In a new episode of Political Wire's podcast, we had a fascinating discussion on the big-time politics of a big state — Texas — with Wayne Slater, senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News. Slater updated us on the Lone Star State's gubernatorial race and the potential presidential aspirations of several political figures associated with Texas.
Here are five takeaways from the conversation:
1. In the governor's race, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) looks tough for Democrats to beat. Wendy Davis, the Democratic state senator from Fort Worth, became a national political figure almost overnight thanks to her efforts to oppose anti-abortion legislation in the Texas legislature. She soon declared her candidacy for governor, and Democrats nationwide saw her as a potentially big driver of the party's effort to make Texas purple and eventually blue; turning the Lone Star State, the largest red state with its 38 electoral votes, blue would significantly alter the electoral landscape in favor of Democrats. But then Davis got in trouble after a blockbuster story by Slater revealed that she had misrepresented her personal biography. The big misstep threatens her support among key swing voters, such as suburban women. Abbott leads Davis by more than 10 points in recent polling. "It doesn't mean she can't win, but I've gotta tell you, this is a tough, tough battle in order to do that," Slater said.
2. Davis' strategy: Make her opponent unacceptable to key swing voters. Given the state's natural Republican tilt, Davis' path to victory is tough, Slater said. First, she must turn out a large proportion of Latinos, a fastly growing constituency that favors Democrats but doesn't turn out in high numbers in off-year elections. Second, she must do well with women, particularly moderates and suburbanites in the Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas-Fort Worth areas. In 1990, Ann Richards (D) won the gubernatorial race in part by getting over 61 percent support from women, Slater noted. "And she did that by making her Republican opponent unacceptable not in the mind of Democrats…but in the minds of many Republican-leaning voters." Given how Davis' biography controversy might have hurt her support with those voters, she may need to take that strategy to the next level. Davis appears to be doing it already. Recently her campaign seized on Abbott's appearance with controversial rock star Ted Nugent and has tried to paint recent comments by Abbott as suggesting he thinks Latino-heavy South Texas is like a Third World country.
3. The tea party is still very strong in Texas. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) has a tea party problem. Dewhurst actually lost a bid for the U.S. Senate nomination at the hands of tea party-backed Sen. Ted Cruz (R) only two years ago. This year, it's happening again. He managed to get enough support in March's primary to force a runoff with state Sen. Dan Patrick (R), a tea party favorite. "I think the smart money is on the tea party challenger," Slater said. Dewhurst's situation exemplifies the tea party's strength in Texas, particularly in low-turnout races such as primaries and runoffs. "Only the most passionate voters are going to turn up, and those are the tea party voters. And I'm going tell you, they are the tail that is wagging the dog of Texas politics right now." Their influence may even continue to be felt in the general election, Slater said.
4. Democrats are hoping and praying for conservative overreach. The conservative wing of the GOP may eventually face public backlash with its policy stances, and that may help create an opening for Democrats, in the view of many Democratic operatives. The overreach probably won't happen with immigration, as Texas conservatives recognize the importance of sensitivity on that issue given the state's growing Latino population, Slater said. But in the view of Democrats, conservatives do risk overreach if they continue pushing for spending cuts, particularly in areas that Democrats, independents, and establishment Republicans all support such as education and infrastructure. Said Slater: "There are Democratic operatives who believe that voters will say, 'Enough is enough. I'm ready to spend more money, even if it's tax money and it's wisely spent for my kids' school.'" Whether this will happen now is unclear, but it's a potential area of overreach that is subtle enough right now that many Republicans may struggle to detect warning signs.
5. Keep an eye on the Castro brothers, the potential future faces of the Texas Democratic Party. State and national Democrats see San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro (D) and Rep. Joaquín Castro (D), twin brothers, as potential political superstars for their party. They're young and bright, and each has potential to win statewide office. Julián, already mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate in 2016 for Democrats, may well get a huge national boost if he is confirmed as the next secretary of housing and urban development. News reports say President Obama will nominate Julián to succeed HUD chief Shaun Donovan. (Donovan would reportedly replace White House budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who is all but certain to be confirmed as the next health and human services secretary.) Should Democrats get better at turning out the growing Latino vote in Texas and conservatives end up overreaching, "all Democrats need is a roster of candidates. And, I've gotta tell you, the Castro brothers are at the top of that list," Slater said.
Listen to the whole conversation here: