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Reunited Texas Democrats Face Divisive Primary

BY Admin  February 29, 2008 at 5:50 PM EDT

Early voters in Austin, Texas; AP photo

“I think the Democratic Party now in Texas is pretty broad-based. What has happened is the Republicans are hard-core angry conservatives that have marginalized themselves and everyone else,” said Texas State Rep. Pete Gallego, who chairs the state’s Mexican-American caucus. “I think the average voter identifies more now with the Democratic Party.”

It is this newfound support that Democrats in the Lone Star State hope to turn into votes during the state’s critical primaries on March 4 and in votes this fall.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics project at the University of Texas at Austin, said early voting turnout has been brisk ahead of the state’s Tuesday primary. In Collin County, a traditional Republican stronghold, 6,800 voters have already cast Democratic ballots compared to just 500 in the 2004 primary, he said.

Three days before early voting ended, the 511,809 Democratic ballots cast had already surpassed the state’s previous early voting record set in 2002, the Houston Chronicle reported, adding that the total number of votes in the primary could reach 3.3 million.

But whatever newfound unity the Texas Democrats’ may have is about to be tested by a hotly debated question: Clinton or Obama?

Who is a Texas Democrat?
The Democrats who will decide that question make up one of the most diverse groups to vote so far in 2008. Sixty to 70 percent of the Democratic primary voters will be non-white, said Robert Stein, a Rice University political science professor, adding the modern Texas Democratic Party includes a varied coalition of black women, Latino women and city dwellers.

“People talk about the demise of Democrats in Texas. The fact is, what happened is a bunch of Democrats re-labeled themselves,” said Rick Casey, columnist for the Houston Chronicle. “The Democratic party here looks much like the rest of the country with one exception: we have a lot of Mexican-Americans.”

And it is those Mexican-Americans that are redrawing the state’s political geography, University of Texas’s Henson said. As middle-class Latinos move from cities to the suburbs — areas traditionally dominated by Republicans — they threaten the balance of power in areas that were recently redistricted, he said.

In the past several years, GOP lawmakers seeking to maximize their influence drew political districts with narrow Republican majorities that are now in jeopardy of “going blue” after an influx of new, traditionally Democratic voters.

“A lot of these [districts] are now battlegrounds. There have been a lot of Democratic wins at county level,” Henson said. “The overall trend is that there’s more fighting going on in those areas than you would imagine.”

Texan Democrats’ concerns reflect rest of country
Despite the diversity and demographic dynamism of the state, Texas Democrats often echo their national counterparts when listing the issues of greatest concern in the election.

“One of the great myths we have successfully sold to the national media is that we are substantially different from the rest of the county. It just ain’t so,” Casey said.

The economy and health care are among the top issues for most Texas Democrats, Henson said. Many voters fear that the state’s traditional philosophy of low taxes and limited social services for many residents, particularly children, is becoming difficult to maintain. Texas’s poor record in health care — leading the nation in the number of uninsured — and its highly publicized school– funding debates have soured some voters to Republican policies and fiscal management, he added.

A critically divisive issue among Texas Democrats centers on the future of immigration and trade with Mexico. While business interests continue to advocate for an inexpensive workforce and conservative voters in the north of the state insist on a strict policing of the border, the state’s politically moderate and multigenerational Mexican-American middle class strikes a middle ground on the issue. These moderates “don’t respond well to the xenophobic talk about immigration but are not radically nationalist in any way,” Henson explained.

Consequently, Henson said, most Texans appreciate the difficulties President Bush has faced in finding common ground for continuing immigration reform.

Candidates target voting blocs
To address the concerns of a diverse group of invigorated but opinionated voters, the campaigns for Democratic hopefuls Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have sought to solidify support of their strongest backers.

A significant majority of Texas’ black voters back Obama, with support concentrated in Dallas and Houston counties where the urban black population tops 25 percent. A mid-February SurveyUSA poll suggests that Obama may carry more than 77 percent of the black vote. Some poll watchers, including Rice University’s Stein, have suggested that blacks may account for 30 percent of the voters in the Democratic primary — possibly topping the Latino turnout.

Stein credits the near-evangelical excitement of the “Obama effect” with the large early voting turnout and new voter registration that cross ethnic and socio-geographic divides, particularly among blacks and younger voters.

“The black voter turnout couldn’t be higher,” he said. “And people are taking the time to figure out where to go in their neighborhoods to vote. It means that they are engaged. If someone brings you to the ballot for the first time, you’ll come back.”

Obama may also benefit from Texas’ open primary and caucus system, which could draw in Republican and independent voters. He leads Clinton 71 percent to 25 percent among Republican and independent voters, according to an American Research Institute poll, the Houston Chronicle reported. Particularly among Republicans who have expressed a strong dislike for both Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton, “a vote for Obama is a vote against Hillary,” Debi McLoughlin, a 52-year-old Department of Public Safety worker, told the newspaper.

The Chronicle also reports that the sizeable turnout in Democratic early voting may be artificially inflated by Republican voters either seeking to strategically influence the outcome of the race ahead of the general election or disinterested in the less– competitive GOP contest between John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Texas Congressman Ron Paul. In Kingwood, where 82 percent of voters supported President Bush in 2004, Democrats are outvoting Republicans by a margin of 4-to-1 in early voting.

Clinton, once the clear front-runner in Texas, hopes to quash Obama’s momentum with new voters and any potential Republican backlash by carrying a convincing majority of the Hispanic vote, particularly in South Texas where her connections with influential Hispanic politicians are strong.

