic members of Congress and the legislature. While their coffers have swollen in seats safe because the GOP is reallocating Gerrymander, they must be pushed and shamed into campaigning and giving money to other Democrats on the ballot, critics say.

“The undeniable fact is that we are not built for statewide victory,” said Ali Zaidi, who led the campaign for Houston businessman Mike Collier’s lieutenant governor. Two-year-old Republican Lt. gov. Dan Patrick defeated him by 10.4 percentage points.

“We run the risk of becoming a party looking for relevance,” said Zaidi.

In 2018, then-Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke lost nearly 2.6 percentage points to US Senator Ted Cruz. In 2020, successful Democratic challenger Joe Biden lost Texas to then-President Donald Trump by nearly 5.6 percentage points. Earlier this month, however, O’Rourke lost the governor’s race to Gov. Greg Abbott by 11.

State Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa nevertheless points to long-term trendlines and insists his party is making steady gains.

Hinojosa, first elected in 2012, published charts of US Senate contests beginning with former GOP Grim Reaper Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison’s 23-point blowout victories in the early 1990s. His aides issued charts of presidential and gubernatorial results using former President George W. Bush’s stunning victories in Texas as starting points. From these standpoints, state Democrat losses have narrowed.

When asked why the Democrats fell short this year, Hinojosa blamed two persistent thorns in their sides: Democrats still can’t come up with nearly as much money as Republicans. Hundreds of thousands of their supporters with lower incomes and less education can still overcome the hurdles to register and vote, he said. The Republican state legislature passed election laws “aimed at preventing rank-and-file voters from voting,” Hinojosa said.

“Come on, it’s very hard to deal with,” he recently told The Dallas Morning News.

His appointee as executive director of the state party, Jamarr Brown, addressed those commitments, lamenting “the lack of deeper investment from national Democratic organizations” as some of the six challenges facing Texas Democrats this year.

“2022 was the closest two-sided gubernatorial election in Texas in decades — and in a year that’s had every wind in our backs for Republicans,” Brown wrote in a memo to staffers and stakeholders two days after the election this month. “The statewide trend continues to work in our favor — not in favor of Republicans.”

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said the Democrats are suffering from the misallocation of money. O’Rourke raised $77 million while Collier and Attorney General hopeful Rochelle Garza struggled to raise a budget for an effective nationwide television ad that would run for a week, noted Rottinghaus, who has been watching the party closely since supporting Democrat Victor worked on Morales’ losing US Senate campaign against Gramm in 1996.

“About 70% of all money raised and 75% of all money spent was at the top of the ticket,” he said. “The Democrats had a chance to beat some vulnerable Republicans, but there was no money left. And all the oxygen was kind of taken up by the top-of-the-ticket candidates.”

This year’s list lacked diversity, some Democrats noted. No black candidate has won a primary for state office, except for the Texas Supreme Court.

This may have contributed to alarmingly low black voter turnout, particularly in Houston, Hinojosa and others said.

“There are a lot of votes that we’re leaving on the table,” said Harris County Democrat Odus Evbagharu.

Evbagharu, whose Nigerian-born parents brought him to the country when he was five, said younger voters don’t know that Texas Democrats fielded a racially diverse “dream team” two decades ago. It included Laredo banker Tony Sanchez, who is Hispanic, as governor; former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who is black, for the US Senate; and then Comptroller John Sharp, a former real estate agency owner from rural Victoria County who is white, was appointed Lieutenant Governor. They lost by 18, 12 and 6 percentage points, respectively.

“It’s probably awful to say, but I can’t even tell you who was on that list in 2002,” said Evbagharu, state party treasurer. “Young people want to see people who look like them. That’s no secret. We haven’t had a well-funded, qualified black candidate in the state in a while.”

Buda’s Democratic adviser Colin Strother said the party’s structure and playbook weren’t working — and needed a major overhaul.

“Why is the Texas state party being run from Austin?” he said. “That doesn’t make sense. How much are we going to improve our margin in Travis County? We’re not going to. … We need field offices in Lubbock, Longview, Lampasas, Laredo — field offices across the state that focus on organization year-round .”

Strother called for expanded voter registration campaigns and more attention to loyal black Democrats in major cities and East Texas, and to Hispanic party members south of Interstate 10.

“We need to get back to organizing, mobilizing and mobilizing our grass roots and stop trying to change the hearts and minds of non-democrats,” he said.

Hinojosa responded that increasing voter registration efforts in Texas, as seen in Georgia in recent years, would cost at least $30 million per cycle. That’s double what the Texas party has raised this cycle, he said.

Hinojosa said he has solicited – to no avail – for donations from the “billionaire Democratic activists” who have helped former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams fund Fair Fight Action in the Peach State. Strother’s proposal of satellite offices could cost up to $30 million more, he said.

“If he can tell me where we can raise that $30 million to $60 million to do all these things, he can raise it and he should be the head of the Democratic Party,” Hinojosa said. “Because that’s just impossible in the environment we live in today.”

Regarding the booths, the party’s executive director, Brown, said in his memo that Texas Democrats need to shed the image of being “aloof or unaware” of concerns about illegal immigration and border security. They also need to be “stronger to proactively reaffirm our support” for the police and the desire to eradicate crime, he wrote.

O’Rourke deputy campaign manager Jason Lee said Abbott and the Republicans have an advantage built up over two decades: They are the more trusted party on borders and crime. Attempting to dispel such “established narratives” is too costly given Abbott’s 2-for-1 cash advantage, he said.

“We couldn’t help noticing that these issues weren’t good for us, that they were hurting us,” Lee said. “But we had to make serious decisions about what options we have, in the time we have and with the resources we have, to change the narrative” to a discussion of abortion, health care, education and guns issues the O’Rourke had “credibility,” Lee said.

Strother, the aide, who says he’s been “kind of anti-establishment outside the Democratic Party,” said most Texans agree with Democrat stances on “gun safety,” legalizing casinos and marijuana, paying teachers and the expansion of Medicaid. But the Democrats are too shaky. They need to speak more like ordinary people, tell stories and emphasize values.

“We keep getting beaten on the ‘Who would you rather have a beer with?’ poll,” he said.

Incumbent congressmen and state senators in safe Democratic counties must share their wealth and work hard to “up the score,” which would help the party’s nationwide hopefuls, said Zaidi, Collier’s staffer.

“The people who are most pessimistic about a statewide victory in Texas are the incumbent Democrats. They are our Achilles’ heel,” he said.

Rottinghaus, the Houston professor, said the state party’s “autopsies are too broad,” a cataloging of ailments, but not a plan of action.

“You read the leadership memo, which basically had 10 different reasons the Democrats weren’t doing well,” he said. “That’s probably true. But this is not a round table discussion. You must… assess the damage and try to fix the problem. This is more of a Hinojosa problem than a candidate problem. The party must be able to help make this a reality.”

Hinojosa, 70, an attorney and former Cameron County district judge, has said he wants to remain chairman to continue making Texas a competitive two-party state.

At the party’s convention in Dallas in July, he beat retired Air Force Colonel Kim Olson and Houston activist Carroll G. Robinson to a third four-year term.

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