December 4, 2013

Changing political landscape: Red fears of a blue tide in Texas

Inroads by Democrats have Republican strategists scrambling with fundraising, rallies and ads.

By Paul J. Weber
The Associated Press

HOUSTON — Sick of losing on Election Day, they huddled candidates on their 2014 statewide ticket in a hotel ballroom and bristled at being outspent and outnumbered by political rivals in Texas who they talked up as sophisticated and savvy.

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George P. Bush, who has a lineage to two former presidents, is seen in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 19 after filing to run for Texas land commissioner. Meanwhile, Texas Republicans are moving to counter the work of Battleground Texas, a political action committee led by veterans of President Obama’s campaign.

Photos by The Associated Press

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Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, addresses supporters at a rally in Haltom City, Texas, where the rising Democratic star declared her candidacy for governor in early October.

But this was no meeting of hapless Texas Democrats.

They were top Republicans, including George P. Bush and Gov. Rick Perry’s possible successor, bemoaning big cities such as Houston already voting Democrat and sounding alarms about the brains behind President Barack Obama’s re-election now trying to turn Texas entirely blue.

In a sharp pivot from a decade of Republican swagger in Texas – a bravado that comes with controlling every statewide office – conservatives are muffling mocking tones about Democrats and now openly calling them formidable. The worries come through in political ads that urge donors to “Keep Texas Red” and rallies like one in Houston that vowed to “Take Back Harris County.”

Rousing this new conservative unease is Battleground Texas, a new political action committee led by Obama campaign veterans, and its support of a rare jewel for Texas Democrats: a charismatic gubernatorial candidate with national star power in state Sen. Wendy Davis.

“They’ve proven to be effective in some other states. They’ve proven to be well-organized,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who stockpiled more than $20 million over the past several years in his bid to replace Perry next year.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn appears likely to escape a viable Republican or Democratic challenger in 2014, but nonetheless OK’d his campaign beginning a “Keep It Red” message this summer. His aides say nearly 13,000 supporters have signed a pledge and the campaign is coordinating block walks and social media-training – efforts that mirror Battleground Texas.

The dread over a Democratic resurgence discomfits with an opponent that hasn’t won a statewide office since 1994. Conservatives’ grip on Texas has tightened every year since, and peaked only two years ago when Republicans won a rare supermajority in the Legislature and rammed through pet measures such as new voter ID laws.

But Republicans insist the fear is real despite their dominance and the long odds that Davis faces next year, and that their concerns aren’t a feigned ploy to shake down donors. Cornyn’s campaign says 98 percent of its nearly 500 donors to “Keep It Red” have given $100 or less.

FreedomWorks, the deep-pocketed conservative group that funded Ted Cruz’s victory to the Senate in 2012, also has unveiled its own “Come & Take It Texas” drive.

“We said this is something we need to take seriously. Then it became, ‘OK, we need a plan,’” Cornyn campaign manager Brendan Steinhause said.

At an upscale Houston mall, Abbott and Bush headlined a rally that warned of a possible turning tide. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said it was time “to draw a line in the sand,” starting with the nation’s fourth-largest city and surrounding county, which Obama carried in 2008 and 2012.

Up later was Bush, the nephew of former President George W. Bush who is running for state land commissioner: “If anybody from Battleground Texas tells you they’re about to turn Texas blue, we’re going to say?”

“No way!” the crowd returned.

A table outside the entrance hawked $20 T-shirts emblazoned with red-meat messages such as, “God, Guns and Guts Made America – Let’s Keep All Three!” On every chair inside the ballroom, a petition on yellow paper called on lawmakers to defend the Texas Constitution’s definition of marriage and rued the rise of domestic partner benefits in the workplace.

(Continued on page 2)

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