But while the strong results the party scored across the board in Texas this year aren’t the end of the status quo, they just might be the beginning of the end. If we’re going to ask whether Texas might “turn blue”—the wrong question anyway, but let’s entertain it—it makes sense first to think about how Texas “turned red,” and how the state’s Democratic party got this weak in the first place. What happened in the state on Tuesday, from the marquee Senate contest between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz down to the election for Harris County tax assessor, reflects that broader history. But the way many talk about Texas does not.
In fact, Texas has never “turned” anything. The Republicanization of Texas took nearly a half century to enact—it wasn’t until 2003 that the party completed its takeover of state government by winning control of the Texas House, after a particularly helpful round of gerrymandering, and didn’t reach its contemporary peak for another decade. The most commonly cited statistic about Texas politics is that no Democrat has been elected to a statewide nonjudicial office since 1994, which is true, but it’s also true that Democrats held a trifecta until that year. The party wasn’t fighting to hold on to its last outposts 25 years ago, but experiencing wild swings between favor and disfavor while struggling to maintain internal cohesion amid a fair amount of corruption and incompetence.
Ann Richards’s 1994 loss of the governor’s mansion to a young George W. Bush turned out to be a fateful blow, but it wasn’t half as devastating to the party as the next gubernatorial campaign in 1998, when Bush blew out the Democrat Garry Mauro by 37 points and the GOP took control of redistricting. Nor was it as crucial as the next 16 years, when the famously well-coiffed Rick Perry kept dominating the party in good and bad climates. Each subsequent drubbing of Democrats became more of a dark joke.
The effect of all that losing was to kick the structural supports out from under the Democratic Party one by one. The business lobby stopped donating to Democrats except to buy small favors in the legislature. Democratic donors in the state started writing checks for national causes instead of local ones. The party’s brand as a perpetual loser became a drag among swing voters and a disincentive for base voters to turn out. Why bother? Talented Democrats in the legislature quit, because there was no future for them, and the slates of Democratic candidates running statewide grew weaker and weaker.
Most damaging of all, the young people who make the party work behind the scenes went into exile. Many of the party’s up-and-coming strategists moved to D.C. or California or purple states, where they could be of help and lead fulfilling lives, or they stayed here and got out of politics entirely. Working for the party here became a kind of social work, a charitable endeavor performed at personal cost by people with a high tolerance for pain. All these things became their own drain on party performance, in a vicious cycle.
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