Texas Democrats Have a Problem
By NATE HOCHMAN
James Talarico speaks like he’s rehearsing in front of the mirror. In the spaces between his sentences — always delivered just-so, with an air of practiced paternal gravitas — the young Texas Democrat scans the crowd, just to make sure they’re hanging on his every word, swooning under the sheer weight of his intellect. Talarico’s is a revolutionary message: People over politics. Love over hate. Unity over division. Forward — not backward. “We’re bigger than partisanship. We’re bigger than ignorance. We’re bigger than intolerance,” he solemnly informs the audience. “Texas is bigger than all of those things, because it’s not just a state — it’s a state of mind.”
Texas is a state of mind. Thus spake the inspirational new face of the Texas Democratic Party. It was the commencement of the 2019 legislative session in the Texas House of Representatives, and, at 29, Talarico had just become the youngest legislator in the state. Now was the time for big, bold ideas: “We transcend. We define. We revolutionize.” Talarico’s hitting his stride. “There are no limits. You can just keep going, just keep soaring.” He is rounding the final corner now, one arm stretched out to the audience to punctuate his rhythmic intonations. “We just keep going. We just keep soaring. That’s our birthright: The right to dream, the right to imagine a life without limits, the right to fulfill our God-given potential.” A pensive glance off into the distance. “This next session shouldn’t be about the Democratic Party or the Republican Party” — pause for dramatic effect — “it should be about chasing a vision of what this state can be.”
The specific details of that “vision,” of course, have yet to be ironed out. Not that it matters, really. Until recently, the aspirational vagueness that Talarico embodies seemed like a winning message for the Texas Democrats: When as a middle-school-teacher-turned-politico he flipped a northern-Austin suburb from red to blue in 2018, Talarico was widely hailed as a harbinger of the Lone Star State’s imminent progressive destiny. Immigration-driven demographic change, an influx of blue-state émigrés, and explosive population growth in extra-urban areas such as Talarico’s House District 52 were going to “build a new world in the shell of the old,” as Talarico himself put it. Talarico’s arrival signaled that the next generation was here to midwife that new world into being.
But this new world might have to wait. Texas eventually could end up blue; in politics, there are no permanent victories or defeats. But if the state does move left, it won’t happen on the timeline that progressives had initially hoped for. The last year or so has seen a rightward turn in the Tejano border communities in South Texas, mirroring or outpacing the shift toward the GOP in Hispanic voters nationwide. (Five of America’s six biggest county-level shifts to Trump from 2016 to 2020 occurred in South Texas: In Texas’s 99 percent Hispanic Starr County, for example, Trump’s numbers improved by a remarkable 55 points). All that comes atop new doubts about the long-standing theory that Texas will be pushed left by internal migration, as a growing body of evidence suggests that Republican voters fleeing blue-state governance make up the bulk of new arrivals moving in from progressive strongholds such as California.
These developments throw a wrench in the entire theory of political change that had underpinned progressive ambitions for the better part of this century. Texas and California are the two crown jewels of the Electoral College: The only time in U.S. history that a candidate won the presidency while losing both states was James Garfield’s 1880 victory over Winfield Hancock. With California ranking among the bluest states in the country, a Democratic takeover of Texas would effectively ensure one-party control of the White House for the foreseeable future. Of course, progressives have been wish-casting about that possibility for years. (“Texas is ready to turn blue!” DNC chairman Howard Dean declared confidently in . . . 2008.) But on the eve of 2020, blue Texas seemed like a tantalizingly real possibility. “Texas Is Bracing for a Blue Wave in 2020,” a New Republic headline crowed. “Yes, Texas.”
And then? Donald Trump swept the Lone Star State by a healthy five-and-a-half points. Republican incumbents representing Texas in the U.S. House and Senate held all of their seats, carrying the statewide vote by more than nine points, as opposed to their margin of just three-and-a-half points in the 2018 midterms two years earlier. Perhaps most devastatingly, Republicans retained their 20-year majority in the state House, crushing Democrats’ optimistic fantasies of controlling one of the two legislative chambers during the state’s 2020 redistricting session. The state’s congressional districts will not be redrawn again until 2031, securing a Republican advantage for the next decade. Triumphalism quickly gave way to despondency. “Things have been pretty bleak since the election,” one dejected Texas Democratic strategist told The Hill.
A lot of the Democrats’ hubris “hinged upon a misdiagnosis of what was going on in Beto O’Rourke’s close campaign against Ted Cruz in an off-year election in 2018,” Chuck DeVore, the vice president of national initiatives at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, told National Review. “What people forget is that among the progressive Left, Ted Cruz was the second-most hated Republican in the country after Donald Trump. Beto ends up raising a record amount of money, but recall that more than half of that was from ActBlue. Essentially, he had nothing to do with that other than being able to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m the guy running against Ted Cruz.’”
“Because of what they thought was Trump’s unpopularity, there was a fair amount of wish-casting that we were going to see a blowout,” DeVore said. “And then of course what we saw is that beneath the level of president, Republicans outperformed pretty much across the board, which you more or less saw across the country. The problem that Democrats had is they didn’t realize they pretty much hit their ceiling in 2018. They got all of the races that were easy to get. I just don’t think there was much more juice in that orange to squeeze.”
