"What might have been" is a favorite game of political junkies, particularly election junkies - stories of races past, narrow victories or losses that wound up redefining politics in a particular state or region for years to come. To find the latest (and greatest?) what-might-have-been in the Lone Star State, the second-largest state in the nation, we have to go back to 1998.
Then-Governor George W. Bush, having won a surprising victory over well-liked Democrat Ann Richards in 1994, was gearing up for a crushing reelection victory to solidify his bona fides for a 2000 presidential run. The state Democratic Party was licking its wounds from Bush's victory in 1994 and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's victory in 1993 (taking the old seat of Democratic Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen).
The Dems were far from dead, however, at least at the time. They held several important statewide offices, including those of Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, and Comptroller John Sharp. All three men had won reelection even in the Republican wipeout of 1994, as had Attorney General Dan Morales and Treasurer Martha Whitehead. And the Democrats enjoyed a majority in the State Legislature to boot, along with a majority of the state's Congressional delegation.
Bush looked too strong to beat, but the Democrats decided to take a shot anyway. Bullock wouldn't run for Governor (he got along well with Bush, and in fact endorsed him in his presidential run), or anything at all (he was also 69 years old and would die of cancer within a year). So the Democrats nominated Mauro for the office.
Sharp was perhaps the strongest statewide candidate, but wary of Bush's strength, he took a step down and ran for the vacant office of Lieutenant Governor. For his open office, the Democrats found a gem of a candidate: Paul W. Hobby, the 38-year-old son of one of Texas' most beloved politicians, longtime Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby.
Aside from an almost certain loss in the gubernatorial race, it all looked great on paper, especially as resistance started to build nationwide to Newt Gingrich's impeachment of popular Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Unfortunately, Bush's reelection campaign, headed by Karl Rove, slaughtered Mauro at the polls, receiving 69% of the vote. The landslide was so overwhelming that another Rove client, an Agriculture Commissioner named Rick Perry, rode Bush's coattails to pull out a very, very narrow victory over Sharp for Lieutenant Governor, 50% to 48%.
Paul Hobby's race was even closer; he lost his bid for Comptroller by one-half of a point. Dan Morales retired, and was replaced as Attorney General by Republican John Cornyn.
If Bush's coattails at the top of the ticket had been even slightly shorter, John Sharp and Paul Hobby would almost certainly have won. Instead, Sharp, Morales, Mauro and the late Bob Bullock shared the distinction of being the last Democrats elected statewide in Texas.
The 1998 election would come to define the next decade-plus of politics not just in Texas, but nationally. Rick Perry would ascend to the governorship in 2001, while John Cornyn would become a U.S. Senator two years later. Meanwhile, Bush's landslide reelection vaulted him to the top of the 2000 Republican presidential field and paved the way for his ascendance to the Presidency.
1998 was the beginning of the end for the Texas Democratic Party; it was also their last, best chance to keep the statewide bench alive. It's hard not to think about what might have been if things had gone slightly differently.
At the very least, John Sharp, had he performed just slightly better in 1998, would have become Governor in 2001 when George Bush was elected President. As an incumbent, he might actually have won reelection in 2002 - Democrats like Brad Henry in Oklahoma and Phil Bredesen in Tennessee were able to win that year. Given the strong performance of Democrats statewide in 2006, there's a chance John Sharp could still be Governor today. It's also likely that as Governor, Sharp could have prevented the infamous mid-decade redistricting that cost the Democratic Party six U.S. House seats (and cost Texas dearly in terms of influence; three of the defeated Democrats, Jim Turner, Martin Frost and Charlie Stenholm, all would have become committee chairs upon the Democratic victory in 2006).
Texas Democrats started to claw their way back, nearly winning a majority in the State House in 2008 before losing 23 seats in the 2010 avalanche. Statewide, though, Democrats haven't even come very close to victories (the closest was Sharp's bid for Lieutenant Governor in 2002, which he lost by 6 points).
Usually the breakdown is something like this:
A bad candidate in a bad year loses by 20-odd points.
