For people who've been losing Texas elections pretty consistently since the `80s, Democrats at the Democratic State Convention officially kicking off today in downtown Houston are surprisingly upbeat. That's because many of them are expecting the tide to turn in Texas politics, maybe not today or tomorrow, but relatively soon.
The main reason for their optimism: Texas's sizable and rapidly growing Hispanic community. Thanks in part to Republicans' stinginess on immigration-related issues like the DREAM act, about 61 percent of Hispanics identify as Democrat, compared with 14 percent Republican. According to the Census Bureau, Hispanics went from 32% to 38% of Texas's population between 2000 and 2010, while whites declined from 52% to 45%, taking on the awkward status of a minority-majority.
Unfortunately for Democrats, the Hispanic voting bloc has earned analogies to a "sleeping giant" for its dismally low voter turnout, which hovers around 40%. "They just don't realize how much influence they have," says Albert Gonzales, a former parliamentarian for the Texas Democratic Party.
So Texas Democrats are planning a program of disciplined grassroots organizing to get out the Hispanic vote this November and further down the road. To strengthen ties with the Hispanic community, they're also electing Gilberto Hinojosa chair of the state party. "We have to move from weak identification to engagement," says John Behrman, SDEC member from Senate district 13.
On top of that, they're doing the usual kind of campaigning: trying to convince poor conservatives and independents that Democratic values align with their interests. "I actually think more people are really Democrat in Texas than Republican," says County Chairman Lloyd Criss. "You just have to talk to them about the issues."
Word on the street suggests that Harris County, the third largest county in the nation, is the key to tipping Texas into the blue. In 2008, Obama's top-notch campaigning carried the traditionally Republican territory for the Democrats. After losing it in 2010 to Tea Party fever, Democrats are hoping to pick it back up for good with the help of Latino voters. "We're in the process of turning Harris County blue, like we did in Dallas County," says John Patrick, Democratic National Committee member. If Harris County goes Democrat, there's a chance Texas would too, leaving a 34-delegate hole in the Republican bid for the White House.
A lot of factors are working against the Democrats' plan. Entrenched conservatism reigns in most parts of the state. Corporate money keeps pouring into Republican pockets in the wake of Citizens United. And Republicans, Dems claim, are redistricting in tricky ways that cheat Democrats out of votes. Randy Daniels, chair of the District 12 caucus, talked about "massive efforts to disenfranchise voters in Tarrant County...put all the minorities in one county to keep demographic shifts from taking told." (Although let's not forget, Democrats do the same thing when they're in power.)
But people here think they can overcome those obstacles. Looking out on Houston's afternoon skyline, Lloyd Criss told me "I'm 71 years old. I can remember when Texas was Democratic, and it's going to happen again."
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