Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Texas Democratic Party Needs A New Direction

State Rep. Aaron Peña, from Hidalgo County in South Texas, after serving five terms in the Texas House, announced last last week that he's not seeking re-election to a sixth term.

Peña, who had been a long time conservative Democrat, switched to the Republican party last November, just weeks after being re-elected to office as a Democrat. Peña's switch gave the GOP a super majority of 101 members in the 150-member House for the 2011 legislative session. As a thank you from the Republican controlled legislature, Peña's district was gerrymandered redistricted to include a majority of Republican-friendly voters.

But after the panel of three federal judges in San Antonio on Wednesday ordered un-gerrymandered election maps for the 2012 election, Pena said he just couldn't win in his district running as a Republican. Peña is the 23rd incumbent in the House to decide not to seek another term of office. (Mean Rachel has an interesting blog post on Peña's withdrawal)

Peña is not first and probably not the last in a long line of erstwhile conservative Democrats to abandon the Democratic Party for the Republican Party. Rick Perry switched affiliation from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party more than 20 years ago. Millions of erstwhile conservative Democrats - politicos and voters alike - have switched party allegiance to become Republicans over the past 20 years.

Today, the Texas Democratic Party finds itself in a state of near disarray - deserted by erstwhile conservative Democrats, unable to field new candidates who can win elections, and unable to attract donations to fund party operations. Both houses of the state legislature have large majorities of Republican, and there hasn't been a Democrat elected to a statewide office for the last 18 years. It's not because members of the Republican Party of Texas vastly outnumber members of the Texas Democratic Party (TDP) in the state -- they don't. The parties have roughly equal membership.

The Democrat party's last high profile candidate, Bill White, a conservative and the former mayor of Houston, ran unsuccessfully for governor of Texas in 2010. White lost to the conservative Republican incumbent, Rick Perry by a wide margin of 55 to 42 percent. Incumbent conservatives, like Peña continue to abandon the party and it increasingly struggles to attract new candidates to run under the Democratic brand. The Party struggles to attract donations as demonstrated by the treasurer's report to the State Democratic Executive Committee this month that the party has a negative balance of ($27,236) for the quarter.

Perhaps the idea that the party's voter base, outside of Austin, is pervasively very conservative - an idea still active espoused by long time Democratic political strategists - is no longer right. Perhaps the idea that the party and it's candidates must continue to subscribe to conservative policy strategies, shunning all progressive/liberal policy positions, is a strategy that no longer works - even in Texas.

It is, perhaps, time for party leaders to seriously consider whether the party finds itself struggling to raise money and attract new candidates, not because it's not conservative enough, but because the Democratic Party offers Texas voters no real and contrasting choice to the Tea Party Republican brand of politics.

It is definitely time for the Texas Democratic Party to discuss within its ranks the need for the party to engage in a conversation with its base constituencies to understand how to rebuild the party from the grassroots.

Any discussion of Texas politics must start with the historical perspective that until the mid-1980s, most, if not all, routes to elected office ran through the Democratic Party - a party divided into liberal and conservative factions. As recently as 1965, the Texas House was composed of 149 Democrats and one Republican. From that point the proportion of Democrats began to slowly decrease to 93 percent in 1971, 87 percent in 1977, and 75 percent in 1983.

In 1984, the Texas Democratic Party still held more than three-quarters of the seats in the Texas House, which in turn was run by speaker Gib Lewis of Fort Worth. Lewis belonged to the Democratic Party's southern conservative faction, which held a firm grip on Texas politics and government.

Gov. Rick Perry's uninterrupted tenure in public office began in January 1985 as a member of conservative wing of the conservative faction of the Texas Democratic Party that controlled the Texas House of Representatives. Perry served two more terms in the House, during the last of which he switched midterm to the Republican Party, before continuing his ascent up the political ladder with his election and the new agriculture commissioner in 1990.

The period of Democratic Party dominance in Texas - from the Civil War to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s - was characterized, in part, by the systematic exclusion of African Americans and other minorities from political participation by white conservative Democrats. Democratic Party rule was carried out by a conservative white political elite that strongly promoted economic development, but that resisted change either in race relations or social programs for the poor.

Conservative vs. liberal tensions within the Democratic Party over these issues were effectively muted until the civil rights movement and national politics made their abrupt intrusion into Texas politics in the mid-1960s. Tensions became cracks with President Johnson's and northern liberal Democrat's support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Social Security Amendments of 1965 that created Medicare and Medicaid.

After signing the Voting Rights Acts President Johnson is said to have commented to an aid that, "We have lost the South for a generation," anticipating the coming backlash from Southern white Democrats. Like most other southern states Texas firmly turned down the Republican road at the presidential level when it went for Nixon in 1972.

The civil rights victories in the 1960s and Reagan's presidential win in 1980 helped set in motion a realignment of the two main political parties in Texas. As the Republican Party grew in prominence through the 1980s and religious conservatives became more involved in politics, at the invitation of President Reagan, increasing numbers of conservative white Democrats changed their voting affiliation to the Republican Party.

Conservatives moving to Texas from other states also helped to swell the ranks of Republican voters from this period through the first decade of the 21st century. The Republican Party steadily eroded the southern conservative Democrats' hold on government though this period as it increasingly represented the values of southern conservatives. By 2002 Republicans had attracted enough conservative voters to win at all levels of the state's elected and appointed public institutions.

