The state of the Democratic bench

It’s deeper now, and it could keep getting deeper after this year.

Rep. Victoria Neave

The speaking turns may have been brief and the spotlight not as bright, but Texas Democrats got a glimpse at their national convention this week of their emerging bench — beyond, notably, the usual suspects.

While names like Beto O’Rourke and Julián and Joaquin Castro continue to dominate the conversation — and O’Rourke had two roles in the convention — the virtual gathering also put on display at least four Texas Democrats who could have bright futures, too, either in 2022 or further down the line.

There was Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the 29-year-old leader of the state’s largest county, who appeared in video montages Monday and Thursday nights. There were U.S. Rep. Colin Allred and state Rep. Victoria Neave, both of Dallas, who spoke Tuesday night as part of a 17-person keynote address showcasing the party’s rising stars nationwide. And there was U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, who announced the Texas delegate count for Biden on Tuesday night while delivering a solemn reminder of the 2019 Walmart massacre in her home city. The next night, Escobar appeared in a compilation video about women’s suffrage.

The pared-down online convention meant the Texans may have not gotten as much time — or overall prominence — as usual, but for politicos watching closely, their inclusion alone was notable.

“As we know, for the last two decades, it’s been slim pickings for Democrats in Texas,” said Keir Murray, a Houston Democratic strategist. “I think Allred, Neave, Hidalgo — some of these up-and-comers who are likely not familiar at all to audiences outside their respective districts — even within the state of Texas is my guess — does show a sort of young and growing bench in the state of potential candidates who may move on to do bigger and better things in the future.”

The emergence of such rising leaders speaks to an obvious truth in politics, Murray said: “Winning is what creates stars.” Neave unseated a Republican in 2016, while Allred and Hidalgo took out GOP incumbents in 2018, and that same year, Escobar won the election to replace O’Rourke in the U.S. House.

None is actively entertaining plans to run for higher office, but they are part of a new wave of talent that is giving state Democrats hope that they no longer have to tie their fortunes to a singular figure like a Castro or O’Rourke. Plus, while the Castros have undoubtedly spent years helping the party, they have repeatedly passed on one of its greatest needs: running statewide.

I agree with Keir Murray, in that winning turns candidates into stars. Sometimes that’s because you’re new and interesting and the media loves new and interesting things to talk about; Dan Crenshaw is a good example of this. Sometimes it comes from being a first to win something, like Lizzie Fletcher being the first Democrat to win CD07 in however many decades. I guarantee you, the next Democrat to win a statewide race in Texas, even lower-profile races like Railroad Commissioner or Court of Criminal Appeals justice, is going to get a lot of attention. Obviously, accomplishing things and performing well in high-profile situations does a lot for one’s career as well.

But first you have to win, to get into position to do those things. And having a bench is about having more than stars, it’s about having people with knowledge, experience, connections, fundraising ability, and the desire to move up the ladder. The fact that there are more offices that a Democrat can run for and plausibly win – and then win again, in the next election – means more people who may have these qualities will put themselves in that position. It’s a lot harder to build a bench if there’s only a few things that are worth running for, as was the case earlier in the decade, in part because there’s no incentive to give up what you have when the next thing you try is so unlikely to be yours. We’ve moved from a world where Dems had a third of the Legislature, less than a third of the Congressional caucus, and nothing statewide, to a world where Dems have a plausible path to a majority in the State House and maybe half or even more of the seats in Congress from Texas. That’s naturally going to draw a lot more talent.

What’s ironic is that one needn’t be seen as a “rising star” necessarily to move up in the political world. Just look at the current Republican officeholders in Congress or statewide slots who got there from the State House. Sid Miller and Wayne Christian were State Reps before moving up. Hell, they had lost a primary for their State House seats before winning their statewide races. No one saw them as up-and-comers back then. Lance Gooden was a perfectly normal State Rep before winning the open seat primary in CD05 in 2018. Ken Paxton was a fairly bland State Rep who lucked into an open State Senate seat that he held for two years before winning the primary for Attorney General. Van Taylor, then a two-term State Rep, then stepped into Paxton’s Senate seat and was there for one term before moving up to Congress in CD03. All three seats were open at the time he ran for them, and he was unopposed in the primary for Senate and had token opposition in the primary for Congress. Timing is everything in this life. And as Texas moves from being a Republican state to one that anyone can win, that timing will help the newcomers on the scene.

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5 Responses to The state of the Democratic bench

  1. David Fagan says:

    Don’t forget the latest and greatest political figure: Art Acevedo

  2. David Fagan says:

    “Lizzie Fletcher being the first Democrat to win CD07 in however many decades.” Starting to sound like baseball pitching statistics. Yeah read up on the last Democrat that was elected in CD07, John Dowdy, makes this president everyone hates look like Jimmy Carter.

  3. Mainstream says:

    David Fagan: I am not sure it is accurate to describe the District 7 which George H. W. Bush won over Frank Briscoe in 1966 as the same as the District 7 which Dowdy, who was from Athens in East Texas represented. Dowdy switched and ran for District 2 in 1966 and won and stayed in office until after his bribery conviction about 1972. After the US Supreme Court’s landmark one person, one vote cases, Texas had to radically rework its district boundaries in 1966 after a court challenge. I have not found a map handy, but suspect that the 1960 version of District 7 was located in rural East Texas.

  4. Lobo says:

    Re: And as Texas moves from being a Republican state to one that anyone can win

    Anyone? … Like the Green Party, Libertarians, Progressives, Liberals, Democratic Socialists, Social Democrats, Socialists, Christian Democrats?

    The winner-take-all system combined with statewide (“at-large”) districts is a curse. Leads to abuse of majority status by the officials of one and only ruling party, which then does everything it can to perpetuate its grip on power.

    And if the high courts function as the judicial arm of the ruling party, it’s not an effective check on the executive and legislative branches. That some right-wingers are now attacking Abbott’s executive orders on separation-of-powers grounds is an irony.

  5. asmith says:

    Neave, Allred, Fletcher, Escobar, Joe Moody. How far some of the Democratic bench goes depends on what happens in redistricting, federal and state. I think Neave is in good shape. The GOP has given up on HD107, and they may shore her up so they can try to take back HD108 or HD113 in 2022.

    I think one name that hasn’t been mentioned is State Rep John Turner of Dallas. He had a great session and has bi-partisan support in his formerly establishment R district. He’s from east texas, went to Yale Law, and is a son of a former blue dog state senator and congressman. I think the Rs may try to pair HD108 and 114 to create a North Dallas GOP seat but I wouldn’t be surprised to see his name on a statewide candidate list soon.

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