Texas Democrats at crossroads in 2010 elections
By JAY ROOT / Associated Press Writer
Posted: 03/21/2009 09:30:12 AM MDT
AUSTIN -- The once-mighty Texas Democratic Party was essentially broke and flirting with fringe status when wealthy trial lawyer Fred Baron rescued it in 2005.
Democrats have since come within two seats of a majority in the Texas House, made a rare net gain in the state Senate and, in 2008, saw the four most populous Texas counties flip to their column in the presidential contest for the first time since 1964.
But the election that Baron and his strategists had identified as the dramatic turning point - next year's 2010 contests - approaches with more than the usual dose of pre-fight jitters. Baron died unexpectedly of cancer last year, throwing his 2005 master plan into doubt and raising questions about who will fund and oversee their comeback efforts.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the uncertainty is the Internet homepage of the Texas Democratic Trust, the fundraising vehicle Baron used to slowly pull the party out of oblivion. Pasted prominently on the site is Baron's obituary - it mentions his modern notoriety as the man who made payments to the mistress of presidential candidate John Edwards - from last October.
"Fred's death is certainly a challenge to overcome," said Matt Angle, the strategist who directs the Trust and is credited with engineering the Democrats' recent advances. "We are working hard and having some success in bringing in additional people ... that job is ongoing. I don't want to pretend that it's done."
With his eye on the approaching elections, Angle convened a group of past and possibly future donors late last month at the Hyatt Regency on Lady Bird Lake. Several traditional contributors were on hand, including Houston trial lawyer John Eddie Williams, who has given at least a half million dollars to the Democratic Trust. Aimee Boone, who has donated at least $250,000 to the organization, showed up, too, serving both as future donor and official fundraiser.
No one was surprised to see Lisa Blue at the gathering. Blue is Baron's widow and a lawyer; she has promised to help pick up where Baron left off. But strategists acknowledge her support alone won't come anywhere close to bringing in the kind of dough needed to restore the party of Lyndon Johnson as a major statewide political force.
No comparably large state, nor any neighboring state for that matter, has seen its Democratic Party sink so low for so long. Texas Democrats haven't had a breakthrough year since 1990, when Ann Richards was elected governor, and they haven't won any statewide contests since 1994, when George W. Bush defeated her and later helped lead his party to an uninterrupted series of statewide sweeps.
A few months after Bush left for the White House, the Democrats moved their party headquarters out of an expensive downtown office into a mold-infested building that sits next door to a beauty shop - appropriately named the Fringe Salon. A few paces away, party consultants and staffers would gather, and do still, to reminisce about better times at the Star Bar on 6th Street, observing what some jokingly call the "Out of Power Happy Hour."
"We were running things on a shoestring, really," said former party director Mike Lavigne. "We were in the depths of Democratic depression." That's when Baron, who had observed the stunning Democratic comeback in Dallas County in 2004, stepped in and pulled out his checkbook.
In May 2005, with Baron's blessing and guidance, Angle wrote a confidential memo to potential donors and party insiders. It laid out a five-year plan to make the party a competitive statewide force again, first by focusing on state House races and then on roaring back into power before the Legislature redraws district boundaries for state lawmakers and members of Congress after the next Census.
"Most believe it is reasonable to project that by 2010, Democrats could have an opportunity to seriously contest for statewide offices and for legislative majorities," the memo said. Like a detailed business plan, Angle's memo spelled out specific steps that needed to be taken, everything from hiring opposition researchers to dig up dirt on Republicans to honing a unified communications strategy.
It all seems a bit prophetic now. The Trust went on to raise over $8 million, more than half of it from Baron - money that was largely used to rebuild the Democratic Party infrastructure in Texas. Democrats now have 16 paid employees in Austin, more than double the full-time political staff in 2005. They've also nearly doubled their square footage at a new headquarters office near the Capitol.
Other groups, like Annie's List, pitched in to help Democrats chip away at the GOP House majority, taking it from 88-62 to near parity - or 76-74 - today. Two-thirds of the Democratic pickups were female candidates who got financial help and campaign support from Annie's List, formed to help women Democrats get elected in Texas.
But the math is what it is: In raw political terms, Democrats are going into the pivotal 2010 elections with nothing. Not a single statewide office. Neither chamber of the Legislature. No U.S. Senate seats.
"They have done everything that they could do to put the lipstick on a pig but the pig is still there," said Eric Opiela, director of the Republican Party of Texas. "We are and will continue to be the majority party in this state for the foreseeable future because Texas is a conservative state."
Opiela said Democrats rely far too heavily on mega-donors like Baron. Meanwhile, he said his party had more identified GOP contributors than any other state and 14 times more yearly donors on average than their rivals - or about 36,000 for the Republicans and about 2,600 for Democrats between 2006 and mid-2008.
The other potential problem for Democrats: Barack Obama, who ginned up record turnout, won't be on the ballot.
That hasn't stopped Democrats talking about fulfilling Baron's vision of a comeback in 2010. High-profile Democratic candidates have turned up for the Senate seat vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison if she, as expected, challenges Gov. Rick Perry in the Republican primary. A bloody internecine battle in the GOP could then open up the way for a Democrat, such as former U.S. Ambassador and governor wannabe Tom Schieffer - oddly, a close friend of George W. Bush - to win in the fall. Or at least that's the talk at the Star Bar. Strategist Angle, not a Star Bar regular, isn't ready to predict anything beyond a tough uphill climb before Democrats turn around a seemingly endless cycle of failure and humiliation.
"Do we have the wherewithal to finish this thing out?" he asked. "In politics, you can do every single thing right and still fall short."