There may be even less juice in the wake of the Texas GOP’s redistricting. After the lines were redrawn in October, Talarico’s HD 52 shifted from D+10 to R+4. He’ll adapt just fine, of course. Armed with endorsements from a host of prominent Texas Democrats and approbations in the national media — “Representative James Talarico is a rising star thanks to his adept pushback on Trump’s Big Lie and the Texas GOP’s anti-voting rights agenda,” The Nation gushed in July — the young progressive darling is perfectly situated to carry HD 50, the deep-blue Austin district where he announced he’ll be running instead.
But his status as a rising star in Texas might have to be postponed, at least for now. Talarico is the beau ideal of well-to-do suburban progressivism: He proudly touts his Anthony Fauci action figurines (mask included, of course), invokes the Torah, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dharma, the Big Bang, and New Age neologisms in his House invocations, and fondly quotes John Lewis while moonlighting as a voting-rights activist on private plane trips to Washington, D.C. That plays well in Austin. But it points to serious long-term issues for Democrats in the state. “After the redistricting, there are very few districts remaining that are truly competitive,” DeVore said. “So most of the districts that have been created are fairly safe for one party or the other. And if you’re running for a fairly safe Democratic district, you’re not going to win it by being the more moderate candidate. You’re going to win it by appealing to the core of the party activists. That feeds into the greater problem at the statewide level — anyone who’s credentialed and is currently elected is likely going to be on the far left, in which case they’re not going to win.”
Instead, Texas Democrats’ farm team is composed of prototypical #Resistance-era liberals like James Talarico — progressive but presentable, white but woke, both unthreatening and unoriginal. Talarico’s political identity is a concoction of symbolic stunts and self-righteous tweets, tailored for progressive pundits in the national media rather than right-leaning Texas voters. A Joy Reid appearance here, a Jim Acosta interview there; from picking on-air fights with Fox News hosts to made-for-CNN speeches defending CRT on the floor of the Texas House, his primary audience often seems to reside out of state. In a meandering Twitter thread announcing his run in HD 50, he touted his achievements as “calling out White supremacy on the floor,” “propos[ing] big progressive ideas like single-payer healthcare,” and “embarass[ing]” conservatives “on their own propaganda network.” His actual legislative achievements, mentioned in a single passing tweet, were more modest: A ban on police reality TV shows, an insulin co-pay cap, and a bill requiring more oversight of government-funded child-care providers.
Call it the Beto prototype. Talarico is far from unique. He’s a symptom of his party’s broader failures. Texas Democrats are learning the hard way that charisma and recycled MSNBC talking points are simply not enough to woo red-state voters. Beto’s 2018 campaign ran on the gamble that “everyone was projecting their fantasies onto him while he took zero actual positions,” DeVore said. The national media loved it. Texas voters were less impressed.
In lieu of a substantive policy agenda, Texas’s progressive institutions are importing the Left’s national culture war. (Most recently, the state was roiled by a 1619 Project–style campaign to recast the Battle of the Alamo — Texas’s founding story — as a white-supremacist myth.) Particularly on cultural issues, the Texas Democratic Party’s bench of young up-and-comers seems completely disconnected from the political mood of the state. Talarico attacks Governor Greg Abbott — who won reelection by more than 13 points in the midst of the 2018 blue wave — for being a “white-supremacist troll” in response to an innocuous tweet celebrating Kyle Rittenhouse’s not-guilty verdict. Michelle Beckley, a second-term Democrat who caught the state party’s attention when she ousted a three-term Republican incumbent in 2018, has spent her time attempting to make the language in the Texas Family Code gender-neutral. And Erin Zweiner, a 36-year-old progressive darling who also flipped a red district in 2018, has been one of the Texas House’s loudest proponents of gender ideology, opposing bills to protect women’s sports and ban gender-transition surgery for minors.
The Texas Democrats’ woes point to the underlying reason that red-state Democrats are losing across the country. In the midst of our nationalized political culture, younger progressives in Republican states are increasingly indistinguishable from their counterparts in California. In Texas, Democratic candidates raise gobs of out-of-state money this way, but the pure-progressive brand hurts their chances politically inside the state.
Can they recover? “To me, the litmus test will be the Rio Grande Valley,” DeVore said. If that’s true, things look bleak indeed. Not only did the heavily Hispanic border region move rapidly toward Trump from 2016 to 2020, but a Hispanic Democrat from Rio Grande City went so far as to switch parties and register as a Republican in November. “The challenge that the Democrats have in Texas is that their actions and their rhetoric are making it untenable for those elected officials in the Valley to remain tethered to a national and a state Democratic Party that’s increasingly alienating their own constituency,” DeVore said. “As a result, you’re probably going to see a massive movement of individuals in the next four years running as Republicans who had previously run as Democrats.”
That shift, he added, “is going to be similar to the wave in the 1970s and early 1980s that saw [former senator] Phil Gramm and [former governor] Rick Perry move from Democrat to Republican. And the reason for the move is going to be very similar to Graham and Perry and others back in the day: It is largely cultural.”