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Political Tectonics in Texas Should Worry GOP

By Jonathan Gurwitz

Democrats across the country are looking to the March 4 primary with anticipation, wondering whether Texas will seal the deal for Barack Obama. Or will Hillary Clinton salvage her campaign in the Lone Star state and, as in California, will Hispanic voters give her a decisive victory?

Texas Republicans watching the two Democrats crisscross the state anxiously ponder a different question: Will 2008 mark the beginning of the end of GOP supremacy?

During a two-decade span that began in the early 1980s, Texas went from being a one-party state dominated by Democrats to a one-party state dominated by Republicans. No Democrat has won a statewide election since 1994. This remarkable partisan shift culminated in a 2003 redistricting plan, the project of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay that changed the composition of the Texas congressional delegation from a 17-15 Democratic majority in 2002 to a 21-11 Republican majority in 2004.

The political tectonics weren't over, however. After spending $2 million to defeat three Republican challengers in the 2006 GOP primary to represent District 22, DeLay -- mired in ethics charges -- connived to declare himself ineligible for the general election. A federal judge ruled against the ploy that would have allowed the Republican Party of Texas to select a replacement candidate.

Democratic challenger Nick Lampson's victory in a solidly Republican district and DeLay's bumbling made national headlines. The more telling GOP defeat came in District 23 in a special election that resulted from a Democratic legal challenge to the GOP's 2003 redistricting plan.

Henry Bonilla was a seven-term incumbent, the only Mexican-American Republican in Congress and a GOP standard-bearer among the state's Hispanic population. Yet Bonilla lost to the anemic efforts of Democrat Ciro Rodriguez. In the district's heavily Hispanic border counties (counties that were part of the district in both 2004 and 2006) support for Bonilla plummeted from 59 percent down to 30 percent.

The anecdotal evidence was that Hispanics nationwide abandoned the Republican Party in 2006 because of harsh rhetoric associated with the debate over illegal immigration. In Texas especially, the swiftness and severity of the political backlash was disconcerting.

Going back to the Reagan Revolution, a central element of the strategy to remake Texas as a GOP bastion was the goal of winning at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. It was a goal George W. Bush met in his 1994 gubernatorial effort and then easily exceeded in 1998 -- the period when Republicans completed their takeover over of statewide offices.

As a presidential candidate in 2004, Bush garnered 40 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, aiding him with crucial victories in Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico. If, as the 2006 election seemed to indicate, the fastest growing minority group in the United States is abandoning the Republican Party, it means bad news for the GOP everywhere -- but nowhere worse than Texas.

A glimpse of what changing demographics, shifting political allegiances and grassroots organization might accomplish for Democrats was visible in Dallas County. Democrats won the county judge's seat, the district attorney's office and 41 out of 42 contested judicial races. In what recently had been a Republican stronghold, nearly 20,000 more Democrats than Republicans voted a straight-party ticket.

Now Clinton and Obama are battling it out in Texas -- and organizing Democrats in metropolitan districts in Houston, Austin and San Antonio to a degree that could affirm the 2006 counteroffensive in Dallas. Early voting results are heavily skewed to Democrats, in some locations by more than 3-to-1.

No, voter turnout in a primary election -- which even given the highly contested Democratic race is still only a fraction of registered voters -- is not always an accurate predictor of voter sentiment in a general election. And yes, while Clinton and Obama are burning through millions of dollars to secure the nomination, John McCain is keeping his powder dry and his coffers full.

The downside for Texas Republicans, however, is that there simply is no action at the grassroots level to counter the massive organizational effort of Democrats. And that holds implications for GOP candidates up and down the ballot in November -- and beyond. Republicans hold a slender 79-71 majority in the Texas House. A shift of only a handful of seats by 2010 could put the next round of redistricting in the hands of Democrats, with attendant implications for the composition of the state's congressional delegation.

Ironically, what's perceived as McCain's apostasy on immigration reform among conservatives may diminish a wholesale Hispanic exodus from the Republican Party. For the moment however, neither he nor any other Republican leader is aggressively courting a group whose faith, family values and work ethic make it a natural for GOP outreach. And Texas Republicans are justifiably nervous.

Note: The fifth paragraph may have given readers an inaccurate impression of Nick Lampson's victory. It has been corrected above.

Jonathan Gurwitz is a member of the editorial board of the San Antonio Express-News. He can be reached at

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