DNC Does the Texas Waltz

National Dems have high hopes for Texas ... one of these days

Houston Mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Bill White chats with fellow Dems, including former state party chair Molly Beth Malcolm, right.
Houston Mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Bill White chats with fellow Dems, including former state party chair Molly Beth Malcolm, right. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

How long has it been since the Demo­crat­ic National Committee met in Texas? Longer than most of its members could recall. So having the national party's principal organizing and fundraising body hold its fall meeting in Austin last week sent a clear message to state Dems, and a warning to Republicans, that Texas may become a battleground state.

With about 300 national delegates (plus a strong showing of Texas officeholders and hopefuls) at the Renaissance Hotel, party chair and outgoing Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine laid out important seats in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, which kick off this November with two hotly contested gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. On the national landscape, the Lone Star State is considered a big ticket, with the Texas House balanced 76-74 going into next year's legislative races. There's also the anticipated special election to replace U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, which has both political and symbolic importance for Democrats. Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, reminded attendees: "That seat belonged to Lyndon Johnson. That seat belonged to Lloyd Bentsen."

Mayor Lee Leffingwell welcomes the crowd at last week's Democratic National Committee meeting in Austin.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell welcomes the crowd at last week's Democratic National Committee meeting in Austin. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The event emboldened the crowd, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell getting a standing ovation at Friday's general meeting when he announced that, under Austin's nonpartisan election code, he was a "strictly nonpartisan, lifelong, dyed-in-the-wool, yellow dog Demo­crat." He has seen the Democratic infrastructure weaken in Texas across his career, but with increased urbanization and a more organized campaign presence, he said, "I think that bodes well for a political shift."

Kaine predicted an uphill battle: Since 1900, on average the sitting president loses 28 congressional seats in the first midterm, so much depends on the continuing success of the 50-state strategy. There are already 10 of the party's Organizing for America campaign staffers in Texas, and while Kaine called it "premature" to talk about assisting individual candidates, he said his team was preparing reports on "state legislatures that are within a few votes of switching." Using his party's recent rise to power in his home state as an example, Kaine told the Texas delegation, "If any state in the country can do it, you can." Washington will also play a role: If health care reform passes, he added, "That's going to create a great tailwind for Democrats because we'll have tackled one of the most persistent problems our economy is facing."

Much of the three-day event was spent in the dry bureaucratic rigmarole of caucuses, but it was also an opportunity for primary candidates to schmooze with drinks in their hands. On that score, arguably the biggest event was Thursday night's Netroots 'N Boots bash at Club de Ville, as challengers polished their stump speeches before the progressive blogging community. There were onstage appearances from rancher-turned-gubernatorial primary contender Hank Gilbert and deli owner cum lieutenant governor hopeful Marc Katz, while the two big senate primary rivals played a game of early adopter one-upmanship: Houston Mayor Bill White reminded everyone that, under his chairmanship, the Texas Democratic Party sent its first e-mails, while former state Comptroller John Sharp burnished his tech-friendly credentials as the man who brought websites to state government. Meanwhile, the other big name looking for a ballot slot, contender for governor Tom Schieffer, took a more low-key approach. Buoyed by the recent endorsement by the House Democratic caucus leadership, he continued his charm offensive by simply working the floor.

For all the enthusiasm generated by the meet-up, Leffingwell was cautious about a Democratic takeover in Texas, observing, "I don't think it will happen next year or the year after." When the city council finally has a statehouse that doesn't oppose its policies on principle, he added, "It will make the job of whoever's leading Austin at that time a lot easier."

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