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June 10th, 2013:

Taking back the Texas Senate

Colin Strother says the Democrats should not overlook opportunities to make gains in the upper chamber of the Legislature.

The conventional wisdom is that Democrats need a miracle to pick up any single seat, much less turn the chamber Blue. The numbers show this reaction is based more on assumptions rather than any empirical evidence.

Here are some districts that should be immediate targets:

Low-Hanging Fruit

SD9 Kelly Hancock (R) Non-White VAP*= 47% (272,400) 2012 Total Vote=233,577

SD16 John Carona (R) Non-White VAP= 47% (288,695) 2012 Total Vote=181,746

SD17 Joan Huffman (R) Non-White VAP=47.5% (287,575) 2012 Total Vote=238,707

*voting age population

First of all, I am well aware that a sole reliance on non-White voters would mean we need astronomical turnout (except in SD 16 where a mere 35% turnout of non-white voters bests Carona). Non-White voters are a piece of the puzzle–not the panacea some think it is. I am also aware that Romney rolled in these districts, as he did in 20 of the 31 districts.

It is also important to note that the 3 districts hold meaningful populations in counties that are nearly 100% Blue from top to bottom (Dallas & Harris), so we are not exactly talking about a handful of voters scattered across a 37-county district like District 31. We are talking about large concentrations of non-white voters in large, urban counties where active GOTV programs are already in place.

For the sake of comparison, SD 10′s non-white VAP is 47.3%, the 2012 total vote was 287,759, Romney won it in the mid-50s, it has numerous down ballot Democratic officeholders, and it holds a meaningful population in an urban county where active an active GOTV program is already in place. Basically, it looks identical to 9, 16, & 17 on paper. The only difference? We made SD 10 a priority, got a good candidate, dedicated the resources, and made it happen.

These 3 districts have good bones, a good bench, and access to existing infrastructure. For a party that desperately needs to grow its market share, these look like a good place to start. (I can assure you that when the Republicans swiped SD 3 in 1994 and SD 5 in a 1997 special, their numbers didn’t look this good.) With a dash of candidate recruitment, a splash of smart staffers, and a chunk of cash, Texas Democrats can be knocking on the door of a 16-15 minority status…not in 10 cycles, but in 2-3.

I looked at the Senate district numbers back in February, and while I agree with Colin about which ones are the most targetable, I’m less sanguine about our chances in the near term. As a reminder, you can find the 2008 results by district here, and the 2012 results here. The basics are as follows:

Dist McCain Obama McCain% Obama% ====================================== 09 145,020 103,614 57.8% 41.3% 10 158,677 143,651 52.1% 47.1% 16 161,779 129,105 55.0% 43.9% 17 174,371 124,939 57.8% 41.4% Dist Romney Obama Romney% Obama% ====================================== 09 142,499 94,117 59.3% 39.2% 10 155,936 132,707 53.3% 45.4% 16 159,759 116,603 57.0% 41.6% 17 178,241 117,562 59.4% 39.2%

I think you can only call SDs 9 and 17 “low hanging fruit” in the sense that there is no fruit besides those districts and SD16. Romney not only did better than McCain in all three districts – and in SD10, home of Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis, whom I include for perspective – he also had a wider margin in SDs 9 and 17 than he did statewide. Other than the fact that every other district is worse, one normally wouldn’t look at these and see much in the way of opportunity.

That said, Colin is right that we’re not going to get anywhere if we sit around waiting for easy races, and whether we run a decent statewide slate this year or not, we need to aim at some targets bigger than State Reps. If nothing else, the VAP numbers suggest there’s material here for Battleground Texas to work with. There is a huge benefit for each additional Senator – among other things, without Sen. Davis, we wouldn’t have been able to block all those awful abortion bills this session – and the Senate is a great proving ground for future statewide campaigns. Even as longshots, there’s enough value in a Senate seat to support any good candidate.

