Democrats eager for another shot at turning Texas blue

Democrats are setting their sights once again on Texas in the 2022 midterm elections as they look to put a disappointing 2020 cycle in which they didn’t achieve many of their lofty goals in the rearview mirror.

The party has netted high-profile candidates for the lieutenant governor’s race, and an uptick in chatter over a possible gubernatorial bid by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke has Democrats eager to take another shot at Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottGOP leaders escalate battle against COVID-19 vaccine mandates Lincoln Project files ethics complaint against Abbott Arizona attorney general asks for restraining order to block federal vaccine mandate MORE (R). Lawmakers and operatives are cobbling together an electoral playbook that rides on a backlash to policies pushed by Austin, including a virtual total ban on abortions and strict voter restrictions, as well as the bungling of a winter storm.

But they’ve been disappointed before, including last year, when after Democrats boasted of flipping Texas statewide and controlling its House, voters ended up going with former President TrumpDonald TrumpGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE and boosted Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn raises more than M for Senate GOP Is the Biden administration afraid of trade? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE to reelection while maintaining Republicans’ majority in the lower legislative chamber. And next year, Democrats will contend with new congressional maps that make it even harder to oust House incumbents.

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“For the longest time, things have been pretty bleak since the election. But I think now there is that glimmer of hope, there is that glimmer of urgency too, that in order to save our state we have to start winning elections at all levels of government,” said one Texas Democratic strategist.

Democrats have renewed their attention on Texas as the state consistently finds itself in the national news and candidates start to get off the bench for key races.

In recent weeks, Mike Collier, the party’s lieutenant governor nominee in 2018, and Matthew Dowd, a former aide to former President George W. Bush, both said they would run as Democrats to take on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), a polarizing figure in the state. Party operatives are also high on the prospect that O’Rourke could take on Abbott and potentially reenergize a base that came out in force for his 2018 Senate bid.

Democrats are also looking to start retooling their messaging and fielding candidates in state legislative and U.S. House races, particularly after the legislature released proposed maps for new congressional lines.

The party’s early organizing comes as Democrats try to pick themselves up off the mat following a demoralizing 2020. But Democrats are hopeful that a slew of controversial, hard-line policies enacted by Abbott and GOP state lawmakers will reverse that trend and energize Democratic voters against a Republican base already anticipated to be animated in opposition to President BidenJoe BidenGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE.

“We see that the Texas mood is changing pretty dramatically because Dan Patrick and his Republicans have veered so far to the right, which they feel they have to to win their primaries. I think this is the point where they can't come back and win a general election,” Collier told The Hill. “I've always known that the Democrats would begin winning when that day would come.”

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Abbott and Republicans in Austin have drawn renewed national focus on Texas throughout 2021.

The one-term governor was hit with controversy first in February over the state government’s bungling of a severe winter storm, during which hundreds of Texans died and millions more were without power due to unusually frigid temperatures.

Texas then lurched to a legislative crisis when Democrats fled the state to Washington, D.C., after Republicans tried to push a bill implementing tight voting restrictions. That legislation ultimately passed in a special session when enough Democrats returned to Austin to reinstitute a quorum, but the controversy made Texas the poster child for GOP efforts across the nation to enact controversial voting constraints.

Abbott and Republicans now find themselves facing national Democratic scorn over an election audit and a law that bans virtually all abortions. The abortion law deputizes public citizens to sue any doctor or person who enables an abortion of an embryo that’s six weeks old, a point in time when many are not even aware they’re pregnant. Estimates say as many as 85 to 90 percent of people who seek abortions are at least six weeks pregnant.

Democrats are banking on that cavalcade of hard-line policies to buck conventional wisdom that Democratic turnout could dip following Biden’s election in November.

“I think Texas Democrats are probably more energized and angrier than they've ever been,” said Sawyer Hackett, executive director of People First Future. “I think for a long time we've had a lot of this outrage and haven't really known where to channel it, but with these upcoming statewide races and these congressional maps starting to lock in, we have an opportunity to sort of channel that outrage in a productive way to fight back.”

Democrats are particularly bullish on the abortion law, saying that such a tight restriction will help energize people on an issue that has played well for the party in recent years.

“It created just a high level of anxiety among Democratic activists, particularly women, that I think is going to increase the overall intensity of the Democratic effort higher than you've ever seen before,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa.

Democrats are grasping at early signs of hope, including a September poll showing 45 percent of Texans approving of Abbott’s job performance, down from 59 percent prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The party is also hoping that GOP turnout will be somewhat blunted without Trump on the ballot.

But Democrats will still need to harness any momentum they have to win a statewide race or make congressional or legislative gains. Hinojosa forecasted a “massive” voter registration drive over the next 14 months and a robust door-knocking effort, a tactic that was unavailable to Democrats last year during the early dangers of the coronavirus pandemic.

Perhaps most importantly, Democrats will have to raise money to compete in a state as large and expensive as Texas, with operatives grumbling that national party organs insufficiently funneled money to the Lone Star State in 2020.

“It has to start now,” Hackett said. “I do think it's going to take a bigger effort than what we've seen so far from those organizations. And I think major Texas Democrats are going to start making that case very soon to those party organizations because we can't afford not to. We will come up short if we don't have the right investments.”

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Still, even with record investments, Democrats face a multitude of headwinds in Texas.

Abbott is sitting on $55 million in the bank, Democrats were shut out of a special election in a suburban district earlier this year that the party had hyped as a flip opportunity and new congressional maps will entrench GOP incumbents. And even if O’Rourke jumps into the race, he will have to answer for a string of liberal policies he adopted during his ill-fated presidential run, particularly on guns.

“On a statewide level Democrats are still dead in the water,” said Austin-based GOP strategist Corbin Casteel. “For a party that hasn't elected anyone statewide since 1994, no, I haven't seen any gains.”

“It's not enough because, yeah, it'll energize the Democrats, but the problem is there's not enough Democrats,” he added when asked about the party’s strategy.

But lawmakers in the state say they’re up for the fight and determined that, after years of hype, they’ll make 2022 the year when Democrats finally notch a victory in Texas.

“This is a mentality that we're going to fight until hell freezes over,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D). “And then when that happens, we're going to start fighting on the ice.”