AUSTIN, Texas — Democrats haven’t won a Texas governor’s race in nearly three decades, but a booming Hispanic population and the party’s dominance of the state’s largest cities have made them willing to invest in the contest to keep hopes of an eventual resurgence alive.
After high-profile candidates lost decisively in the last two elections, though, the party now finds itself in unprecedented territory for the 2018 ballot: with no major candidate to run.
Democratic leaders haven’t yet lined up a substantial name to represent the party and its message despite months of trying. Any continued faith in a Democratic turnaround in Texas is now colliding with pessimism that it will happen anytime soon.
“If they didn’t have somebody running for governor it’d be a symbol that they’ve given up,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
And the lack of a serious 2018 candidate, following the dismal showing of the Democrats in the 2010 and 2014 governor’s races, could make it harder to capitalize later if the political climate improves, as the party expects.
“You run the risk of looking irrelevant,” Rottinghaus said.
Ann Richards, elected in 1990, was the last Texas Democratic governor. Since then, the state has shifted far to the right along with most of the South. The party’s chief strongholds now are congressional and legislative seats representing much of Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin. No Democrat has won a statewide office since 1994, the longest losing streak in the nation.
Still, eager to keep its brand and statewide organization alive, the party has never failed to field a candidate for governor since Reconstruction. Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said it hasn’t given up on 2018.
“We’re going to have an authentic, dynamic candidate running for Texas governor, and that announcement will come at an appropriate time in the fall,” Garcia said.
Wendy Davis, the Democratic state senator who lost by 20-plus points to Republican Greg Abbott in 2014 even after drawing nationwide financial support for her much-publicized, 12-hour filibuster opposing tough anti-abortion measures, said any candidates this year probably wouldn’t have much of a public profile.
“It’s going to take some time, obviously, to build up excitement around someone who, at that point in time, might be fairly unknown,” Davis said.
In 2010, Bill White, a former Houston mayor and U.S. Energy Department official, won only 42 percent of the statewide vote despite his extensive business network and credentials. In a four-way 2006 race, former U.S. Rep. from Houston Chris Bell won less than 30 percent. Laredo oilman and banker Tony Sanchez spent nearly $60 million of his own money in losing four years before that.
Leading Democrats said a 2018 candidate could benefit from displeasure with the controversies surrounding Republicans who dominate state and national government.
Arthur Schechter, a Houston attorney and prominent Democratic fundraiser who helped organize events for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said he recently tried to recruit a well-known businessman who is economically conservative but more progressive on social issues to run for governor.
“I thought we could raise some money for him very quickly and get him underway,” Schechter said. “But he just chuckled at me.”
Also taking a pass are Democratic luminaries Julian Castro, a former San Antonio mayor who was President Barack Obama’s Housing and Urban Development secretary, and his twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro. One time punk-rock guitarist and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has generated national attention, but chosen to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
Abbott, meanwhile, has already begun campaigning for re-election with nearly $41 million in campaign cash and strong approval ratings. A scarier prospect for him than any Democrat could be a primary challenge from Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a former conservative talk radio host beloved by grassroots activists. Patrick says he’s not running but some conservatives aren’t convinced.
Texas is 39 percent Hispanic, and that more Democrat-friendly demographic grew nearly four times faster than the whites between 2010 and 2016. But fewer than half of the state’s roughly 10.4 million Hispanics are eligible to vote and turnout among registered Hispanic voters has been lower than in other states.
“Texas is not a red state. It is a nonvoting blue state,” Davis said. “Are we looking at a wave where enough people are going to own the power of their voice and show up and vote? I hope.”