“For all the talk of turning Texas blue, it got significantly redder” began our wrap-up of the 2014 general election, which we published three years and a day ago, one day after Attorney General Greg Abbott defeated Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) by 20 points. “Despite all the fundraising success and Battleground Texas’s efforts, Davis not only failed to achieve the vote percentage of Bill White in 2010, she also failed to achieve Tony Sanchez’s vote percentage in 2002.”
Davis won just 19 of the state’s 254 counties. She failed to break 20% of the vote in 125 counties. Yet, she was the best performing statewide Democratic candidate on the ballot.
The average Democratic candidate for statewide office received 37% of the vote. That included an Agriculture Commissioner candidate, Cleburne rancher Jim Hogan, who literally raised no money and did no campaigning. Despite more than $40M in contributions and an active grassroots organization behind her, Davis received just 138K more votes statewide than Hogan did.
Nationally, and in Texas, the 2010 election was a reaction to the first years of the Barack Obama presidency. The wave of new, enthusiastic Democratic voters who had turned out in 2008 to elect the nation’s first African-American president receded completely, leaving Texas much, much redder in its retreating wake.
Seven years later, energized by a Donald Trump presidency they loathe, Democrats nationally sense a wave coming their way. Elections in Georgia, New Jersey and Virginia on Tuesday could be an early indicator of its potential strength. Even in Texas, the Democratic faithful see signs that give them hope. Fields of candidates are running for Congress and raising significant amounts of money, at least relative to prior election cycles. Democratic legislative candidates are already running for more Republican-held seats than in 2016, and the official filing period has not even begun.
Yet, the top of the ballot looks a little thin. There are candidates running, but star power is lacking.
At a Voto Latino Power Summit in Austin on Sunday, former San Antonio Mayor and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro admitted, “it has been a tough cycle to recruit candidates” to run statewide in red Texas. Castro himself is 99% sure he will not run for governor, and his brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio), earlier this year passed on a challenge of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R).
As far as we can tell, seven people have announced they would seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who is considered by national pundits to be one of the, if not the, safest incumbent seeking re-election in 2017.
The field includes an Austin Democratic Party activist who received 14% of the vote in a primary for county commissioner, a one-time mayor of Balch Springs who has lost more races for that office (4) than won (1), a one-time mayoral candidate from Houston who received less than 0.5% of the vote, the owner of a Dallas bar that caters specifically to LGBTQ customers, an electronics businessman from Houston, and a hospice chaplain from San Antonio who received 36% of the vote in a 2016 congressional race.
Lost 2014 Democratic primary for Travis Co. Commissioner (14%)
Lost a 2006 Democratic primary challenge against Rep. Helen Giddings (10%)
Won a 2008 special election for unexpired term as Mayor (53%)
Lost mayoral elections in 2007 (20%), 2009 (39%), 2011 (38%) and 2013 (33%)
Lost 2012 Democratic primary for HD100 (24%)
First run for elected office
First run for elected office
Lost 2016 Democratic primary for HD149 (35%)
Lost 2015 race for Houston mayor (>0.5%)
Lost 2013 race for Houston council DD (3%)
Lost 2016 race for CD21 (36%)
First run for elected office
The field also includes Houston investor Andrew White, the son of former Gov. Mark White (D) who has not himself ever sought elected office. He also has not formally announced for the race, but his web site has several position papers on issues that demonstrate his more conservative leanings. His positions on abortion have already drawn shade from Davis. In a Facebook post, Davis concluded her assessment of White’s desirability as a candidate with the words, “Uhh – no. Just no.” Today, Dallas Co. Sheriff Lupe Valdez signaled that she might run.
The eventual nominee, whether one of these or someone yet to declare, will most likely begin a campaign more than $50M behind. Abbott reported having nearly $41M on hand as of June 30, which was nearly double the amount he had four years earlier, when his first campaign for governor began. Abbott reported raising more than $10M in nine days in June. He reported raising nearly $1M more during and around the special session, and he surely has not stopped raising money since.
