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Jason Stanford Headshot

Texas Democrats Lost in the Wilderness, but There's a Way Out

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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Say this for Republicans: They didn't waste a lot of time claiming victory on election night. After failing for the second time in a row to win back the Senate, Sen. John Cornyn took the road less traveled and told the truth.

"We have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party. ... Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead," said Cornyn.

But after losing 100 straight statewide races, Texas Democrats have grown understandably defensive. Instead of accounting for failure, we tout a net gain of six statehouse seats and a convincing reelection by Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis against all the king's special interest money and all the king's consultants. Despite these gains, Texas Democrats have been in the wilderness so long we could teach survival skills to Grizzly Adams, but it's hard to find professional Democrats in Austin willing to admit this.

"Some people seem reluctant to admit the enormity of the task," said Robert Jones recently. No one person has played as large a role in our smaller success than Jones, the outgoing executive director of Annie's List, a group dedicated to electing Democratic women. Though the 2010 tea party flood wiped out many of his gains, Jones leaves his job after seven years with a Houston Mayor, Sen. Davis, and several state representatives owing their jobs partly to his work.

Jones says what Democrats have been doing in targeted House races needs to be applied statewide. "Now we've just got to take it to a grand scale," he said.

It's true that if current patterns hold that Democrats will start winning statewide as our growing Hispanic population becomes increasingly old enough to vote. But current patterns never hold (Remember when West Virginia was a blue state and Virginia was red?), and even if they do, this won't happen until the end of the next decade. Today's children will have their own children by then. You want to tell them it took us a generation to get our act together during decades of what amounts to an occupation by an army of incompetent cronies? The French Resistance was more effective than that.

Jones points to what he calls the "rising Texas electorate" of unmarried women, people of color and millennials who are the fastest growing segments of our population. These groups are largely unengaged in politics but share progressive values. Jones said these groups provide a new opportunity that will solve an old problem for Democrats who have shied away from communicating to vote-rich, but lily-white, suburbs. Now a new generation of minorities is moving into the middle class and buying homes in the suburbs because of the good schools. Reaching these voters requires us to diversify our donor base, build a microtargeting model similar to the one that reelected Obama, and change our mindset when it comes to communications.

"It requires earlier, more robust communications with voters," said Jones. "When we're not having a conversation with people almost year round we allow these elections to be nationalized. We have learned that we can't keep depending on our House candidates' communications budgets in the last 60 days."

Jones said we have to stop thinking of what happens in the legislature in odd-numbered years as fodder for direct mailers that voters see during campaigns in even-numbered years.

"As these guys vote to hurt Texas, you've got to give them heartburn in real time," said Jones. "Too often they get a free pass, and we don't hold them accountable for a year and a half."

Finally, Jones said, "We've had this problem with start-stop-start-stop building partisan infrastructure."

Our most recent attempt at building infrastructure was a five-year plan that ended in 2010 when conservatives wiped out most of our gains and all of our morale. "But look at Dallas County," said Jones. "When you make a real investment and push, push, push... Dallas County has moved solidly into the column, and the same is beginning in Harris County as well."

Building the infrastructure needed to engage the voters we need to win won't be easy, quick, or cheap, but the rewards are huge. Not only will a blue Texas make a Republican president a near-impossibility, but when Texas Democrats do win, then the Republicans in Austin will have to write columns about how their party will make a comeback, and I don't want to wait until my young sons are grown men to read that.