Welcome to the Circus!
The redistricting fight and the grassroots politics of chaos
After more than six months of trials, delays, allegations, and political infighting, the 2012 Texas redistricting process seems to have reached a resolution – at least for the moment. Yet when the San Antonio federal court finally released its interim House, Senate, and Congressional maps on Feb. 28, anyone who thought it would then be primary business as usual was delusional. The extended process has sparked an explosion of unintended consequences: Election officials are struggling to redraw precincts and find the staff to run them; the parties are panicking about organizing conventions; and candidates are wondering how they'll squeeze a year's worth of primary and general election campaigning into less than eight months. And should a D.C. federal court charged with reviewing the maps for compliance with the Voting Rights Act reject them, all those election plans could go right back to the drawing board. For the folks on the political ground, anger and stress have collapsed into weary, punch-drunk acceptance that Texas elections are still in uncharted and treacherous waters.
A year ago, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir expected a standard March 6 Super Tuesday primary. Now she has district maps and a May 29 primary date – and her work has just begun. She explained, "The two most important things to conduct an election are election workers and polling places." She could neither hire staff nor lease polling places until the court ruling, "so we can do nothing about the two most important things." However, that only begins the process. The county still has to draw new precincts – no small task. "In Travis County, we have a [Geographic Information System] that allows our voter registrar to do that efficiently," she said. "In a lot of counties in the state, that process is done manually."
While she is glad to have a primary date, May 29 is actually a real headache, DeBeauvoir explained: "It is convenient for the parties, and it is sooner rather than later, but it is not ideal for voters." Sandwiched between the long Memorial Day weekend and the final day of classes in Austin public schools, it is also during the brief gap between the end of regular classes at UT and the start of the summer session, meaning thousands of students registered to vote in Austin will be out of town. And they're not the only absentee voters on the county's mind; the 2010 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act requires counties to ship ballots to personnel serving overseas 45 days before the election. Said DeBeauvoir, "That means you have to have already proofed your ballot, tested your ballot, locked it down, and mailed it out, and all of that happens way in advance of election day."
But the biggest timing problem for DeBeauvoir's office is that the state primaries will now run right up against the municipal election. It's a horrific timeline: Austin voters will elect a mayor and council members on May 12, then start early voting for the state election on May 14 – allowing only a 39-hour gap between elections. "That's how tight this calendar is," she said. Moreover, increasing the pressure, the county must have the new precinct lines drawn for May 12 – not May 29. (Plus there could be run-offs in both sets of elections as well: June 23 for the city, July 31 for the primaries.) The pressure is undoubtedly on – the only silver lining is that, knowing that the two elections might be so close, the city has already procured its own voting machines. "Now they're looking pretty smart," DeBeauvoir said.
Overshadowing all this practical complexity is the simple fact that everyone – from directly involved public officials to voters – is baffled by the situation, which could get worse. Even now, that May 29 date is not set in stone as the primaries could be pushed back into June. The Texas Legislative Black Caucus, Travis County, and other parties have submitted an advisory to the D.C. federal court requesting that the court deny VRA preclearance to the interim map, and the new district maps could still be challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court. Among the delays, the ambiguities, and the back-to-back elections, DeBeauvoir said, "Voters will be confused."
The clock is running backward.
In a normal election year, the timetable is very clear – but not in 2012. When it comes to the legal wrangling, Republicans and Democrats are on opposing sides, but they have exactly the same administrative fears. Travis County Republican Party communications director Andy Hogue said: "We have an army of hundreds of election judges, alternate judges, and precinct chairs. Those people have vacation plans; they have Memorial Day plans; and those are pretty much shot by the May 29 date." This is where realism hits political activism; the parties had to hope their loyalists will still be available once the calendar was set. Hogue said, "They say, 'I can't just hang in there forever; I've got a life to live, and this is only going to pay me for 12 hours. I can't just put my life on hold for 120 bucks.'"
The delay also throws the county conventions into disarray. At this time in 2010, Travis County Democrats were already printing delegate badges. This year, party chair Andy Brown said, "it will all be booked at the last minute," including the venue. "A year ago, we reserved the Palmer Events Center for March 24," Brown explained. "Plenty of space, right in the middle of Downtown; the price was good." Then the primaries got moved, and the party was left flailing to find a new venue. Palmer and the Travis County Expo Center were both booked out for months, Brown said, "So now we are booked tentatively on April 21 in the Austin Convention Center." If the courts stick with that date, then the party will not be able to verify that potential delegates actually took part in the primary – because the primary will not have happened yet.
Brown said he his staff met in late February to talk through their options and came to few solid conclusions: "In that meeting, we didn't know if the delegates from the precincts will have been selected or not, or somehow we'll have to do that at the county convention, or if the court is going to order something altogether that we don't understand yet." Local Republicans tell a similar story. With their county and state conventions both booked for June, Hogue is worried that his party will have to find shortcuts to make the process work.
Both parties are coming up with extraordinary fixes to make the county conventions work, like asking delegates to pledge that they really will vote in the primary. Regular precinct conventions, normally scheduled for the evening of primary day, may be replaced by less formal conclaves at the county level. Matt Glazer, executive director of statewide think tank Progress Texas, foresees chaos on the convention floor for both parties: "You're going to have a lot less people turn up at the state conventions, you're going to have a lot of people confused about how to become a national delegate, and you're going to have a lot of people who've been through this process a lot of times – and they've never seen anything like it."