The eventual Democratic nominee also begins with an almost certainly lower approval rating than the incumbent. Last month’s UT/Texas Tribune poll (PDF) showed that almost half of respondents approved of Abbott’s job performance, which was higher than anyone else, and more people believe the state is on the right track than on the wrong track. Crucially, voters in the middle of the political spectrum – ranging from Republican leaners through independents to Democratic leaners – give the governor a 52/32 favorability rating (+20).
The eventual Democratic nominee, if it isn’t one of the ones already in the field, will be off to a nearly historically (at least recently) late start in his or her effort to overcome the disadvantages listed above. Two of the last five Democratic nominees for governor formally announced their candidacy after the filing period began, but both had been the subject of heavy speculation for months, and both were holders of other offices at the time. Garry Mauro (2002) was the incumbent Land Commissioner, and Bill White (2010) was Mayor of Houston.
Recent Democratic Gubernatorial Nominee Campaign Announcement Dates
November 17, 1997 – Garry Mauro announces
Sept. 4, 2001 – Tony Sanchez announces
July 28, 2005 – Chris Bell announces in email to supporters
December 4, 2009 – Bill White announces
October 3, 2013 – Wendy Davis announces
In 2010, Bill White received 42% of the vote against Gov. Rick Perry (R). The other candidates on that Democratic slate fared much less well. A San Antonio labor union organizer running for Lieutenant Governor received 35% of the vote. The Attorney General nominee, a Houston attorney who, four years earlier, was the party’s nominee for U.S. Senate, lost to Abbott by 30 points. There was no Democratic nominee for Comptroller. The other statewide candidates all received about 36% of the vote against their Republican rivals. Down the ballot, Republicans made significant gains in the state house and in county office. By any measure, it was a disastrous and demoralizing election for Texas Democrats, who were within a few votes of a 75-75 tie in the Texas House just two years earlier.
Democrats appeared to make gains again in 2016, particularly in the presidential race, where Donald Trump received the lowest percent of the vote for a Republican nominee since Bob Dole in 1996. Trump underperformed other Republican candidates down the ballot, so measuring Democratic gains solely on the presidential race overstates the true trend. Straight-party voting still heavily favored Republicans statewide, and the Legislature’s repeal of single-mark, straight-party voting does not take effect until the 2020 election.
Recent Republican Presidential Nominees’ Performance in Texas
61.1% – George W. Bush (2004)
59.3% – George W. Bush (2000)
57.2% – Mitt Romney (2012)
55.5% – John McCain (2008)
52.2% – Donald Trump (2016)
48.8% – Bob Dole (1996)
40.6% – George H.W. Bush (1992)
2016 Republican Statewide Candidates' Share of the Vote
55.8% – Eva Guzman, Supreme Court Justice
55.0% – Mike Keasler, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge
54.9% – Mary Lou Keel, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge
54.8% – Debra Lehrmann, Supreme Court Justice
54.8% – Scott Walker, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge
54.3% – Paul Green, Supreme Court Justice
53.1% – Wayne Christian, Railroad Commissioner
52.2%* – Donald Trump, President
* includes only votes cast for official candidates. Several hundred thousand votes were cast for unofficial write-in candidates.
Looking to seize on any momentum from that election, or to capitalize on an unpopular White House administration (though not as unpopular here as Obama’s), Democrats have yet to field a marquee candidate for statewide office, and the clock is ticking. Filing begins on Saturday.
A three-term congressman from El Paso is the most energetic candidate already on the statewide ballot. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso), best known nationally for his live-streamed road trip with U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio), is facing a decidedly uphill battle against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) but is showing fundraising success. Mike Collier, the 2014 Democratic nominee for Comptroller, has been on the campaign trail for months blasting Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R). As of June 30, Collier had raised $240K, more than all the other Democratic candidates for Texas statewide office combined.
As far as we can tell, there is no Democratic candidate for Attorney General. Or Land Commissioner.
In 2010, most of the Republican statewide slate were incumbents seeking re-election. The 2018 Republican slate may look much the same. The Democratic slate may also look like 2010, but without the incumbent mayor of the state’s largest city atop it.
Democrats may sense a wave coming, but the surf boards are still tied to the wall.
©2017 Texas Election Source LLC