A week after Election Day and it feels like the storm surge completely washed away the Texas Democratic Party. While on Election Day nationally Democrats had bright spots and rays of hope, in Texas it was completely dark and there were no rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds. After spending years on electoral strategy and millions of dollars on campaigns, Texas Democrats are probably at their lowest point in since the Civil War. Every single statewide office is held by a Republican, from the Governor's mansion on down. Republicans have a near super majority in the State House of Representatives, and hold more seats than at any time since Reconstruction. While Republicans do not hold a super majority in the State Senate procedural rules give them significant power, and much of the controversial legislation that was blocked by Democrats in the House during the last session was originally passed by the Senate. Make no doubt about it: Republicans are in complete control and there is not a damn thing Democrats can do about it.
There has been a significant amount of analysis of the election, and inquiry into how Republicans where able to make such significant gains and why Democrats where unable to compete. First it must be realized that this election did not happen in a vacuum, and there where several factors at work besides the candidates themselves. National politics played a significant role in the election in Texas, as across the nation Democrats took the brunt of the electorates' dissatisfaction with the economy. Despite the Republican establishment implicit involvement in the collapse of the economy, voters turned against the party in power because of persistently high unemployment. Strait ticket voting for Republicans trickled down the ballot and impacted the outcome of every election in Texas. Governor Rick Perry was also able to effectively determine the terms of the choice in the election, as the 10 year incumbent was able to paint himself as an outsider and paint Bill White as connected to Washington, D.C.
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An important thing to remember is that this election is not an isolated incident; the Republicans have been increasing electoral power in Texas for the last two decades. In the 1980's Republican activist began a relentless campaign to begin reshaping Texas politics and they began from the bottom up. By the end of the 1990's the Republican Party had established itself as the dominant party in Texas. Today the Republicans control every branch of government in Texas: executive, legislative, and judicial. The Texas Republican Party has gained power by effectively identifying their base of support, and controlling the election narratives and policy debates.
In order for Democrats to move forward in Texas they need to focus on long term goals rather than short term success, and they need to refocus their message. Our pathway out of the Texas wilderness is not an election cycle away; it is through several years of moving forward with focus and patience. This pathway begins at the local level, as Democrats must seek to build future electoral success on a base of local support. Then the next step that Democrats can take in Texas to lay the foundation for future electoral success is to show Texans the differences between Democrats and Republicans.
The first step toward the growth of the Democratic Party in Texas must begin at the ground level, and this growth must be developed from the bottom up and not from the top down. That means that Democratic Party members and progressive activist most focus on the local level first, and then shift upwards in focus as the party develops a base of support. While the Democratic Party should compete in state-wide elections, it is ridiculous to believe that Democrats will be able to win state-wide elections without making gains at the local level. That means allowing county parties to focus their resources on recruiting and campaigning for local candidates. This will also have the added benefit of developing experienced candidates who can then move on to hire offices. How can we expect to win a Railroad Commissioner campaign if we can't win County Commissioner campaign?
The next step for Democrats to achieve future electoral success is to start acting like Democrats. This means articulating a clear message and advocating for progressive policies that make a difference in the lives of Texans. This means letting go of the idea that Democrats should be competing for the same voters as the Republicans. The demographics of Texas are changing, and the state is growing progressively less white. Already Texas is a minority majority state, but white voters are still the ones deciding the elections. This is because Texas Democrats have not been speaking to the concerns of the coalition of voters that could become the base of support for Democrats in years to come: the working class, the young, the black community, and the Latino community. That means connecting an economic message to an education message to a social services message.
Texas Democrats can begin to redefine themselves during the 82nd session of the Texas Legislature. Since Republicans will have almost unmitigated power to legislate, most of what Democrats will be able to do will be symbolic. But symbols matter. By being the party that advocates for working Texans and standing up against extremist conservative Republicans, Democrats can take the first step toward defining what the party will stand for and what it will stand against going forward. Over the next two years the Texas Democratic Party should begin the process of rebuilding the party, piece by piece. Then during the 2012 campaign season Texas Democrats should use that opportunity to revitalize the party by electing new leadership, refocusing on the local levels, reaching out to the party's nature base of support, and using the Obama campaign and Organizing for America to begin a deliberate and focused walk out of the Texas political wilderness. The thing about a storm is that it always ends with blue skies.
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