The Dark Arts
The campaign professionals are also skittish. With no district maps or election calendar, campaign managers have been cautious about securing the most basic of campaign essentials. When do you formally launch? How do you rent space for a campaign headquarters if you don't know where your population center will be? For which markets do you buy ad space? Do you buy airtime before districts are drawn or wait and run the risk of exploding costs? What address do you put on your business cards? And how do you frame a message that addresses your constituents ... when you don't know who those constituents will be?
Democrats believe the Texas GOP is still being defined by national headlines about the presidential primary, and that works fine for many progressives. Glazer said that, for a statewide organization like Progress Texas, the delay meant "more time to show what conservatives have done and define the impacts of their cuts," while Republicans "are in an environment where they have a harder time understanding who their nominees are going to be and raising money to mount an affirmative campaign." Where it's hard, he added, is on those Democrats "trying to push out those ultraconservatives."
Not all hopefuls were affected equally. Take Congressional District 23, now running from the outskirts of El Paso to the suburbs of San Antonio. With key population centers like Alpine in the heart of the district, Republican incumbent Francisco "Quico" Canseco and Democratic challenger Pete Gallego have known for months that any changes will be mostly cosmetic. Compare that to CD 10: GOP incumbent Mike McCaul and Dem challenger Dan Grant spent months in limbo, waiting to see whether their district would be anchored in the Republican-friendly Houston suburbs or liberal Austin.
The situation is even worse in districts with no clear frontrunner, and the end result is what one campaign pro called "ghost primaries." A perfect example is what happened among Democrats in CD 35. Even without clear district lines, Austin U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and would-be challenger San Antonio state Rep. Joaquin Castro were quietly tearing stripes out of each other for months, campaigning in each other's political backyards. Before the maps were released, Castro abruptly announced he was going to run in CD 20, and Doggett was instead facing former U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez. Then Rodriguez pledged not to challenge Doggett – and now the Travis County veteran must gear up to run against Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector Sylvia Romo. Meanwhile, over in CD 25, nine Republican hopefuls sat on their hands for months, running what Hogue called "name-recognition campaigns, where they're basically saying, 'Hi, I'm so-and-so and hopefully I'll still be an eligible candidate once we get the maps.'"
While the map redrawing process only hit House, Senate, and Congressional candidates, every campaign on the ever-receding ballot has been left in flux by the delay. Judicial, State Board of Education, and county candidates knew their districts but still hunkered down for a longer, meaner primary season. Campaign finance became an endurance race as candidates who budgeting to retain staff for a March 6 primary eked out what little cash they have left for an extra three months – a challenge that will be exacerbated in April, when the national campaigns will begin hiring. War chests are emptying fast, and the national campaigns have been skittish about investing. Glazer said: "Everyone's taking a wait-and-see approach" before deciding where to allocate cash. Until then, many candidates must subsidize their own campaigns. That is a gamble, but it could pay off for some determined underdog hoping for a Rick Santorum-style "last-man-standing" surge. Locally, many eyes are on judicial primaries, usually among the most low-key of the down-ballot races – and the long primary season could result in some serious upsets.
Big PAC money may still begin to flow but, with the delay in block-walking and phone-banking, the smaller individual donations have dissipated. Combine that with donor fatigue among Democrats after the 2010 elections, and candidates have to MacGyver a campaign together just to make it to election day. Brown said, "That's going to hurt us in the general [election] because our candidates and the donors are spending more on the contested primaries, as opposed to everybody coming together and having a unified team."
In this pressurized environment, nothing seems certain – not even endorsements. At the beginning of the year, the key Republican backers were Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Senate hopeful Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Joe Straus. Now Straus is under siege from Democrats and the extremist wing of his own party, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and conservative darling Ted Cruz are biting into Dewhurst's primary lead, and Perry limped home as a presidential failure. In Travis County, local clubs began issuing endorsements in early February, but they had to either leave some seats blank or take a guess on who would be on the ticket. Meanwhile the Young Conservatives of Texas have been handing out endorsements since early January. With filing reopened for the new maps, that could mean new candidates and fresh endorsement bloodshed. "It's Lord of the Flies," Glazer said.
The parties will also not get the breathing room and healing time normally provided by the summer vacation. Back in 2008, when Dems were seething from the divisive Obama-Clinton primary, San Antonio Democratic Sen. Leticia Van de Putte described convention season as "makeup sex." This time around, with so little time between primary and general election, it will have to be a quickie.
This season's wounds are particularly deep. Both parties are keenly awaiting the outcomes of a particularly brutal series of East Texas GOP primaries between candidates backed by rival conservative groups, Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Empower Texans. At the same time, many minority voting rights groups are currently livid at the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund for signing off on the interim maps, effectively giving the GOP exactly what it wanted. There is particular fury in Travis County after MALDEF attorney Nina Perales described local Hispanic voters as "ineffective" for the purposes of the VRA.
In the midst of all this collateral damage of the redistricting wars, it's hard to see any room for optimism – unless you happen to be Sen. Jeff Wentworth. The San Antonio Republican has spent years warning that the current districting system is critically broken. Session after session, he has introduced bills to take redistricting out of the Legislature and move it to a nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission, and session after session his bills have failed. Finally, he believes, the tide may be turning. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll showed only 27% of respondents support keeping the current system, while 42% favored dumping it for a California-style independent redistricting commission. "Clearly the pain and the chaos that we're going through this year is having some effect in people's attitudes and opinions about this issue," Wentworth said. "That's what gives me considerable hope."
Wentworth's optimism may in fact be both premature and misplaced. Even after all this fighting and confusion, these are still only interim maps. There is a very good chance that lawmakers will be back in 2013 for another court-ordered redistricting, and the chaos will begin all over again.