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So where do we go from here?

All right, the shock is starting to wear off, so it’s time to take stock of what happened and think about what to do next.

As shell-shocked Democrats begin crawling out of their cave, the question they have to confront, in Texas and elsewhere, is whether Tuesday night’s debacle represents the pit or the pendulum. Was the party’s massive repudiation merely another pendulum-swing election that eventually will swing the other way if the party only perseveres? Or does it represent the pit, an existential crisis so deep and profound that it threatens the party’s very existence in Texas?

A season of soul-searching is beginning, says political scientist James Henson of the University of Texas at Austin.

Democratic consultant Leland Beatty leans toward the pendulum theory, although he maintains that the party’s soul-searching needs to be deep and thorough.

“Texas has gone longer than any other state without electing at least one candidate from each party,” he says. “We need to afflict ourselves. People who’ve gone through a lot of Yom Kippur nights know what I’m talking about.”

The first and foremost thing we need to do is not panic, and not overreact. I’m not saying we don’t need to change how we operate or that there won’t be hard choices to make, not at all. I’m just saying we should keep some perspective. Let me put it to you this way: If all of the legislative districts were to remain the same for 2012, how many of the 22 that Democrats lost would you say are unlikely to be competitive under any circumstance? I can think of five for which I’d be pessimistic, the seats formerly held by Reps. David Farabee, Stephen Frost, Mark Homer, Jim McReynolds, and Joe Heflin, plus maybe Jim Dunnam’s and Patrick Rose’s. Of the latter six, the right candidate could make a big difference. What if these guys saddled up and tried to win back their seats in 2012? Surely they’d be seen as having a shot. All the others would already be on the hot lists for the next election – I’d expect to gain at least six seats just on regression to the mean – plus the takeover targets the Democrats had for this past election. There would be very little defense to be played, since pretty much every vulnerable seat was already lost. For all of the bad that came out of this election – and there sure was a big steaming pile of it – there’s no reason to believe we can’t bounce back significantly in the next election. If nothing else, try to keep that in mind.

Now of course we won’t have the same boundaries in 2012, and Republicans will take full advantage of their opportunity to maintain the ground they’ve taken. (Heflin’s seat almost surely won’t exist in 2012.) Still, there’s only so many ways you can slice and dice things, and only so many Republican voters to go around. Plus, all the newbies they’ve elected will have an actual record they’ll have to defend, coming out of a session that will be all about taking medicine and none about getting goodies.

Which brings me to the first piece of advice I’m going to give to the 51 Democrats that will be serving in Austin next year. You are pretty much free to vote your conscience on just about everything. The Republicans don’t need your help to do the things they say they want to do, so don’t give it to them. Their perfectly rational interpretation of this election is that the people wanted more Republican government. I say let them have it, then make sure they know that’s what they got. There’s no need to vote for anything related to the budget that isn’t worthy of your wholehearted support, and ideally the wholehearted support of every other Democrat in the caucus. Let them inflict all the pain. Hell, they’re looking forward to doing it. Your job is to repeat, loudly and often and to everyone, that it’s because of Republican policies and decisions from previous legislative sessions that we’re going through all of this pain that the Republicans are now inflicting on all of us, and that it would be and would have been different if Democrats were running the show.

It’s a lot like what the Congressional Republicans did for the past two years, except that Democrats in the Lege have actually been putting forth and getting passed legislation to move Texas forward while in the minority. We have a vision for what we want to do differently. The Republicans made Barack Obama the centerpiece of their campaign this year, and it worked like a champ for them. But Obama won’t be in the Capitol next year. They will try to use him as a distraction from their failures again in 2012. We cannot let that happen, and it starts in the Lege. The entire tax system that the Republicans have created is wholly inadequate for Texas’ population, economy, and needs. Since the Republicans refuse to acknowledge that, we will continue to have the same problems every two years. They broke it, they won’t admit it’s broken, and they are incapable of fixing it. The only way out is to change directions.

We’re not getting any legislative victories next session. We’re not really even capable of playing defense, except against constitutional amendments. The best we can do is stick together and make them own their mess. I’ll have some more thoughts for going forward over the next few days.

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  1. John says:

    Dems need to actually hire a campaign manager/consultant that has won a statewide race. They pay way too much money to the same people who keep saying they are going to get the Hispanic vote out this year.

  2. Matt says:

    While obviously I would have much preferred a great Democratic victory, if one assumes there was going to be a loss there are advantages of the fact that this loss was so large.

    1) Redistricting: After such a huge victory, Republicans are likely to feel overconfident. As a result, they are likely to try and preserve a large number of their new State House incumbents. They are more likely to overreach with an overly aggressive map in the hopes of maintaining large majorities, as they did in 2000. While that may cause pain in the short term, in the long term it makes gaining a majority easier because there will be a greater number of potentially winnable seats to target. Going along with this theme, they are likely to interpret the fact that they knocked off Ciro Rodriquez and Solomon Ortiz. Who knows, on the Congressional level they may even be stupid enough to go after Lloyd Doggett again, rather than conceding an overly safe City of Austin district for him. In Dallas-Fort Worth, they may imagine that they don’t really have to do anything more than concede a Hispanic Congressional District (they’d be wrong), and in Houston they may imagine that TX-7 and TX-22 are not really trending away from them as much as they feared in 2008 (they are).

    2) You own it, Republicans: As you note, Republicans will own all the unpopular things they have to do given the 25 Bn. budget deficit (or rather, they will own it, if Democrats can actually act as a cohesive political force).

    3) Self-examination: A large loss prompts candid self-examination and self-criticism. With a small loss nobody would have to think about what they are doing wrong, and no real improvements would be made.

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  4. Patrick says:

    I know you are focusing on statewide races, but there is one move that Dems are poised to make soon that would be a political blunder of epic proportions and that is allowing Nancy Pelosi to continue as the leader of the minority.

    Yes, she did an effective job of shepherding legislation through the House, but in race after race around the country Democrats lost as their GOP counterparts ran against not just the Democratic nominee, but her. With the ability to label her as an “out-of-touch west coast liberal”, she is tailor-made for GOP attack ads.

    I know that she will have the support of a great number of surving democrats who like here come from largely progressive districts, but dammit, if she really believes in those progressive causes she’s got to step aside and let someone less polarizing assume the leadership. Otherwise, nationally the Democrats are pretending that las week didn’t happen.

    Steny Hoyer had better step up to challenge her…now.

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