A good candidate in a bad year, or a bad candidate in a good year, loses by 15 points (like Bill White last year, who lost by 13, or Rick Noriega in 2008, who lost by 12).
A good candidate in a good year could probably break single digits.
So where do things go from here?
For one thing, the demographics of the state are changing rapidly, and will continue to do so...and that's going to change voting patterns, eventually. It's projected that by 2020 - just ten years from now - the Hispanic population will outnumber the white population in Texas. (In fact, there are already more blacks and Hispanics than whites in Texas).
Texas Hispanics frequently don't vote in numbers proportional to their share of the population, which is one part of the reason that Republicans still dominate in Texas (witness the 2010 victory of white Republican Blake Farenthold in a Democratic, majority-Hispanic district, TX-27; only about 100,000 votes were cast total in that election, less than half the number of votes cast in some other Texas districts). Still, the larger Texas' Hispanic population gets, the better off the Democrats will be long-term.
At the local level, the Dems have probably got nowhere to go but up. Republicans have supermajorities in the state House and Senate, which is probably not sustainable, and they should lose some seats in 2012 just because of how big their majorities are.
Statewide, the next big prize is the 2012 U.S. Senate race, an open-seat battle to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Public Policy Polling was in the field last weekend in Texas, and they have some fairly unsurprising numbers. They tested four Republicans (Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, and Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones), along with three Democrats (former Rep, Chet Edwards, John Sharp, and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.
For brevity's sake I've only included the numbers for Edwards and Sharp (the two stronger Democrats) against Dewhurst and Williams (the strongest and weakest Republicans, respectively), but you can click through for all the matchups.
Public Policy Polling. 1/14-16. Registered voters. MoE 3.3%.
David Dewhurst (R) 50
Chet Edwards (D) 31
David Dewhurst (R) 49
John Sharp (D) 31
Michael Williams (R) 42
Chet Edwards (D) 31
Michael Williams (R) 42
John Sharp (D) 30
None of the candidates are well-known at all, except Dewhurst. Sharp's favorables are the best among Democrats, Dewhurst's the best among Republicans.
Dewhurst is well-known, has plenty of money, and is relatively well-liked. If he wins the primary, he's almost assured victory.
Will he win the primary? The Tea Party loves Michael Williams (a radical Jim DeMint type), and they love Solicitor General Ted Cruz, so I'd pick one of those as the likeliest candidates to catch lightning in a bottle and upset Dewhurst.
If that happens, a Democrat like Sharp or Edwards might, maybe, maybe have a shot at making this race competitive. Williams' leads are relatively thin for Texas - only 11-12 points - he's considered an extremist, and he's a pretty bad fundraiser.
Sharp's the only Dem in at the moment. You could do worse - he is, as noted above, the last Democrat to actually win statewide, and he's got money of his own.
Interestingly, the Democrat currently pulling the best numbers statewide in Texas is actually Barack Obama:
Mike Huckabee (R) 55
Barack Obama (D) 39
Mitt Romney (R) 49
Barack Obama (D) 42
Newt Gingrich (R) 48
Barack Obama (D) 43
Sarah Palin (R) 47
Barack Obama (D) 46
Rick Perry (R) 45
Barack Obama (D) 45
Those are pretty good numbers. No Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton has come within single digits in Texas (he nearly won the state in 1992). Yet there Obama is...and not just against Palin, but against Romney, widely considered the most "electable" Republican.
It's odd that right at the moment when Texas Democrats appear to be at lowest ebb, there's actually the potential for Barack Obama to contest the state (all it takes is an improving economy and a Palin nomination).
So it's been a rough 12 years for Texas Democrats, ever since the near-misses of 1998. Things are about as bad right now as they've ever been.
Is this where the revival begins? It might be. If the Presidential race is genuinely competitive for the first time in two decades, it's likely to be a pretty decent year for Democratic candidates for the Texas House and in U.S. House races, even if the Senate seat remains out of reach.
Let's hope these numbers hold, and that the state's changing demographics coupled with an increasingly unpleasant collection of Republican presidential candidates can breathe some life into the Texas Democratic Party.