Clinton supporters are also trying to rally older voters and “yellow-dog Democrat voters, those voters who would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican,” Henson said. Her campaign for traditional Democratic voters benefits from deep roots in Texas. She first organized Democrats there for presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972 and has gained many high– profile endorsements including Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros.

Dealing out delegates
Both Clinton and Obama face a complex equation in the battle for delegates. Texas awards delegates on a proportional basis for the 31 state senatorial districts based on the last two general elections. Each district’s delegates are divvied up this year based upon the number of Democrats who turned out to vote for party nominees John Kerry for president in 2004 and Chris Bell for governor in 2006.

Urban areas such as Dallas, Houston and Austin, with their historically large Democratic turnouts and sizeable black populations, are awarded more delegates than the predominantly Hispanic districts such as Brownsville, which is 91 percent Latino, according to the Dallas Morning News.

In 2004, traditionally Democratic-leaning Texas Hispanics voted strongly for George Bush over Kerry, reducing the Democratic turnout, the Chronicle’s Casey said. In 2006, as urban blacks voted in large numbers for gubernatorial candidate Bell, Hispanics split their vote between Bell and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman.

That reduced the number of delegates awarded to Hispanic districts. “Consider this:” Casey wrote in his Feb. 14 column, “the two districts represented by black senators plus Austin will send a total of 21 delegates to Denver. The six Democratic districts with Hispanic senators will send 22.”

Accordingly, both candidates have encouraged statewide voter registration drives to encourage the largest possible turnout in hopes of a lopsided win. Casey says that in the first two days of early voting in Harris, Travis and Dallas counties — urban areas which include Houston, Austin and Dallas, respectively — the turnout increased by 5-10 times the levels seen in 2004. In border counties such as El Paso, Hidalgo, Nueces and Cameron, turnout rose by an average of 3 times the previous turnouts.

In what Lone Star politicians and pundits dub the “Texas two-step,” the state operates a unique hybrid electoral system, combining a balloted primary with a culminating caucus that seeks to reward political activism and party involvement. “This hybrid system that we have was placed in early 1980s to include more people into the process. With this system you have the ability to not only vote your choice but the ability to get involved at grassroots level,” said Hector Nieto, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party.

“I think it rewards people for different levels of participation,” Henson said of the state’s two-tiered process. “It does reward more intensely those intensely interested folks.”

The hybrid system awards 126 of the state’s 228 delegates based on the primary. Early voting for the primary ran from Feb. 19 to 29. Election Day voting ends at 7 p.m. local time. After polls close, only Democrats who voted may then caucus for their candidates to apportion 67 more delegates that will be awarded at the state convention in June. The state’s 35 Democratic super delegates remain free to cast their vote for whomever they choose.

Despite the media focus on Hispanic and black Democratic voters, white liberals may ultimately be primary’s crucial voting bloc, Rice University’s Stein said. They are concentrated in Harris and Webb counties, which were the only two majority– white districts to vote for Kerry over Bush in 2004.

“I think the difference will be where the white progressives go,” he said. “The key issue for them is electability. These are people who’ve voted a lot in a state dominated by Republicans.”

Democrats hope to regain lost glory
The biggest winner on March 4 might not be Clinton or Obama, but the Texas Democratic Party itself. As voter rolls in some counties show increases of 50 to 60 percent over 2006 primaries, Texas Democrats hope for a shift in the political landscape.

The combination of two exciting candidates, Stein said, coupled with the state’s unique hybrid system provides Democrats with a significant “GOTV” — get out the vote — opportunity. “If you can turn a voter out for the primary and have them stay around for the caucus, that’s two opportunities for political activism,” Stein said.

The expected influx of new caucus– goers establishes a politically educated populace likely to caucus again, he added. “The caucus — it’s like riding a bike — if you’ve done it and you’re not that sore, you’ll come back to it.”

Democrats used to be quite successful politically in Texas. Between 1939 and 1960, Texans elected only one Republican to the state legislature, Edward T. Dicker, for a single two-year term.

However, no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976. A Democrat has not won a general election to serve in the Senate since 1988. Democrats saw their 104-77 majority in both houses of the state Legislature in 1995 dwindle to a 74-107 minority in 2003.

“Texas has gone from a completely one-party state under the Democrats to a transitional state to a state that’s been dominated by Republicans,” the University of Texas’s Henson said. “Republican dominance here has not ended but it has certainly plateaued.”

State Democrats hope the electorate has begun to turn once again in their favor.

“I think [Texas is] going to move the center of gravity somewhat,” the Chronicle’s Casey said. “It’s basically a conservative state but it’s becoming more urban… it’s not as hard-edged conservative as our Republican leaders would have it seen to be.”

Casey points to Dallas County as a bellwether for the state, where, in 2006, Republicans lost heavily in county offices, including dropping 41 of 42 contested GOP judgeships to the Democrats. Democrats had won just one county judicial seat in 2002.

“In the last four years, Dallas County has elected a lesbian Latina sheriff and a black district attorney,” he said, referring to the victories of Lupe Valdez and Craig Watkins, respectively. Casey notes that the state has seen a noticeable shift toward more liberal representation and away from the oil-baron image reflected in the national media or famous television shows of the past.

“This ain’t the Ewings’ Dallas anymore,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Early voting turnout figures in this article were updated and/or revised on March 3.