Primary Day Means Baby Steps for Texas Democrats

Tuesday, as Texans head to the polls to select their parties’ nominees, Republicans will see a more exciting ballot than they’ve seen in years. When Rick Perry announced he wouldn’t run for a fourth term as governor of Texas, the ripple effect was immediate and dramatic: Republican officeholders who’d been stuck in place began looking for where to head. Attorney General Greg Abbott announced his expected bid for governor, prompting three other GOP candidates to announce their intention to run for the space Abbott leaves open. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who thought he’d be a U.S. Senator until Ted Cruz foiled his 2012 plans, found himself with three challengers—including the current state land commissioner and agriculture commissioner. In all, six different statewide positions in Texas are without incumbents this year, and 26 Republicans are vying for them. There will likely be runoffs in a number of tight races, including lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, and railroad commissioner.

But while Republicans battle in high-dollar, high-profile primaries, Democrats remain short on candidates—especially good ones.

Of course there’s Wendy Davis, the state senator who became a national darling after filibustering an abortion ban. (It later passed in a second special session.) Davis’s gubernatorial campaign has earned national attention, including a front-page New York Times Magazine story. While there have been serious missteps, there’s still no question Davis’s candidacy has infused energy into a state party that desperately needed it, and fellow state Senator Leticia Van de Putte, who’s up for lieutenant governor, has proved to be a solid running mate. Helping with that perception of reinvigoration is Battleground Texas, a group created by former Obama campaign staffers to make the state competitive for Democrats. The group promised to invest in a long-term engagement strategy to boost turnout, especially among voters of color, increase Democratic vote-share among white women and start recruiting more candidates at the local level. Executive Director Jenn Brown admitted it was a process that would likely take several election cycles. But the group also sought to capitalize on Davis’s stardom. While it continues volunteer recruitment and training around the state, the group’s Facebook page largely focuses on the gubernatorial race, including helping the candidate raise money with a joint political action committee.

But a look at the Democratic primary ballot shows just how important it is for Battleground Texas to focus on its central, long-term mission if it seriously wants to make the party strong again. Most notably, last week, a poll showed that in the race to unseat U.S. Senator John Cornyn, Kesha Rogers, a disciple of radical conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche, was running ahead of the establishment pick. Rogers has pushed to impeach Obama, comparing his health-care plan to a Nazi program, and argues for a return to the gold standard as well as the colonization of Mars. She’s also won the Democratic nomination to run against Congressman Pete Olson not once, but twice.

The odds are still high that Rogers loses; word is that her competitor David Alameel’s campaign kicked into high gear after the poll came out, and all the candidates were largely unknown to the poll’s respondents. The Democrats don’t even list Rogers as a candidate on the state website and sent out an email with the subject line “Don’t Vote for Kesha Rogers.” But if the Democrats had a stronger bench, Rogers likely wouldn’t have successfully captured two party nominations already.

In the other statewide races, the Democratic candidates have little name recognition and little experience. There are only two actual statewide primaries. The most crowded Democratic race, for agriculture commissioner, includes Jim Hogan, who does not appear to have a website, Kinky Friedman, a songwriter and author who’s focused on an issue, legalizing marijuana, over which the Agriculture Office has no say, and Asa Hugh Fitzsimmons III, who is a rancher but has never run for office before. The other Democratic primary is for railroad commissioner, a position that’s supposed to regulate the oil and gas industry. This one features two candidates, one of whom has a website out of Geocities that notes “We must DRILL, DRILL, DRILL, and FRACTURE.” Among the unopposed, Mike Collier, the Democratic candidate for Comptroller, has also never run for office before.

Regardless of the gubernatorial race, Democrats in Texas have a long-term problem. Because their candidates have been losing for the better part of two decades, few with political capital are eager to run statewide. The party has a 100-race losing streak in statewide races. It needs more candidates in local and legislative elections, and it needs to show high-quality candidates there will be support for them if they run. Candidates don’t want to run if they can’t win and the party can’t win if no one runs.

Despite its underdog status, Davis’s campaign is already helping to change that dynamic—for a time last year, it was unclear if the Democrats could even get a big name to run for governor—but it’s Battleground Texas that could have a major impact. If the group does spend the years it will take investing in a more engaged political culture, with more candidates, then local races could start to yield strong statewide candidates. That’s when Texas Democratic primaries might start looking a little more exciting. And not in a tinfoil-hat kind of way.

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