It may be instructive to review Sen. Davis’ two wins to see what we can learn from them for future campaigns. A lot of stars came into alignment in 2008. It all began with Wendy Davis, who was an excellent candidate and who has proven to be an outstanding Senator, but equally important is the fact that she was available and ready to take on the race in the first place. She was a term-limited Forth Worth City Council member, so had no incumbency to lose by filing for another office. That’s an important consideration when you remember that the bulk of our up and coming stars are State Reps, who would be giving up their seats to challenge a Senator in a regular election. She went up against an ethically-challenged incumbent, which is always a bonus. The seat was clearly winnable and was seen as such, which surely helped Davis with fundraising and campaign energy. And of course, 2008 was a pretty good year for Democrats – no doubt, Davis was helped by the Obama surge.

As an incumbent herself in 2012, Sen. Davis needed less help, but she still got a gift in the form of her opponent, then-Rep. Mark Shelton, who was one of only a handful of House members to vote against a bill by Davis to provide state grant money to local law enforcement agencies to help clear rape kit backlogs. It was such a bad vote that even Sen. John Cornyn, who was sponsoring similar legislation in Washington, couldn’t defend it. Votes like that are an oppo researcher’s dream, and making it in the same cycle that gave us the likes of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock was icing on the cake. We know Sen. Davis drew crossover support in her successful re-election bid. I don’t have polling data handy, but I’d bet good money a significant chunk of that crossover support came from female voters.

So what lessons can we take from this? Well, first and foremost, the best candidate is no help if he or she is unavailable or unwilling to make the race. We all agree that the future of the Texas Democratic Party is largely in the House, but we can’t expect tomorrow’s stars to risk that status on races where they’d be big underdogs. That means we need to be thinking outside the box for potential Senate candidates, and as a corollary to that it means getting involved in city, county, and school board races, where new talent can be incubated and other offices can at least some of the time be explored because there’s no filing conflict.

Two, it means seek out candidates that can best exploit the weaknesses of the incumbents. In the case of SD09, Sen. Kelly Hancock is a slash-and-burn teabagger, and I’m sure his House record will show plenty of anti-education votes, and surely more than a few anti-women votes. A female candidate with an education background, perhaps a school board member, would be high on my list. Sen. Joan Huffman is coming off a session where she carried a lot of water for the prosecution lobby, and got was responsible for an emotional outburst by the brother of Tim Cole, the man who died in prison after being convicted of a crime for which he was later exonerated. Here, a person of color with a background in criminal justice reform and/or innocence advocacy would be ideal. Do such people exist? Very likely. Is anyone talking to them about their future in politics? Very likely not.

And three, keep focus on the stuff we’re already working on, or at least that we say we’re working on. Register those unregistered folks, and engage them in a manner that will get them to the polls. Remind our Presidential year voters that we need them in other years, too. Figure out why Texas Democrats aren’t doing as well with female voters – specifically, Anglo female voters – as Democrats elsewhere. I’m thinking Wendy Davis and her campaign team might have some insights of value there. As Colin says, this isn’t rocket science. I’ve given Battleground Texas plenty of goals already, but taking back at least one Senate seat this decade needs to be on that list. The targets may not be easy, but they are there. We just have to make sure we take our best shots at them.

Big week for the Dome

This week things start to get real for the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Monday is an important deadline for those who are determined to save the historic Astrodome, as private firms turn in renovation proposals to the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp.

But the agency that oversees Harris County-owned Reliant Park is also crafting its own plan, possibly a new one, which Executive Director Willie Loston said will be revealed to the board of directors at a meeting on June 19.

“Even if we get a privately funded proposal that meets all the requirements, we’re still going to do a public recommendation as well,” Loston said.

He would not describe the public plan, or say whether it is different from a half-billion dollar proposal the agency recommended to Harris County Commissioners Court last summer. That plan would have renovated the Astrodome and replaced Reliant Arena.

Whatever plan the agency comes up with will go to county commissioners – along with private proposals – on June 25.

County officials have said a “public option,” so called because it would be paid for using tax dollars, could end up on the ballot this November.

In other words, the most recent What To Do With The Dome report, which was put together last year at this time and then put aside by Commissioners Court, is being revived by the HCSCC as a plan for Commissioners Court to consider. The three options presented were to renovate the Dome as a more modern sports arena for $270 million; do the same but also tear down Reliant Arena and replace it with a less-grody 10,000 seat arena for smaller events, for $385 million; and tear the Dome down, for $64 million. Unless prices have gone up, calling this a “half-billion dollar proposal” is therefore a bit of an overbid. Well, I suppose the HCSCC could have spiced it up some since last year, and thus driven up the price tag. We’ll know soon enough.

