The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: The Art of the Possible

A few thoughts on Texas Democratic prospects

By Michael King, June 1, 2018, News

Any lessons to be learned from last week's Democratic primary run-offs?

There's always that indispensable nugget of lyrical wisdom from The Music Man: "You gotta know the territory." Venerable lefty journal The Nation parachuted longtime European correspondent D.D. Guttenplan into Texas for a preview cover story – "Texas Showdown," natch, complete with an illustration of vile, cigar-smoking Demo­cratic establishment suits in an enormous Stetson giving the boot to "insurgent populists."

In advance of the May 22 vote, Guttenplan profiled three Texas Congressional candidates: Rick Treviño (CD 23); Laura Moser (CD 7); and Mary Wilson (CD 21), with a defiantly left/progressive thesis: "What if the shape of the electorate is changing, making the kind of left-populist coalition the Bernie Sanders campaign never quite managed to put together a real possibility?" In the wake of the actual voting – lost by the "insurgents" with, respectively, 32%, 33%, and 42% of the vote – Guttenplan was somberly explaining away those stinging defeats.

"[T]he numbers don't lie. What they tell us is that the left in Texas is far from being able to make a serious challenge to the state's Demo­cratic Party establishment – at least when that establishment is backed up, as was definitely the case here, by Beltway institutions like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Emily's List." ("What the Left Can Learn from Losing in Texas," May 23.) With all due respect to Guttenplan and his New York editors, it is at least equally plausible that the winners in those run-offs were better and stronger candidates, in districts currently held by Republicans that are at least conceivably flippable in November.

The View from Texas

I've read The Nation for decades, occasionally rolling my eyes (no doubt like many Chronicle readers) but tend to cringe a bit more when they venture southward and apply East Coast paradigms to Texas politics. "Progressive insurgents" vs. "The Establishment" may make some sense in New York, where the Dems are the establishment, but to quote another movie, Blood Simple: "What I know about is Texas, and down here, you're on your own."

That might as well be the motto of the Texas Democratic Party, still awaiting the rise of the Hispanic vote to do what decades of second-fiddling have failed to accomplish. It's at least possible that the Nov­em­ber general election might make a tangible dent in Republican dominance at the Capitol or D.C., but banking on a "blue wave" to throw all the bums out is undoubtedly a bridge too far. Gov. Greg Abbott certainly seems safe, running against a low-profile, inexperienced Lupe Valdez; the energetic Mike Collier possibly has a better chance against Lite Guv Dan Patrick, but Patrick's shameless Trumpian pandering still appeals to so many reflexive GOP voters that the real race there might be the inside game between Abbott and Patrick.

Upballot, Beto O'Rourke has a shot to make it at least a contest against odious incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, although O'Rourke frankly could use an infusion of serious funding, "establishment" or otherwise. "Grassroots" organizing might bring the energy, but in a state this large, money buys media, and voters won't turn out for a candidate they've never heard or seen on TV. In the Congressional contests, hard-core gerrymandering dating back to Tom DeLay has made many of these districts untouchable, but at least a few look vulnerable. One should be CD 21 (currently held by the retiring Lamar Smith), where Dem nominee Joseph Kopser – suspicious to Gut­ten­plan as a "former Republican" (running in a district packed with current Repub­licans) – should have enough funding and a sufficient field team to be competitive.

Moving the Conversation

The outcomes might well be determined, again, by Democratic turnout, and there was much hand-wringing last week that the run-off turnout was at historic lows. That frankly seems unsurprising, for a Tuesday run-off with few actual races on individual ballots. Even the turnout stories noted that the first round vote was larger by several orders of magnitude – suggesting that most voters had already said their piece and expect to return for the high-profile November contests. (If they don't, game over.)

Having first outlined a conflict between the "establishment" and "insurgents," Gut­ten­plan followed by acknowledging that his "establishment" Texans are not quite that: "Although the three winners [Gina Ortiz Jones, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, Kop­ser] all had challengers on the left, none of the winners can be accurately described as a 'blue dog' Democrat."

Before we can hope for a "progressive" Texas Legislature and Congressional delegation, we had better continue to work toward a state politics that at least allows for opposition voices at the table. Right now in Texas, that's a pipe dream – meaning basic state services like public education, health care, transportation, etc., will continue to be held hostage by symbolic but real political cruelties like bathroom bills and even tighter restrictions on abortion. Those persistent tyrannies represent the real Texas "establishment." Promoting phantom distinctions among Texas Demo­crats will not defeat it.

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