TOPICS > Politics

Could Texas Turn Blue? Democrats and Republicans Both See Lone Star Opportunity

July 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
With Texas' Republican Gov. Rick Perry announcing he won't seek re-election, and a prominent fight over abortion rights being led by Texas Democrat Wendy Davis, Gwen Ifill talks to James Henson of the University of Texas at Austin and Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University about whether the state's politics are shifting.

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: When it comes to red states, it doesn’t get much redder than Texas. Republicans have won 100 statewide elections in a row. But, lately, Democrats have been saying they can turn Texas blue. Whether that’s possible may hinge on a renewed debate this week over that hottest of hot buttons, abortion.

The eyes of the political world have turned once again to the Texas state capitol in Austin, as the House began debate over strict new abortion restrictions. The bill, which would require clinics to upgrade to surgical-level centers and force many existing facilities to close, was previously derailed after a dramatic filibuster. Fort Worth Democrat Wendy Davis spoke for nearly 11 hours before the bill died in a midnight procedural dispute.

But after Gov. Rick Perry called the legislature back into a second special session this week, activists for and against the legislation descended on the capitol again. Hundreds lined the halls, opponents in orange, supporters in blue.

SUMMER JOHNSON, Texas: So, I’m just standing here not against women or their rights, but just as a woman who has experienced it, saying, no, we need better care for our women.

ROBBIE AUSLEY, Texas: I believe in reducing the need for abortions, but then protecting the choice. And I think it should be the woman’s decision, not the government.

GWEN IFILL: Perry, the state’s longest-serving governor, added another layer of drama to Lone Star State politics yesterday by announcing he wouldn’t seek a fourth term.

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas: The time has come to pass on the mantle of leadership. Today, I’m announcing I will not seek reelection as governor of Texas.

GWEN IFILL: His immediate political future? Unclear.

RICK PERRY: I will continue working hard to do what’s best for Texas, and that includes this special session and additional sessions if required.

GWEN IFILL: Perry briefly sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. His departure sets the stage for a huge political shuffle within the state. His Republican heir apparent, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, has yet to declare his intentions. And Democrat Davis, now a rising star nationally, is said to be considering a run.

But Texas has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. Yet the state has become a fond ambition for national Democrats, who hope to take advantage of major demographic shifts, especially among Hispanics, who now make up 38 percent of Texas’ population, most under the age of 18.

Is Texas really changing? For that, we turn to two Lone Star experts, James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, and Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

James Henson, given the push and the pull we have been seeing back and forth in the last several weeks in the Texas state legislature, is change really afoot?

JAMES HENSON, Director, Texas Politics Project, University of Texas, Austin: Well, there’s a lot of thrashing and there’s possibly some change afoot around the edges, but it’s hard to see a long-term change in the underlying patterns here.

Democrats — Republicans have enjoyed a significant advantage in statewide races in the range of eight to 12 points. They have a big advantage among the voting population. That said, we’re seeing a mobilization at the capitol, and we have seem son institutional breakdowns, particularly the night of the filibuster, that are pretty new for Texas politics and at least things we haven’t seen in quite a while.

GWEN IFILL: So, Cal Jillson, everything I read tells me that this abortion bill will eventually be passed, even though it was derailed there temporarily. So what is this uproar all really about?

CAL JILLSON, Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University: Well, it’s not much more than uproar because, as Jim was saying, the Republicans have had a 10- to 12-point, even 16-point advantage over the course of the last decade. And no Democrat has even come close.

So Democrats were really energized when Wendy Davis did the filibuster a week or so ago, speaking for 11 hours. And if you have seen pictures of that, she’s a compelling figure. But that doesn’t change the underlying dynamics of Texas politics, which is a substantial Republican majority. And people look at that rising Hispanic population, which the 2010 census pegged at 38 percent of all Texans, but only about 32 percent of citizens are Hispanic. And Hispanics turn out at lower rates than blacks and Hispanics.

So for the last decade, Hispanics have only cast 20 percent of total votes cast in statewide elections. That’s got to go up toward 30 percent before the Democrats can get competitive.

GWEN IFILL: So, let’s take this apart, James Henson. How can either party capitalize on this new rush of national attention and internal struggle for the upper hand?

