The Texas Democratic Strategy: Winnability vs. Values

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In the last couple of days there has been a boomlet of discussion about Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez potentially running for US Senate, due to trial balloons being floated by former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes & the DSCC. Before I address the main point of this post, I encourage readers to take a look at any of the following articles to glean some further insight into Sanchez.

I'm not surprised by the quick response in the political press and blogosphere; after all, it's less than a year away from the (expected) Texas primary and the only announced candidate is Sean Hubbard, excluding the Draft Tommy Lee Jones movement. Other obvious potential candidates aren't available or interested, ranging from former Gubernatorial nominees Tony Sanchez, Chris Bell, & Bill White to former US Senate nominees Rick Noriega, Victor Morales, or Gene Kelly (if he's still alive). I half suspect that Barbara Radnofsky's name might get floated at some point but I haven't heard from her since her unsuccessful second statewide bid last fall. No big city mayors are in the pipeline other than Mayor Julian Castro in San Antonio who's running for re-election.  Heck, it's been so bad that even the perennially rumored John Sharp no longer makes the media's obligatory candidate short list.

Texas Democrats recognize that our bench took a beating last November and are desperate for any hint of a candidate to run in a rare open US Senate seat. That desperation isn't new, it's just more obvious now that 2010 exposed the underlying structural failings of the Democratic Party as it exists in Texas. There is a much bigger discussion that needs to take place about the nuts and bolts re-building of the Democratic Party in Texas, one that I hope will be part of the now open race and debate for the next TDP Chair since Boyd Richie is not running for re-election. But this post isn't about that, at least not directly.

I believe the initial debate over the potential of Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez's candidacy has to go deeper than arguments over his involvement and handling of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. In fact, I'd argue that we are having the wrong debate entirely. Every cycle since at least 2000 Democrats have focused around “Winnability” in the major nominees we have put forward as our top of the ticket standard-bearers, and look where that has gotten us.

2002: Tony Sanchez & Ron Kirk would build and fund a winnable rainbow coalition. Lost.

2006: Chris Bell would build a moderate winnable victory in a unique fractured general election. Lost.

2006: Barbara Radnofsky, a female mediator, would be able to make a reasoned dent in Hutchison's personal popularity. Lost.

2008: Rick Noriega, a Hispanic soldier, was the ticket and would get the Hispanics that Tony Sanchez couldn't. Lost.

2010: Bill White would win as a well-funded popular business-friendly mayor of Texas' biggest city. Lost.

2012: Ricardo Sanchez, a economically conservative Hispanic general, will get the Hispanics that Noriega & Tony Sanchez couldn't.

Are we seeing a pattern here? For the most part Democrats have spent the last decade focused on Winnability and received nothing in return but one heart-breaking loss after another. Yet year after year, our aging Democratic institutional and luminary leaders propose “the next sure thing” strategy of running relatively unoffensive moderate nominees with the “right demographics” and year after year we buy it- and lose.

Maybe it's time to for Texas Democrats to stop searching for nominees based upon this model of “winnability” and instead, search for a nominee based upon our Party's “values”.

How many more times are we going to ask the Democratic base of this state to trudge out to the polls and “get excited” by our winnable candidates? Seeing as our “winnable” strategy never wins, is there any harm in nominating someone with a strong Democratic identity who runs a campaign centered on our Democratic values? What if we sought out someone who's more interested in running a multi-million dollar campaign focused on calling out Republicans for their failure of leadership and bankrupting of this state's treasury and future rather than calling up Republicans to plead for their checks and votes?

What if the path to winnability is grounded in our Democratic values?

Consider this.

  1. Cycle after cycle the Democratic “winnability” strategy has centered around “awakening the sleeping giant” of minority voters, particularly Hispanics.
  2. If the 2010 election taught us anything, it's that minority voters in Texas are almost all that's left of the Democratic Party.
  3. The Census confirms that non-whites account for huge shares of population growth at all ages, and fully 95 percent of Texas's child population growth occurred among Hispanics.

It is unlikely that Anglo Texans are going to have a rush of baby-making or that Democrats are going to ever win the Anglo vote back. So it would make sense to me, given the three points above, that there really isn't any harm (or other option) in going all-in with the “demographic change” strategy; except instead of waiting around for it to happen, we invest in making it happen. We seek out engaging Democratic, Progressive, or Populist candidates that can talk to minority voters also known (now) as “the base”. In the process we build stronger, longer lasting infrastructure and institutions. We make an argument to voters that spans election cycles by spending money and organizing around our values, not short term candidate based winnability.

