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The redistricting fight and the grassroots politics of chaos

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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.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir
Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir (Photo by John Anderson)

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."

Where Now?

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.

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