Texas Democrats Are Actually Optimistic for a Change

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The longest recorded drought in Texas lasted from 1950 to 1957. That doesn't count the Democrats' dry spell over the past quarter century.

They haven't won a U.S. Senate or governor's race since 1990. They've lost every statewide election since 1994. Republicans have almost a 2-to-1 majority in the state legislature and hold 25 of the 36 U.S. House seats.

But there's reason to expect 2018 to mark the beginning of a gradual comeback. Republicans will still dominate state government and the congressional delegation. But the most talked-about politician this year is a Democratic congressman, Beto O'Rourke, who is making Senator Ted Cruz fight for his re-election bid. An O'Rourke win would be a huge upset, but already he's energizing voters.

A Democrat has a realistic chance to capture the politically sensitive attorney general's post, and the party could win two or three additional congressional seats and key local posts like county clerkships.

Texas Democrats have been getting their act together, contesting most elections and finding some unusually attractive challengers like Colin Allred, a civil rights lawyer and former professional football player who is running for a Dallas congressional seat.

But their improved prospects also owe much to a Republican Party that has turned away from the inclusive brand personified by Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush toward a mean-spirited, anti-immigration corps dominated by the Tea Party. Texas legislators last year were more intent on a ridiculous measure governing which public bathrooms would be accessible to transgender citizens than on improving the underfunded education system.

This right-wing coalition has impressively held together, but is starting to alienate some would-be Republicans, especially younger ones.

"My party is no longer welcoming to many women, minorities or gays and lesbians," said Jenifer Sarver. She's an anti-abortion, small-government conservative who worked for George W. Bush and ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for Congress — and says she voted for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.

O'Rourke, challenging Cruz, gets in his car every morning and visits Texas towns, hitting all 254 counties. Republicans dismiss this as a media sideshow. Cruz just agreed to five debates, not the sign of a confident incumbent.

Win or lose, O'Rourke's campaign has united moderates with left-wing Bernie Sanders fans — they share a disgust for Cruz — and will generate turnout down the ticket.

The governor's race is out of reach for Democrats, but Justin Nelson, a Houston lawyer who served as clerk to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, is in a competitive race for attorney general.

He's made some rookie mistakes but is smart and articulate. His opponent, Attorney General Ken Paxton, is under indictment for securities fraud. "It's a disgrace that Texas has an Attorney General who's under indictment," Nelson said last week in an interview in the lobby of Austin's historic Driskill Hotel.

Democrats are running hard for a half-dozen Republican congressional seats; three, in districts that went narrowly for Clinton, are rated toss-ups. The most vulnerable Republican should be Will Hurd, who represents a heavily Hispanic South Texas district that stretches along much of the Mexican border, but he's also popular and moderate. The other two incumbents, Pete Sessions in North Dallas and John Culberson in Houston, are career politicians who've coasted to re-elections in what were considered safe seats. The times in these upscale districts are changing, especially when it comes to the voting preferences of college-educated women.

In the Houston district, almost half the voters are college-educated and 55 percent are women. The Democratic candidate, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who beat a left-winger in the primary, is a lawyer who's a nightmare for the ultraconservative Culberson.

Fletcher, whose campaign brought in more than $1 million in the last quarter, stresses community issues and labels her opponent a Trump lackey.

"Culberson votes with Trump more than 97 percent and wouldn't even speak out against him after Charlottesville, or when Trump said people from Houston were out watching Hurricane Harvey from their boats," she said. (In a response to a newspaper query last summer, Culberson said that he opposed neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, but wouldn't condemn President Donald Trump for equating racial-justice protesters with the white nationalists who provoked violence at 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.)

Lillie Schechter, the dynamic chair of the Houston's Harris County Democratic Party, said she likes the electorate's mood this season.

"All our polls show people are more motivated than ever," she said. "They are motivated down the ballot to vote against Donald Trump."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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