The rest of the story is about some of the private proposals that are in circulation – Astrodome Tomorrow, Ryan Slattery’s park proposal, and one I hadn’t heard of before to turn the Dome into a business incubator. All private proposals need to have financing lined up in order to be considered by Commissioners Court. That brings up a point that I don’t think has been sufficiently clarified. Any vote in November would be about a public proposal – that is, a proposal to spend public money, presumably via a bond issue – and it has to be a straight yes-or-no vote, so if the public/bond proposal fails, the Dome is doomed to demolition. What that says to me is that private proposals will be considered first, and if one or more of them are considered acceptable to Commissioners Court, then they will choose among those proposals, and that’s what will go forward. The only circumstance under which there will be a vote is if there are no acceptable – i.e., adequately financed – private proposals. If you’re rooting for the Dome to be preserved, you want a private proposal to go forward so that you don’t have to sweat out the result of an election.

HCDE fills its vacancy

Well, this is interesting. I received the following in my inbox on Friday afternoon:

Hello all,

Please see the information below:
“Yesterday, the Harris County Board of Education voted to appoint Mr. Howard Jefferson of the NAACP national board to fill position 7 in order to complete the remainder of Jim Henley’s term. We thank Mr. Jefferson for his willingness to return to the Board and serve. We thank all of those who engaged in this selection process. Your passion for education for the children in our county is inspiring. Let us continue to do what’s best for them!” – Erica S. Lee

Best,
Erica Lee, Pos. 6, Pct. 1

Howard Jefferson

What makes this interesting is that Mr. Jefferson was not one of the six finalists that had applied for the job to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Trustee Jim Henley. One can only speculate as to why the six remaining Board members went outside that list to find someone else. My speculation goes something like this: The six remaining Board members were split three Dems, three Republicans. The three Republicans did not want to appoint a Democrat who would then have the advantage of incumbency over a Republican candidate in 2014, when this seat is up for re-election. (Please note that I do not fault them for thinking this way, if in fact this was their thinking; remember, all of this is my own speculation. I’d have felt the same way if all of the applicants had been Republicans.) The logical compromise in a situation like this is to select a candidate who promises not to run for re-election. Enter Howard Jefferson, a well respected former Board member, whose last minute decision to not file for re-election in 2006 paved the way for Roy Morales to win the Position 6, Precinct 1 seat that Erica Lee now holds by forfeit. He’s qualified, he’s willing, he’s a Democrat and thus will maintain the Board’s pre-resignation 4-3 partisan balance, and I have been unofficially told he does not plan to run for election in 2014. I love it when a plan comes together.

Again, I want to stress – this is my own speculation. I am not privy to any official information, and no one has told me that this is how it went down. But we’re all grownups here, so until someone flatly denies what I’m saying it’s probably not too far from the truth. Be that as it may, Howard Jefferson is an excellent person to fill this role – I’ve reprinted the bio that came with the email announcing his appointment beneath the fold – and honestly, it’s fine by me if the Democratic nominee is chosen by the voters next March. I hope a couple of the un-selected finalists give some consideration to making a race for it.

UPDATE: Here’s the official press release on Jefferson’s appointment. The key sentence: “The move comes after an impasse during board deliberations to appoint a replacement for Jim Henley, former HCDE trustee for position 7, who resigned his position.” I’d say that’s pretty strong inferential evidence for my speculation.

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Weekend redistricting update

I couldn’t find any news coverage from Saturday’s Senate Redistricting Committee hearing at UH, so you should read Greg’s liveblog of the event to find out what happened. The roadshow is in San Antonio today, and there will be two more after that, the Senate in Austin and the House in Houston, both on Wednesday. Where all this goes from there, I have no idea, though of course Texas Redistricting does.

In the meantime, via Texas Redistricting, Rick Perry and David Dewhurst attempt to justify the session and the attempt to ratify the interim maps without any feedback or public involvement, while Rep. Chris Turner pushes back. A roundup of more press coverage is here. Last but not least, be sure to read this explanation of what “candidate of choice” means, since that was something several witnesses at the Saturday hearing were not clear on. We’ll see what the committees do after the hearings are over.