JAMES HENSON: Well, I think if you want to take the Democrats first, as we’re saying, it’s a bill hill to climb. But it’s been a long time since the Democrats have had any significant good news.

And I think that they can do two things, one of which is really try to capture, if not the enthusiasm, which is hard to sustain, certainly the data attached to a lot of the people that have been mobilized via social networks, not only that come to the capitol here in Austin, but also to weigh in via Twitter, via various websites.

And that gives them something to do. It also has to be said that the boost in fortunes for Wendy Davis, the senator you mentioned from Fort Worth, is significant. One is — I think has to be very careful about overstating that and pushing her sort of on to the stage by herself at this early stage in all of this.

But I also think that Democrats haven’t seen anybody come out of the pack in a decade like Wendy Davis, and it does at least give the troops and the donors the idea that the Democrats aren’t completely dead in the water. For Republicans, I think what you’re going to see is this sort of in combination with Gov. Perry resigning is going to trigger an even more intense internal conversation among Republicans about which direction the party should go.

GWEN IFILL: Cal Jillson, what is our thinking about — or your thinking about why Gov. Perry decided to step aside and what he has in mind now?

CAL JILLSON: Well, it’s a fascinating question, because he will have been governor for 14 years by the time he finishes his term, and he has two options.

One of them is the one that everyone is talking about, and that is a second run for the presidency of the United States. But he did so poorly in his 2012 election, showed himself simply not to be ready, not to be competitive with a fairly weak field, particularly on foreign policy, national security, military affairs, that he can spend this next two years preparing himself, putting together a national-level campaign team, building out his fund-raising and getting himself ready intellectually.

The other thing is that he might look at that race and decide this is too steep a hill to climb and go to work in the private sector, as other Texas politicians have done. Ann Richards, when she finished as governor, went to work for Public Strategies, a consulting firm. And Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator, went to work for UBS.

So it’s not impossible that Rick Perry goes into the private sector and tries to put a financial foundation under himself and his family.

GWEN IFILL: James Henson, let’s talk about the policy issues that you see playing out on the national level, as well as the local level. That would be abortion, that would be immigration, that would be border security.

Does that — do the outcome of these debates drive the political agenda in the next few years?

JAMES HENSON: Well, I think they do.

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead, Mr. Henson.

JAMES HENSON: And I think and I think that what you see is, in terms of Rick Perry and in terms of where Texas centers into that, a very kind of divided situation.

On one hand, Rick Perry speaks the language of social conservatives on issues like abortion and gay marriage. And he has pursued very conservative positions on those, and he can use Texas as a launching pad for that to a certain degree. Where Rick Perry is a little bit more out of character, if you will, is on immigration.

People may remember that even before Rick Perry had his more famous gaffes with the “oops” moment, he was booed practically off the stage in an Arizona GOP presidential primary debate for defending what was essentially the Texas — a Texas version of the DREAM Act. So Texas is going to be in the middle of these conversations, and Perry’s interestingly positioned, but as Cal says, he’s really got to overcome, if you will, the kind of bad date he had with the electorate in 2012.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you, Cal Jillson, finally, let me throw out some names to you. We’re talking about Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas. We’re talking about Joaquin and Julian Castro, the Democratic twin brothers from San Antonio, the congressman.

Are they also part — we talk about Wendy Davis. But are they also part of the people everyone is keeping — people are keeping their eyes on, rising stars?

CAL JILLSON: Yes, certainly on the Democratic side, Wendy Davis is the recent phenom, but Julian and Joaquin Castro are both young, charismatic, very articulate.

There’s another Democrat, Pete Gallego, who was elected to Congress from the Valley down in West — Southwest Texas, who will also be in the mix once the electorate is matured for the Democratic Party. There will be some Democrats who can be competitive statewide, but most of the people who look at this really close, in a sort of dispassionate way, talk about the first half of the 2020s for the Democrats in Texas.

GWEN IFILL: Cal Jillson at the University of Texas at Austin — got it wrong — at SMU, and James Henson at U.T. Austin, thank you both very much.

JAMES HENSON: You’re welcome.