A year ago, Texas Democrats were scrounging for a standard-bearer.
They couldn’t seem to find serious candidates — candidates, that is, who would be taken seriously by the voters — for the top spots on the ballot. Now the table has turned, and it is the candidates who face the political uncertainty of whether their voters are numerous enough or engaged enough to make their campaigns worthwhile.
The Democrats' search a year ago had moved into less obvious territory, with conversations about people who had run before and people who were less well-known in politics. They were digging deep for names of people who would not embarrass the party, and who were willing, frankly, to take a loss for a team that has been rebuilding since Gov. Ann Richards lost in 1994.
Rebuilding is hard. The last Democrat to win more than 50 percent of the vote in a race for governor of Texas was Mark White, in 1982. Richards won office in 1990 with less than half of the vote, beating Republican Clayton Williams Jr. in a contest where the Libertarian, Jeff Daiell, took 3.3 percent of the vote. Since then, the Democratic numbers have been dismal: 45.9 percent for Richards in 1994, 31.2 percent for Garry Mauro in 1998, 40 percent for Tony Sanchez in 2002, 29.8 percent for Chris Bell in 2006 (a year in which independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman together snagged 30.6 percent of the votes) and 42.3 percent for Bill White in 2010.
Even politicians can do simple math, and Democrats coming into this election cycle had to consider the prospect of improving those election numbers while losing a race — all in the interest of rebuilding the party’s chances in future elections.
Selfless characters and story lines might work in the movies, but most established politicians are unwilling to volunteer when the odds are long. That's how things looked a year ago: Just about everybody had their minds set on the lousy prospects for Democrats until state Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster a year ago this month. Democrats suddenly had a demonstration of what might be possible if they could remain organized for more than a moment, and a couple of political personalities in Davis, D-Fort Worth, and state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, in position to answer the call for ballot names and to attempt to sustain some momentum after the Legislature left town.
Even without the historical conservative advantage, a Democratic president who was and remains unpopular in the state makes this a really tough year for a Democrat.
Other signs were more promising. The Republicans were giving up their incumbencies for the first time in years. The longest-serving governor and attorney general were moving on, along with a pack of Republican officeholders who were either retiring or trying to move up. Almost all of the statewide seats would be open to all comers.
But the potential Democratic candidates were skittish ahead of the campaign season.
The Castro twins had been asked, touted as great candidates and the future of the party and all that, and opted out. Julián Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, told reporters at the 2012 state Democratic convention in Houston that he thought 2014 was too early for a Democrat to win a statewide top-of-the-ballot race in Texas. He made it pretty clear at the time that he would not be seeking a Texas nomination until later. He also touted state Davis as a prospect — a year before her 2013 filibuster. But he discounted the power of personalities to make the Democrats viable in statewide elections.
“You are never going to succeed as a party pinning your hopes on any one person or any few people,” he told reporters then. “What you need is the community at large to understand what you stand for and to get out and vote. That’s what’s been missing from the Democratic Party for the last 20 years.”
Joaquin Castro, his brother, had already decided to get out of state politics and into federal politics. He’s in Congress now, having succeeded at that.
Annise Parker, the mayor of Houston, spoke to delegates at that same convention, held a few blocks from her City Hall office. She, too, said she wanted to finish the job she had started. Maybe later, she said.
All of them were hopeful, predicting, as Democrats are predicting now, that splits within the Republican Party would eventually undermine the state’s dominant political party.
That was the state of things in 2012. The recruiting was already on. Gov. Rick Perry had flopped in his first bid for president, a Republican discouragement that Texas Democrats found invigorating. But a year later, with no solid candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, Davis' filibuster on abortion and women’s health clinics put her on center stage. The Democrats had a gubernatorial candidate and, shortly thereafter, a candidate for lieutenant governor in Van de Putte.
The top of the Democratic ticket formed, once again, around a couple of strong personalities who could make the top two state races interesting. If Davis, Van de Putte or another Democrat wins a statewide race, the experienced candidates who said "not yet" will be slapping their foreheads — like the Republicans who didn’t want to risk a loss in a Senate race a couple of years ago, only to watch political neophyte Ted Cruz waltz into Washington, D.C.
That race came after U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, decided not to seek another term, stirring up a nest of ambitious Republicans who wanted that job. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst got in, and most of the other prominent contenders backed down.
Cruz took the risk, showing up when the wave he needed — a conservative backlash against incumbent Republicans — was high and strong.
The Democrats started with a different puzzle to solve. The opening was there, but some of the most promising Democratic politicians in the field couldn’t see enough unhappy Republicans or independents or reinvigorated Democrats to make it work.
They have a couple of candidates with star power and the ability to raise money and get attention, which is more than they had a year ago. Now they have five months to change the political environment that scared everybody else out of running.