The election of a Republican majority in the Texas House in the 2002 elections, despite an earlier redistricting that protected many southern conservative Democrat incumbents, signaled that Republican gains in the state had reached the tipping point.

The subsequent redrawing of legislative maps in 2003 and the continuing decline in Democratic Party conservative voter affiliation put an end to southern " Dixiecrat" conservative dominance of the Texas Democratic Party that had long been a feature of Texas politics.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Republicans solidified their hold on the governmental institutions of Texas, at least for the time being, as the last of the conservative white Democrats switched their voting affiliation to the Republican Party. In some ways the Republican dominance of Texas today represents a replay of an era when southern conservative Democrats dominated the political agenda in the last century.

The old southern conservative wing of the old Democratic Party collapse during the last decade of the 20th century and first decade of the 21st century left the party with the progressive/liberal wing of white Democratic voters, along with increasing numbers of African-America and Latino-American voters.

Party Identification in Texas, 1952-2008

Democratic Party candidates supporting a more progressive messaging agenda rebounded briefly in 2006 and again in 2008, with victories in state legislative districts in some areas of Texas. The more progressive messaging of those elections resonated with the younger and more diverse Texas electorate, motivating them to get out the vote.

Buoyed by Obama's 2008 campaign messaging for (progressive) change, first time voter turnout among younger more progressive Texans across all racial and ethnic groups was relatively strong for Obama. Obama's message attracted 54 percent of the vote cast by Texans ages 18-29 across all racial and ethnic groups in the November 2008 election. Still, only 45.5 percent of the voting age population bothered to vote in the November 2008 election, leaving Texas next to the bottom of all the states for voter turnout.

Democratic candidates, led by a conservative Democrat running for Governor, lost ground in the November 2010 election when those 2006 and 2008 first time minority and younger more progressive Texans were not motivated to get out the vote. Older white conservative voters gave Republican candidates a big win and a super majority in the 150-member Texas State House.

Over the past 40 years conservative white Democrats have changed their party voting allegiance in mass to the Republican Party. Still, many in the Democratic Party's leadership ranks, and most of the old-guard political consultants who advise them, continue to argue that those voters, outside of the Austin area, who remain affiliated with the Texas Democratic Party, as well as unaffiliated Independents, are pervasively conservative voters.

Such was the argument made at the State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC) meeting held in Austin this month when the Committee debated placing non-binding resolutions on the March 2012 primary ballot. (Liveblog replay)

The Texas Republican Party has placed resolutions on their primary ballots to motive the party's conservative base voters in the last few election cycles. Many SDEC members argued the Democratic Party should also place resolutions on its March 6, 2011 primary ballots to motive the party's base voters and attract new progressive/liberal voters to the party. The SDEC considered several ballots resolutions, including: support of same-sex marriage, abolishing the death penalty, legalizing marijuana, passing the DREAM Act, mandating affordable college tuition and legalizing casino gambling.

Some SDEC members expressed concern of backlash from conservative Democrats and Independents if the same-sex marriage and death penalty abolition resolutions appeared on the ballot. The argument was that conservative Democratic incumbents can't get elected if those resolutions are hung around their necks by their Republican opponents.

Some of those who opposed the same-sex resolution also pointed to 2005, when three-fourths of the Texans who voted (13.8% of the voting age population) supported a constitutional amendment banning both same-sex marriage and civil unions. (Recent polling shows that 63 percent of all Texans, today, support legal recognition of same-sex relationships.) Other SDEC members spoke against the ballot resolutions giving their opinion that they simply would not attract voters to the party's primary and precinct conventions.

The SDEC turned back the same-sex marriage and death penalty resolutions, but did approve the DREAM Act, college tuition and casino gambling resolutions for the March 6, 2012 Democratic Primary ballot.

Critics argue that the Texas Democratic Party mindset remains stuck in its southern conservative past, often neglecting minority constituencies, sometimes taking Latino support for granted, and dismissing its base progressive/liberal constituencies out-of-hand. Some critics argue that in today's highly polarized political environment conservative voters will always support the conservative Republican over a conservative Democrat, and progressive/liberal Democratic voters will not vote for conservative Democrats.

Such criticisms form part of a larger critique attributing the Democratic Party's decline over the past two decades to the party's overconfidence, failure to fully comprehend the changing demographic and political dynamics in Texas, and, particularly, failure to listen to the grassroots Democrats of today.

The a Texas Democratic Party, once divided into small liberal and large conservative factions, has shed most of its old southern conservative faction to the Republican Party. Today, minority and progressive/liberal Texans predominately make up the active base of the Texas Democratic Party. That modern base of constituencies seems reluctant to fund or work for or vote for a Democratic Party that appears to dismiss their interests in favor of a conservative policy agenda.

There are also a significant number of disaffected Texans who shun both political parties and never bother to vote. Only 45.5 percent of the voting age population bothered to vote in the November 2008 election, which is about average for the past several presidential election cycles. Only 27 percent of the voting age population in Texas bothered to vote in the November 2010 election, when older southern white conservatives dominated voter turnout, handing the Republican Party big wins.

Less than 6 percent of voting age Texans will probably vote in the 2012 Democratic Primary and more than 55 percent of voting age Texans will probably not bother to vote in the November 2012 election.

Perhaps the new opportunity for the Texas Democratic Party is to build a new party structure capable of again winning elections by offering its existing base and millions of politically disaffected Texans a real alternative to the conservatism currently offered by both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

TexasTrib: Excerpt: Cal Jillson's "Lone Star Tarnished"

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