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The Real Story of Texas GOP Primaries: Democratic Turnout

Rep. Joaquin Castro signs the cover of an issue of Texas Monthly which shows him, his brother San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and Davis. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Parsing the Republican results from this year’s first-in-the-nation Texas primaries will surely dominate Wednesday’s political talk. The media will ask how nettlesome Rep. Steve Stockman’s challenge to Sen. John Cornyn proved to be and which of the 23 House members seeking re-election got the biggest scare? How easy was it for state Attorney General Greg Abbott to secure the gubernatorial nomination?  

The answers are important because they are 2014’s initial number-based assessment about the current state of the fight between the solidly conservative Republicans and the extraordinarily conservative Republicans — a battle that’s still clearly shaping the party’s national fortunes in the short term.  

But in terms of predicting the GOP’s long-term prospects, the more important data may be generated by the Democrats. How many turn out for their generally low-impact contests Tuesday will offer a big clue about the speed at which Texas will be shifting from solid red to bright purple.  

Big political change in the state is coming as inevitably as so many of the winter storms that have hobbled the capital this year — but the precise timing of its arrival is similarly difficult to forecast. The demographic evolution prompting the ideological realignment is easier to predict. In 2012, 38 percent of Texans were Hispanic, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent formal estimate. Their numbers are growing so much more rapidly than other groups that by the 2020 elections, they are certain to surpass whites (declining steadily to 44 percent of the population two years ago) to make Texas the second Latino-plurality state after California.  

Remembering that Democrats won the national Hispanic vote by a lopsided 44 points in the past presidential election, it’s easy to expect their rise to demographic pre-eminence in Texas will challenge its political status quo. (Though Gallup reported last month  that while 51 percent of Hispanics outside Texas identify with the Democratic Party, that’s true of only 46 percent of Hispanics in the state.)  

What’s now the most reliably Republican of the big states — the last Democratic statewide victory was 20 years ago — is not going to move into a reliable column for the Democrats for the foreseeable future.  

Instead, sometime during the coming decade, Texas will become a place where either party can win. That is, unless the GOP re-engineers its standing in the state by fundamentally changing its platform, starting with a much more embracing posture on immigration. At the presidential level, Texas becoming even somewhat competitive again would be a strategic boon for Democrats because it would require the GOP to commit money and people to defend the state for the first time in four decades. (The second-biggest prize in the Electoral College, its 38 electoral votes equal to the combined haul from five of the tossup states President Barack Obama ended up carrying in 2012: Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire.)  

As to when the swing-state label will become accurately applied, this week’s Democratic results will help formulate the answer. If the turnout exceeds recently paltry norms, especially among Latinos, that may fairly be seen as a sign that the realignment is beginning on time, maybe even a little ahead of schedule.  

That, at least, is the assertion of Battleground Texas, a political action committee created a year ago by veterans of the Obama campaigns with the goal of making the state competitive for Democrats again — starting with a registration and turnout effort this year that’s modeled on the neighborhood mobilization efforts that worked for their former boss. To that end, the PAC says it raised $3 million and enlisted 12,000 volunteers to make calls or knock on the doors of more than 370,000 potential supporters, mainly in Latino precincts.  

Two factors are working against initial success: recent history and (paradoxically) Wendy Davis.  

Excitement about the Fort Worth state senator — a national Democratic celebrity thanks to a success-despite-adversity backstory and an 11-hour filibuster that temporarily blocked new state restrictions on abortion — was initially seen as a boon to the effort. But once it became clear she would cruise to the gubernatorial nomination, the rationale for getting people out to case votes for her in March faded.  

Beyond that, Texans (particularly Democrats and most especially Hispanics) are developing a standout record for spurning their franchise.  

Just 50 percent of those eligible showed up for the 2012 general election, a 9-point drop since 2008 and the fourth-lowest turnout  in the country. Turnout in the spring is a fraction of that. An average 8 percent of Republicans have voted in the past decade’s primaries, while turnout for Democratic contests has topped out at 6 percent with one exception. (That was 2008, when 16 percent voted in the contest between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.) And the Democrats who do show up are disproportionately liberal Anglos and African-Americans — one reason why freshman Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, who is black, was elected in a district that’s two-thirds Latino .)  

The probable takeaway, once all of Tuesday’s results are sorted, is that both sides agree the first real gauge for the realignment’s timing won’t come until Nov. 4.  

The GOP will declare that the roster of fall winners, which is likely to end up lopsidedly Republican, will offer the best evidence. Near term, they’ll be right. The Democrats will say that any inroads, starting with boosted turnout, would be the bigger story. In the big picture, they’ll be just as correct.