State Watch

Dems desperate for candidates to turn Texas blue

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SAN ANTONIO — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Friday he would run for reelection, pledging four more years of a conservative agenda aimed squarely at limiting abortion rights, expanding gun rights and keeping liberal boogeymen like Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and George Soros out of the Lone Star State.

Abbott begins his campaign with more than $41 million in the bank — and without a serious Democratic opponent anywhere on the horizon. In fact, most observers say Abbott is more preoccupied with the prospects of a conservative challenge than with any hint of a general election threat.

For years, Democrats have pledged to make Texas competitive. They have backed a bevy of good candidates — former Houston Mayor Bill White, state Sen. Wendy Davis, former Rep. Chris Bell, businessman Tony Sanchez — and Republicans have crushed them all.

“I believed we could be competitive in 2014, and obviously had a big old cold bucket of water thrown on my head,” Davis said.

Now, recent voting patterns give Democrats new hope that the party could contend for statewide offices. But the party faces a depleted bench, and a desperate search for candidates who break the political mold. 

Once again Democrats sense an opportunity. They just don’t have anyone to run, yet.

“This statewide slate is eminently beatable, and it’s not representative of the state of Texas,” state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D) said in an interview.

But, asked who would run for governor, Anchia conceded: “That’s unclear.”

Anchia has been asked and declined to run. Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, whom Hillary Clinton considered for vice president last year, has also bowed out. None of Texas’s 11 Democratic members of Congress has shown any interest, either.

On paper, the state of Texas doesn’t so much resemble a swing state. It looks like a blue state: A majority of the state’s voting-age population is Hispanic, African American or Asian. More than half its population of about 27 million lives in just eight mega-counties, where Democrats have made gains in local races in recent years.

But millions of voters sit out each election, costing both Democrats and Republicans critical votes. Texas has had among the lowest turnout rates of any state in recent years: In 2016, only 51.6 percent of the voting-eligible population showed up to vote, lower than all but three other states.

The problem is especially acute on the Democratic side, where hundreds of thousands of voters — mainly Hispanics — do not participate. Only one Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the last six elections, Bill White in 2010, eclipsed 2 million votes.

“We look like California demographically, but we don’t behave that way at the ballot box, not because our voters are voting differently, but because we can’t get our people to show up,” Davis said. “Democrats always lose when turnout is low, because unfortunately it is our people who stay home.”

Republicans Abbott and former Gov. Rick Perry routinely claim about 2.7 million votes, with the exception of 2006, when Perry faced three well-known candidates and won a small plurality.

“Democrats have picked up more than 1 million votes over the past decade while Republican voter growth has been stagnant,” said Ed Espinoza, who runs the liberal public relations firm Progress Texas.

Democrats hope next year’s election will give them a chance to win a statewide election for the first time in two decades, especially if President Trump’s low poll numbers act as a drag on the rest of the Republican ticket.

“The electorate is very spun up, and the energy is virtually all on the Democratic side,” Anchia said. “We are now seeing in the Hispanic community a great deal of fear and loathing in the Trump/Abbott brand. They are inextricably linked.”

It is a comparison Abbott does not wholly eschew.

“I consider myself an Abbott Republican. I’ve kind of established my own brand,” Abbott said in an interview. But, he added: “There are a lot of parallels between what I do and Trump’s perspective. He’s been a guy who’s been focused on cutting regulations. He’s been a president who appointed the type of justice that I would appoint to the United States Supreme Court. But I’ve had the ability to carve out my own approach to the way that I govern.”

Democrats promise their side will field a strong candidate against Abbott next year. They point to Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D), who is off to a hot fundraising start as he challenges Sen. Ted Cruz (R), as a first step.

“We’re talking to a number of great leaders, and an announcement will come at the appropriate time. These Texans come from diverse backgrounds with proven track records of leadership, and an unwavering commitment to our shared Democratic values,” said Tariq Thowfeek, the state Democratic Party’s spokesman.

“We will field someone who will make an excellent governor,” Davis said. “But will we field someone who is going to be able to raise the kind of money and have the kind of name ID that is necessary to build the kind of excitement behind a gubernatorial candidate? I don’t know.”

Abbott isn’t waiting around for Democrats to find a candidate. After launching his campaign with a rally, he traveled to the Rio Grande Valley, the heart of what should be the uprising of Hispanic votes against the GOP ticket. Three years ago, Abbott won three counties in South Texas that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 — including Bexar, site of his San Antonio kickoff.

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