From red to blue in Texas?

May 2, 2013

Jason Netek and Charles Grand look at the possible impacts of shifting politics.

IS THE tide turning against the Republican right wing in Texas?

Opinions vary as to when this solidly Republican state will turn into a "swing state" or even lean Democratic, but a growing number of political analysts say the Lone Star State may soon be finished with the likes of Rick Perry and George W. Bush. Whether because of an influx of new residents from more liberal states like California and New York or a steady growth in the Latino population--or both factors at once--trends in recent elections indicate a slow but definite shift.

With 38 electoral votes and a decades-long history of strongly supporting the Republicans, Texas is critical for the conservative wing of the American political establishment. If the state were to go Democratic, it's hard to imagine a Republican in the White House for a long time to come.

Gov. Perry commented that the very notion of Texas going blue is a pipe dream because, he says, Texans are instinctively opposed to "big government." Then again, Perry isn't well known for his sharp political analysis. He made himself infamous during the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination last year by advocating for secession on a number of occasions. And who doesn't remember him proclaiming his desire to abolish three federal agencies, but only being able to remember two?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (Gage Skidmore)

Perry may be a particularly inept spokesperson for Texas Republicans, but he hasn't had to worry much about losing a general election because Texas has basically been a one-party state while he was governor. The Republicans dominate all statewide offices and outnumber Democrats in the legislature by an overwhelming number. Likewise, the state's 38 electoral votes have gone to the Republican presidential candidates in every election since 1980. So it might be hard to imagine things being any different.

But some Texas Republicans understand that their monopoly on political power can't hold if their party continues to be led by the hard-core right, with its open bigotry toward immigrants, among other positions.

Ted Cruz, newly elected to the U.S. Senate from Texas, and of Cuban descent himself, told the New Yorker: "If Republicans do not do better in the Hispanic community, in a few short years, Republicans will not longer be the majority party in our state."

By itself, a growing Latino population doesn't guarantee a Democratic vote. Not too long ago, former Texas Gov. and later President George W. Bush was able to count on a significant percentage of votes from conservative Latinos. But in the past decade, and especially during the Obama years, the Republicans have swung toward the hardened anti-immigrant wing, leading the Latino vote to shift toward the Democrats.

Texas is currently one of the fastest-growing states in the country. Its population increased by an astounding 35 percent between 1990 and 2005. Latinos account for 65 percent of that growth since 2000. In addition to leading the nation in the racist institution of capital punishment, Texas shares a border with Mexico, and so rhetoric about "border insecurity" features heavily in most Republican campaigns.

As a political party that has played to racial intolerance in recent election cycles, the Republicans are having trouble appealing to a population that they have gotten comfortable demonizing.

Another factor at play is the increase in migration from liberal-leaning states. In 2006, Californians were moving to Texas at a rate of 85,000 per year. The migration slowed during the Great Recession, but by 2011, the pace was still 57,000 Californians per year opting for the Lone Star State. The Northeast and Midwest are also losing residents to Texas. The primary destinations for these new Texans are the bigger, more liberal-leaning cities, like Houston, Austin, San Antonio and the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.

THE DEMOCRATS are seeking to capitalize on this demographic shift. To cite one example, a former field director for Obama's last presidential campaign has launched Battleground Texas, a voter registration and mobilization campaign aimed at turning the state into contestable terrain in the coming years. The idea is that if Republicans aren't able to mute the bigots in their ranks, Democrats could scoop up even more of the Latino electorate.

But this raises the question: What exactly would an official shift to the more liberal of the two establishment parties mean for working people in Texas?

While Republicans have managed to maintain control of the state through a combination of gerrymandering and fear-mongering, they also don't face a serious ideological challenge by Texas Democrats. The party is rife with conservative Democrats known as "blue dogs" and is just as beholden to state business interests.

In 2011, Texas faced a budget shortfall of $27 billion. In a state that already spent less per resident than any other in the country, the legislature enacted the most draconian cuts in Texas history. Public education and crucial health care programs lost billions in desperately needed funds.

While most Democrats voted against the budget, the bipartisan consensus was that the deficit problem couldn't addressed by raising revenue through increasing taxes on the wealthy. As with their counterparts in the national arena, the only opposition from Texas Democrats was over where to cut and how much.

The current legislative session has been worse. At no point has there been even one serious fight over any big political questions.

Interestingly, bills that would restore a portion of the cuts to public education are finding bipartisan support in the Texas House of Representatives, Tea Party fanatics aside. The 2011 cuts to schools proved to be an overreach, sparking widespread opposition across the state. The Texas House voted to restore nearly half of the $5.4 billion cut two years ago.

While a small handful of Democrats are in favor of fully restoring the cuts to public education, they are an insignificant minority. The majority of Democratic lawmakers view the partial restoration as a bipartisan victory, something that's supposedly positive in its own right.

SOME OBSERVERS have applauded the lack of partisanship this session, but supporters of public education and state services are left wondering if anyone in the legislature hears them.

Throughout the session, a number of rallies and "lobby days" have been staged in support of underfunded public programs and public sector jobs. Participation in these events ranged from hundreds in support of specific organizations like Planned Parenthood and the American Federation of Teachers, to thousands against cuts to the public school system and Medicaid.

The Democratic Party and much of the liberal leadership of existing movements are happy enough to denounce the Republicans--and even to call for the defense of some programs they support. What they won't do is connect the different issues and organize the kind of fightback necessary to force the legislature to act fundamentally differently.

By and large, liberal organizations are looking to the election of a greater number of Democrats as the solution to every woe. They believe that if the Democrats were to come to power in Texas, the cuts can be reversed.

In reality, the Democratic Party would simply take even greater ownership over an austerity project they are currently junior partners in. The real solution to the deficit crisis--increasing taxes on corporations and the rich--which at present is ideologically unacceptable to Republicans, would be rejected by the Democrats as impractical.

The movement to roll back austerity measures will have to drawn on the activism of broad layers of people and draw clear connections between issues like immigration, health care and education. It will have to be class-wide and rest on the power of organized labor. Crucially, it will also have to be independent of a Democratic Party that cannot, and will not, do what its supporters want it to do.

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