In early 2013, Democratic activists who had previously coordinated field work for the Obama campaign in other states launched ???Battleground Texas,??? dedicated to turning Texas blue. Backed by a number of major Democratic donors, the group claims to have raised more than six million dollars in its drive to build a Democratic infrastructure, recruit candidates, register and turnout voters for the Democratic ticket. Originally operating out of Austin, the project moved its headquarters to Fort Worth and is closely coordinating its efforts with the Davis for Governor campaign. While the names Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott will be on the November ballot, the more lasting verdict for Texas politics may well be the performance of Battleground Texas. Though it has received much media focus and the attention of many political observers, the results to date are anything but positive.
The late Democratic Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O???Neil, once declared that ???all politics is local.??? If rebuilding the Texas Democratic Party involves strengthening the grass roots and building a farm team, then this year was an abysmal failure for Battleground Texas. Of the 254 counties in Texas, Democrats were unable to find anyone to run for County Judge ??? the chief elected official in county government ??? in 165 counties. Without a single vote being cast, Republicans will control at least 65 percent of all the county judge offices for the next four years.
Not a single Democrat could be found who was willing to run for any county office in 86 counties ??? more than one-third of the total. These 86 include the heavily-populated suburban counties of Denton, Montgomery, Johnson, Parker, and Comal as well as the other urban counties of Bell (Temple), Randall (Amarillo), and Grayson (Sherman). For the Texas legislature, the party was unable to recruit anyone to run in 42 percent of the state representative districts and 40 percent of the state senate seats on this year???s ballot. As the old saying goes, ???you can???t win the game when you don???t field a team.???
Beyond recruiting candidates, the next task for anyone attempting to rebuild a party is to locate individuals willing to help conduct a primary election. This year Democrats were unable to find anyone to administer a primary in twenty-two counties, almost ten percent of the state???s counties. This is the greatest number in the state???s history and an increase from eight in the last gubernatorial election year. When no Democratic primary is held, that county???s voters have no opportunity to choose the Democratic Party???s nominees for governor, U.S. senator or any other offices. Without a primary, no Democratic candidates for county-level office can be nominated.
If Battleground Texas is committed to registering more voters and turning them out, then their first test was the 2014 Democratic primary. This year, some 555,000 Texans cast a ballot in the Democratic primary, a total that for the third straight election year has been decreasing rather than increasing. In fact, this year???s total of Democratic primary voters is lower than in any year since 1920 when 450,000 voted. In 1920, however, the state???s total population was only 4,723,000 as contrasted with a current population of some 26 million.
Having failed to recruit candidates for many county and state legislative offices, with no one willing to conduct a primary in twenty-two counties, and the lowest primary turnout in more than ninety years, the remaining test for Battleground Texas and the state Democratic Party is the performance of its statewide candidates this November. Over the last nine elections, Democrats have run seventy-nine candidates for statewide offices; none of them has won and only fourteen of them (17.7%) have been able to obtain a minimum of 45 percent of the vote, one measure of a competitive election. Should this year???s slate of candidates fail to do much better one must wonder whether Democratic big-dollar donors will continue to pour money into Battleground Texas or move their contributions and resources to more favorable territory.
Wayne Thorburn is author of Red State: An Insider's Story of How the G.O.P. Came to Dominate Texas Politics, published this Fall by University of Texas Press. He has spent a lifetime in conservative politics.