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Can Democrats Mess With Texas in 2016?

Can Democrats Mess With Texas in 2016?

By Scott Conroy - February 22, 2013

AUSTIN, Texas -- From its modest headquarters on the first floor of a local union building about five miles from the State Capitol, the Democratic Party of Texas is trying to turn demographics into destiny.

With white, non-Hispanic voters now making up less than 45 percent of the Lone Star State’s population, there is ample reason to believe that the Texas district maps lining the walls of Tanene Allison’s office should already have a much bluer hue. But amid the photos and artistic renderings of President Obama that are exhibited prominently around the office suite, not a single likeness of a statewide Democratic official is on display. That’s because there aren’t any statewide elected Democrats, nor have there been since 1994.

As MSNBC’s daytime programming buzzes quietly from an old standard-definition TV set, Allison -- who became the state Democrats’ communications director last year -- is frank about her own organization’s dismal record in recent years.

“The party has not been leading -- clearly,” Allison said. “You can’t really turn the state blue unless the party’s strong.”

Despite being one of only four “majority minority” states (California, Hawaii, and New Mexico are the others), Texas has seen a Democratic gubernatorial candidate only once crack 40 percent of the vote since George W. Bush defeated incumbent Ann Richards in 1994. The candidate who pulled off that feat in 2010 (former Houston Mayor Bill White) was nonetheless trounced by his opponent that year, Rick Perry, by a 13-point margin.

On the presidential level, the results have been even more discouraging for Democrats. Texas hasn’t voted for a White House candidate with a “D” next to his name since it gave the nod to Jimmy Carter in 1976. It’s been all Republicans since 1980, when Texans turned against Carter in a big way, giving 55 percent of the vote to Ronald Reagan and only 41 percent to the incumbent.

While this is far from the only Southern state where party realignment has made Democrats an endangered species, the extent of the party’s struggles here stand out when juxtaposed with the dramatic demographic shifts that should, by most measures, make it at least more competitive.

Last June, the Democratic Party of Texas took what it hoped will be the first step toward regaining a foothold in the state when it elected Gilberto Hinojosa -- an energetic and well-respected former county judge -- as the group’s first Hispanic chairman.

Under his leadership, the party has begun what it calls “rebranding in the fullest sense of the word” and is attempting to take the first steps toward regaining relevance by hiring additional staff and lining up fundraisers to pay for an expansion of its reach.

Texas Democrats are hoping to recruit a strong candidate to pit against Perry in next year’s gubernatorial race -- perhaps San Antonio Mayor (and 2012 DNC keynote speaker) Julian Castro or Wendy Davis, who is seen as a rising star in the state Senate.

But they also already have their eyes set on a more improbable target: the 2016 presidential race. And they are strangely sanguine about their chances of at least making it interesting.

“I think that in 2016 it will absolutely be considered a swing state in the sense that presidential candidates will have to campaign here, which they haven’t been doing for a long time,” Allison said. “If Hillary Clinton does run, she does really well in Texas.”

Such an optimistic vision of the former secretary of state’s chances was fueled in part by a survey conducted last month by the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling, which showed Clinton besting three hypothetical Republican opponents in Texas -- including Perry (by a margin of eight points).

While the knee-jerk reaction among many Republicans would be to dismiss the idea that the state could be competitive in 2016 -- just four years after Mitt Romney carried it by 16 points over President Obama -- Texas GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri is in no mood to sneer.

In an interview with RCP, Munisteri said that he has long taken seriously the possibility that Texas could become a battleground as early as 2016, particularly if Clinton becomes the Democratic standard-bearer.

“If she’s the nominee, I would say that this is a ‘lean Republican’ state but not a ‘solid Republican’ state,” he said. “I don’t know anyone nationally who’s scoffing at this. The national party leadership is aware and tells me they’re taking it seriously.”

Munisteri said that he has had recent discussions with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus about the need to prepare for a significant change in the political dynamic here, noting that the need will likely become even more pressing in the next decade. That’s when Texas is expected to see its minority population rise more sharply -- as it adds as many as four additional electoral votes to make it an even shinier target for Democrats than it already is.

But Texas Republicans, he said, are up to the challenge.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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