For a party so far out of power, Texas Democrats are surprisingly optimistic about their future as they meet for their annual convention in Fort Worth this week thanks to President Donald Trump’s impact on the political landscape.
The party hasn’t won a statewide office in more than two decades and has seen their numbers in Congress and the Legislature melt way. Party divisions have diminished their most valuable resources – votes and money.
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But yet, Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said when the convention begins Thursday the party will be better positioned for this election cycle than any time in recent history thanks largely to one man.
“We’re united in our firm commitment to get rid of Donald Trump,” Hinojosa said.
Democrats have more candidates running for Congress and the Legislature in Texas than usual, and they are raising money better than they historically to help candidates win in November, he said. While he acknowledges party in-fighting has been a problem in the past, and likely helped elect Trump, opposition to the president now supersedes all of that.
“We’ve seen what happens when we are not united and when we are divided and angry,” Hinojosa said.
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But if the primary season proved anything, its that Democrats can still turn on one another even and jeopardize their chances in November.
No race showed that more than the battle for Congress in Houston’s 7th Congressional District, where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee invited scorn from the party’s progressive wing by working openly to defeat Laura Moser, who had support from Our Revolution, a group of supporters of former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Democrats see the 7th Congressional District, now held by U.S. Rep. John Culberson, as one of their best chances in the nation to knock off an incumbent Republican.
Hinojosa called what happened irresponsible and is doing everything he can to make sure Our Revolution backers have a big part of the convention. He has given them meeting areas at the convention, talks to group members almost daily and says issues like Medicare for all and making college available for everyone shows their influence.
“They have a big say on what is going to be in our platform and at our convention,” Hinojosa said. “They are part of the Democratic Party.”
That is causing concern for Republicans like U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who warned GOP activists last week in San Antonio that a “Bernie Sanders Army” is part of what Republicans are facing in 2018.
Democratic optimism can feel a little like what high school football fans go through every year in Texas, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. People think this is the year their team is going to win state, Rottinghaus said, but Democrats have been talking about turning a corner for more than a decade.
Democrats have not won a statewide office since 1994. And the number of Democrats in Congress from Texas have dropped from 17 in the year 2000 to just 11 today. In 2014, much-hyped Democratic candidate for governor Wendy Davis won just 39 percent of the vote in her race against Gov. Greg Abbott.
But Rottinghaus says there are legitimate reasons why Democrats might actually see a different result than the disastrous 2014 midterm election cycle. He said anger with Trump has been a driving force in the midterm election cycle so far and is helping Democrats stay focused on November, rather than turning their fire on one another.
“The dislike for Trump is bigger than their intraparty friction at this point,” Rottinghaus said.
If that anger is harnessed correctly, Rottinghaus said Democrats are in a good position to gain seats in Congress and in the Texas Legislature. Winning statewide, however, is a much taller order.
Republicans have spent almost a generation largely watching Democratic optimism end in disappointment at the ballot box. But this year, some of the biggest names in Texas politics are warning that anger with Trump makes this year different.
“The hard left is angry,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, said at the Republican Party Convention in San Antonio on Saturday. “They’re energized. They hate the president and they’re coming for Texas.”
During the three-day convention in Fort Worth, Democrats will pick a chairman to lead them for the next two years, set party rules and a platform and will give Democratic candidates a chance to address thousands of the most ardent activists who attend the conventions every two years.
Potential 2020 presidential candidate Julian Castro, U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and Democratic candidate Lupe Valdez are among dozens expected to take turns at the microphone speak at the event.
Hinojosa, who has been party chairman since 2012, said there is little doubt that many of those speeches will be about what Trump has done since he was elected. He said the issue of separating families on the border will be a big part of that.
“We are going to talk a lot about this,” he said. “It is inhumane and un-American.”
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Rottinghaus said in some respects the Democrats could not have found a better unifier, ironically, than Trump, much like how former President Barack Obama helped unify Republicans.
“Donald Trump has played a big part in the revitalization of the Democratic Party across the country and in Texas,” he said.