Developing better mail pieces and TVs ads isn't going to change our fate. They can help us win, when we are close, but we still need to get close enough to win, and that starts with voters identifying with our candidates. The kind of change we need now requires a movement as much as it requires money, and we're never going to build a movement in this state until we have the motivation and subsequent momentum to really go out and kick some ass. Moderates may get us money, but they're not getting us movement and they're hurting any momentum we could build. Maybe it's time for us to give the Linda Chavez-Thompsons of the world the same all-in support and consideration as our more “winnable” candidates.

Who knows, we might just find out that running on our values is the most winnable strategy for the future of Democrats in Texas.  

About Author

Former Publisher & Owner of the Burnt Orange Report. Political Thinker, Digital Explorer, and Time Traveler.

17 Comments

  1. We call it: “the 254-county strategy”
    and it is relevant to the “winnability” issue. We Dems need to understand how to try to win 254 counties, and to act like that is what we're raising funds, campaigning, and getting out the vote for.  “Winnability” will not win against “values”.  The GOP has 'em, even if they're skewed, we don't agree, and they are not our values.  They win based on what they pitch, not on promising to win.  THAT iw what motivates their base and pulls independents to vote for their candidates.  At the same time that Dems. and independents who might vote for them choose to pass, or sit it out, or don't in fact vote for Democrats.

    I have seen very little “values” campaigning in Texas in 30+ years, but lots of acting like it is a high school Senior Class President that candidates are running for.

    Now, how do we light a fire under democratic candidates to actually stand for some values, instead of trying to be “Republican Lite”?

    Nice post.

  2. nice post KT
    couple points:

    1) Sharp's out of the rumors for the simple reason that he lost his right hand and hype master (RIP Kelly Fero).

    2) Barnes is proposing candidates that match his value system. The thing that handicaps the Democratic party is that all the decision makers are part of the oligarchy like Barnes & Gen. Sanchez. Barnes is actually better off being the biggest Dem in Texas than he would be if there was an elected state wide official who could shoo him off the stage at long last.

  3. The last line says it all
    “Who knows, we might just find out that running on our values is the most winnable strategy for the future of Democrats in Texas.” Running on values is the only strategy that has any chance of success.

  4. The Schwerpunkt
    Both Musselman and Burka point to the party itself as the main barrier to election of a statewide candidate.

    They are right: This needs to be addressed seriously. The empty abstractions like “winnability” or, for that matter, “values” are not campaign strategy, tactics or logistics. Nor, are they party organization, governance, finance, or technology from one campaign to the next.

    But, as K-T says, that is another thread if not a whole blog unto itself.

    Before discarding “winnability” we need to be clear on exactly what it is or was before the last decade of losses.

    It reflects a political investment paradigm in which pollsters, campaign consultants, and bundlers of large donations (usually lobbyists) prepare something like the “Red Herring” used to “place” unregistered securities with sophisticated investors. These are presented with or without a live candidate in a series of very private auditions or screenings in which secret projections and a preview of what a candidate or candidate-to-be might say are presented as a good deal to get in on early.

    The projections and drafts are very, very secret and, hence, strike gullible investors or candidates as true.

    Individual and corporate investors carefully seek and discreetly get assurances about particular expectations they have for the public office at issue. But, their main focus is the prospect of a win or loss.

    That prospect is partly some sketchy version of the future but also the of the immediate prospects for “leveraging” early-smart-big money “active” investment, based on cynical calculation, with late-sucker-small “passive” donations, based on whatever excitement the resulting campaign flim-flam generates.

    Large land and small bank deals are done like this, so it is not surprising that Ben Barnes would be a go-to guy at this level of Texas politics, even though he has been on the edge of Texas politics for a long time and was not all that good at land and bank deals.

    For that reason and because the string of losses recited by K-T has made peddling Texas political deals harder and harder, for some time now demographic change has been presented again and again as promising future victory. Such prospects are now also highly discounted though, save in Washington State, it would seem.

    Certainly “past performance does not guarantee future results”. Ricardo Sanchez might actually win and prove to be a great Senator from Texas or, at least better than the competition.

    But, it is hard to see how a sophisticated investor — left, right, soft or hard center —  will buy what of him is on offer right now.

    Democrats are operating and winning on a higher plane than the GOP, the moral plane. That is why we have a latent majority in Texas, and they do not. Otherwise, we suck.

    Let's discuss a paradigm shift in the party then, before worrying too much about the remote possibility of electing anybody that the usual candidate-peddlers select. We know they cannot rouse many voters, and it is time to question whether they can raise much money.

    Here is what a new paradigm might look like: An entire ticket, running as “combat team”, on, well, a eight-wheel “Stryker” platform. It might not look like a land deal or any sort of deal. It might look like republican democracy not like plutocracy with a little affirmative action salsa on the side.    

    Maybe Ricardo Sanchez would want to take some time from preening for auditions in Washington to contribute or just follow the debate over issues much more critical for Texas Democrats than his imaginary campaign or storied military career.  

    • As an SDEC member…
      …you are in a perfect position to take all of your ideas, lay out an actual plan, and build a coalition of the willing around your Stryker strategy. Best of luck.

  5. TOUGH LOVE !!!!!!!!!!!!
    The problems with Texas Democrats is this.

    1) Bill White lost because of Houston being a pro-illegal alien city.

    2)Chris Bell was running for vengeful purposes against Delay and Perry. Second if he had enough sense he would have dropped out in a divided field. Kinky Friedman was uniting the young, the college students, libertarians, and moderates.

    3)Democrats do not TAKE ON Conservative Hate talk radio like 1200 AM  WOAI'S Joe Pags.

    4)The national Democrats, namely Congressional Democrats, keeps on voting in the most hated person (or the most liberal) like Nancy Pelosi into the leadership.

    5)Liberal Democrats SHOULD NOT ignore the Freedom Democrats, the Blue Dogs, the Pro 2nd amendment Dems, and other Dems who are not entirely liberal.

    6)If the Democrats in Texas were smart they would focus more in the state house and state senate. For example, Democratic party in Texas should be kicking the tail of the Democrats in State House district 30 over HB3015.

    I got more to say but I'll let yall speak on this.

  6. What values?
    Tell me the Democratic values, without sounding like a laundry list of legislative priorities.

    Take a look at the 2010 TDP platform: http://www.txdemocrats.org/iss

    Now, take a look at the 1996 DNC platform: http://www.perkel.com/congress

    Read each, and tell me which warms the cockles of your heart. Texas Democrats run campaigns like they do a floor vote, arguing on the utility of their proposals, rather than the inherent value of their beliefs.

    There is a middle ground to the winnability vs values argument. It requires the Austin Elite (yourself included, KTM) to change the way they view politics. Campaigns have been run on specific issues and proposals, rather than the values that make individual candidates appealing to their community.

    We need candidates who can win, but we also need to change the way we Democrats think of campaigns. Mostly so operatives and consultants from Virginia and elsewhere stop laughing at us. Seriously, they do that.

  7. The Voters in Texas are the Problem…
    There is a huge disconnect in Texas. Kids in suburban

    school districts protest teacher layoffs, yet most of

    their parents vote republican. They just don't get it,

    repubs have run this state for a decade, caused the budget

    deficit etc. They should have been voted out of office. A moderate dem. or progressive dem. has to fight an uphill battle against stupid voters that vote “values” against

    reality.

    • ….
      Values are reality. Democrats who don't understand that are the problem, not the voters.

      I respect the voters. I want to know what they think. I don't pretend to have their best interest at heart while arrogantly parading around with a list of policy ideas they don't understand.

      And yes, I am a Democrat.

      • Parading policy and not values is part of the problem
        We need to frame our ideas as values and they should be progressive values. Policy is a result of values not the other way around. People don't want to hear policy wonk talk they want to know that you care about what they care about.

  8. Running on our Democratic values
    sounds like a good idea to me. Hell, we have been beaten to a pulp by not standing by our Democratic values.

  9. Thanks Man
    Many of those other elements you talk about are 100% necessary as well. This piece is the first of what will be a series as I get back to writing here on BOR. A number of the other points that I'm going to focus on will adress those sorts of components and how they can compliment this post.

    The key thing is that if we start thinking with the right frame of mind about the type of things we want to see in our candidates, and then discuss how we can build institutions around that, we will see that the two actually go hand in hand.  

  10. Unless and until the Democratic Party and its candidates
    speak up for progressive values there will be no machine to get them elected. Why would anyone but the hardest of the hard core want to spend their limited time, energy and money working for a candidate they can't get excited about? The answer is they won't and frankly; why should they?

    What's the worst that could happen by making strong progressive values the core of our campaign strategy? It's not like we can lose more than we are now.

    County Chairs all over Texas have trouble finding people to even be a precinct chairs let alone enough volunteers to actually cover blockwalking even once during the general election campaign. There will be no machine without the moving parts and that's people who are excited enough to get out and personally touch voters.

    Milquetoast candidates regardless of name recognition or funding aren't going to win any elections because they aren't going to get the base vote out.

    You won't excite those people with Republican lite candidates or candidates that speak only carefully screened drivel intended not to offend anyone. Republicans have no problem speaking offensively about ending a woman's right to control her own body, a person's right to marry whomever they wish or the right of the wealthy to keep and gather more wealth regardless of the consequences to the rest of the country. Their base likes it and their base gets out and delivers voters because they're excited.

    It's time we make an election campaign exciting in Texas and the way to do that is to field progressive candidates because candidates that people are willing to work for are what will allow us to build the machine that gets them elected.

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