I have so many things to say about this.
The hottest new trend in Democratic politics these days is running for Congress — everybody’s doing it. So far, more than 200 Democrats have filed to challenge Republican incumbents and raised at least $5,000. That’s more than the number of Democratic congressional candidates who had announced at this point in the cycle in the last four elections, combined. Trump’s election freaked people out, and this is how they’re responding. Obviously, it’s an encouraging sign for Democrats. You want people running everywhere, even in beet-red districts where they may not stand a chance.
There are a boatload of people running for Congress in Texas, too. Which, again, is good! Strangely, though, the Democratic slate for statewide offices — from the governor down to the land commissioner — is so far mostly empty, or lacking credible candidates. And there’s no sign (yet) of people lining up to run for the Legislature, where Democrats have traditionally been most in need of worthy candidates.
In huge swathes of the state, there simply is no Democratic Party to speak of. The local infrastructure doesn’t exist. Particularly in rural areas, local elections may feature no Democrats at all, and decades may have passed since the last competitive race outside of the Republican primary.
Without local representation, the “face” of the Democratic Party becomes, at worst, the caricature presented on talk radio, or, at best, Barack Obama or Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi — Chicago, New York and San Francisco — which produces the sense that Democrats could never be champions of their communities.
But it also means marginalized communities go unrepresented. As this great 2016 Austin American-Statesman series relates, the Panhandle, which has some of the most ideologically conservative elected officials in the country, has huge populations of Hispanic and nonwhite voters who have very little say in their local communities, let alone in Austin. Deaf Smith County, west of Amarillo, is more than 70 percent Hispanic, but every elected member of county government is Anglo. That’s a pattern repeated throughout much of the state.
Reversing that trend is gonna require a lot of local work, in places where Democrats are not necessarily strong and where they won’t reap benefits right away. In Lubbock, where Democrats have a tiny footprint, two Democrats have already declared their intention to run against each other to challenge U.S. Representative Jodey Arrington. Trump beat Clinton by almost 50 percentage points in Arrington’s district.
You could make a plausible case that a vigorous, two-year congressional campaign is a good way to boost local organizing. But the candidates most able to reach out to individual voters are those with the smallest constituencies. Inside Arrington’s district is Lubbock’s state House District 84, represented by Republican John Frullo. Frullo’s district was teetering on the brink of being a majority-minority district at the time of the 2010 census, but a Democrat has only run once in the last three election cycles. In 2014, Frullo crushed a retired teacher named Ed Tishler, whose sole campaign expenditure was his filing fee. So far, nobody’s stepped up to run this year.
The point isn’t that Democrats are likely to turn the Panhandle blue. But the broader retreat from local politics allows Republicans to depress the nonwhite vote and run up high margins in red areas that cancel out Democratic votes in blue ones during statewide elections. Recently, $60 million was flushed down the toilet as part of Jon Ossoff’s losing congressional bid in Georgia. What would happen if some rich person donated a few grand to the Deaf Smith Democratic Party and paid for a few advisory trips from some veteran organizers?
Maybe nothing! My role is to second-guess, and I’m often wrong. But nothing is also what Ossoff’s loss left behind, which is the problem with blockbuster electoral bids in general. A lot of money will be raised by losing congressional candidates this cycle, and a lot of money will be spent in the top-dollar media markets of Dallas and Houston to buy ads to beat Pete Sessions and John Culberson. That gets a lot of people paid, which is partially why it happens. But I don’t know how much it actually accomplishes. Investing in people, in the places they live, seems like a better bet.
Where to begin?
1. The ability of progressive folks to find the negative in any situation never ceases to amaze me. People, including lots of women and people of color, have been inspired to run for Congress! Districts that have never had a contested primary have multiple candidates vying for the nomination! Money is being raised to support these candidates, many of whom are young and first-timers! But we’re gonna lose and all that money will be wasted anyway, so why bother? Argh! That sound you hear is me banging my head on my desk.
2. I realize that it was just being used as an anecdotal illustration, but for the record Deaf Smith County is in HD86, where it represents a bit less than 12% of the total population and where Donald Trump received 79.5% of the vote. The ratio of voting age population (VAP) to overall population in HD86 is 62% for Latinos, compared to 78% for Anglos. I don’t have the figures, but I’d guess the Latino VAP in Deaf Smith is lower than 70%, and if we go all the way to Citizen VAP, I’m sure it’s lower still. I completely agree about the need to build the party in places like the Panhandle, and that starts with city and county offices in places like Deaf Smith, but if the goal is to have a full slate of legislative candidates for 2018, at least for the districts that may be within striking distance, there are a lot of more promising targets than Deaf Smith County and HD86.
3. My biggest frustration by far with this article is that there appears to have been no effort made to actually find out how many announced or rumored or being-recruited candidates there are for the Lege next year. Did you know, for example, that there are already multiple Democratic candidates for the two closest Senate districts, SDs 10 and 16, and that there is at least one promising candidate looking at the next closest district, SD17? Neither SD16 nor SD17 was contested in 2014, by the way. But mentioning that kind of muddies the point of the story, so let’s just pretend it’s not worth it.
4. On the House side, nearly all of the Republican-held seats that were carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 are in Harris and Dallas Counties. Dallas had a full slate of Democratic House candidates in 2016, and I see no reason why they won’t do that again this year. Maybe pick up the phone and call the county party chairs and ask them how it’s going? For that matter, the other districts of great interest are in a few other counties – Collin, Denton, Tarrant, Fort Bend, Williamson – maybe make a few more phone calls? Again, I strongly agree with the larger point about broadening the reach of the Democratic Party, but again, if you want to know about candidates for 2018, maybe go looking where they’re likely to be running. Maybe also call a couple of organizations that recruit and support Democratic legislative candidates – the Texas AFL-CIO, Annie’s List, the HDCC, you get the idea.
(By the way, Deaf Smith County has a Democratic Party Chair, too. You can thank Glen Maxey, who has done a ton of work ensuring that every county in the state can have a Democratic primary, for that. That’s a claim the Republicans couldn’t make in 2016, you know.)
5. Going back to point #3, every campaign finance report website that I’ve looked at for July finance reports either presents every report that has been filed or has a way to search for all filed reports. The FEC website, which used to suck, now has a very handy feature for querying, say, every Democratic Congressional candidate from Texas in the 2017-18 cycle. Every site makes it easy to find candidates whose existence you didn’t know except one – the Texas Ethics Commission website, which doesn’t have a way to query by district and doesn’t allow a search with the name field left blank. Speaking as an amateur blogger, I would have really really really appreciated the efforts of a professional reporter at a professional news-gathering organization to do some legwork and find a comprehensive list of candidates. Maybe if such a reporter had done that legwork, he might have found evidence to corroborate or disprove his hypothesis about a dearth of candidates for this point in the campaign.
6. Which is another point that bugs me. If you’re going to say there aren’t that many candidates, I will say, compared to when? How many candidates were there, based on finance reports, at this time in 2016 or 2014? I have no idea. Neither does the author of that story, or at least if he does he isn’t telling.
7. All of that said, there are fewer Democratic candidates for legislative seats so far in Harris County than I would have expected at this time. Of the four districts I most want to see good candidates run – HDs 138, 135, 132, and 126 – only HD138 has a candidate that I know of so far. It’s barely August so I’m not sweating it, but it would be nice to see a few more people out there. So it may well be that this story is 100% correct, and there just aren’t as many legislative candidates out there as we might have thought there’d be, especially given the energy given to Congressional campaigns. My whole point is that you can’t actually tell that from this story.