Until somewhat recently, being a Texas Democrat was kind of a bummer.
Jason Stanford, a longtime Democratic operative in the state, says he got data on the scope of that political melancholy in 2006 while running a gubernatorial race.
“We did a poll and our pollster came back and said, ‘Texas Democrats are pathologically depressed,’” he says. “That was our pollster’s review. Democrats fundamentally didn’t believe they could win.”
Stanford has a theory about how this angst started. He says it began with the 1996 U.S. Senate race in Texas. Democrats were recovering from losing two years earlier and were hoping to stem another round of losses.
As a result, he says, the primary was stacked with impressive candidates running to oust incumbent Republican Sen. Phil Gramm. The field included two incumbent congressmen, a county party chair and a teacher named Victor Morales, who eventually won the nomination.
The race was relatively close, but Morales lost.
“After we lost, that was two losses in a row and Democrats lost hope for generation,” Stanford says.
For years after, he says, it was hard to convince people to run for office as a Democrat in the state.
“We couldn’t get good people to run,” he says. “We would just try to fill the ballot instead of recruiting actually good candidates.”
That's partially why the last time a Democrat won a statewide election of any kind was back in 1994.
Even though Democrats have still been shut out of statewide races, in the past few years, the party has been able to get at least one thing back: hope.
“The political changes are astronomical in Texas,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
Rottinghaus says he worked in campaigns in a past life. His first campaign: Morales’ fateful U.S. Senate run in 1996, which became the catalyst for a two-decade-long Democratic depression in Texas.
Rottinghaus says it’s clear the party’s psyche has taken a turn as political winds slowly change.
“The new demographics and the tone of politics now is shifting in a significant way that makes Texas much more winnable for Democrats and losable for Republicans,” he says.
Democrats have long said ongoing growth in the state’s black, Latino and Asian populations will eventually translate into gains for their party. But that hasn’t happened yet.
Stanford says Democrats weren't fired up enough to use these demographic shifts in their favor – that is, until Donald Trump was elected.
“When Trump got elected that changed the landscape of Texas,” he says.
Stanford says that election was so shocking for many Democrats it shook them out of a two-decade political slump.
“Democrats started to believe in the inevitability of having to try,” he says. “The cost of not showing up, the cost of sitting around and complaining, the cost of daydreaming about the perfect candidate who wasn’t running was so great in Donald Trump.”
After 2016, Democratic-leaning Texans who had been sitting out elections started to vote again.
“I think of it like a seat with four legs,” Rottinghaus says. “You’ve got white progressives, you’ve got young people, you’ve got people of color, and you’ve got low-income people. That forms the platform for the Democratic Party. And in all of those elements, you’ve got increases in voting.”
In the 2018 election, Texas had higher voter turnout among all those groups. Republicans had been winning statewide races by double-digit margins, but that year a Democratic Senate candidate lost by only 2.6 percentage points.
Rottinghaus says this trend bodes well for Democrats in 2020, but a win is not a sure thing.
“There’s no guarantee Texas will be blue or any statewide office will be won,” he says. “But the pieces are in place to be able to be competitive. And that’s what Democrats are looking for and why a lot of people are running for these positions.”
In the past several weeks, a slew of candidates has announced they want to run against Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn next year.
The field is up to nine candidates, including former Congressman Chris Bell, state Sen. Royce West, Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards and former congressional candidate MJ Hegar. Most recently, Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, a well-known immigrant rights and political activist, said she’s joining the race, too.
“Good candidates are just showing up,” Stanford says. “It’s amazing. This is a huge sea change.”
While Democrats line up to join a tough race, four Republican congressmen in Texas announced they won’t be running in 2020.
Artemio Muniz, chairman of the Texas Federation of Hispanic Republicans, says it’s clear the mindset among Republicans has shifted, too.
“These congressmen are doing a cost-benefit analysis," he says, "and they are looking at the possibility of not winning and the amount of energy it is going to take.”
That slump Democrats used to feel is existential for a lot of Republicans. They still dominate statewide elections, but Muniz says he’s been worried the party might be doomed.
“We just haven’t done a good job of mining new voters,” he says. “I look at the Hispanic community as the perfect base to find new voters from, but we just don’t know how to do it. I mean, I know how to do it, and other guys who are younger know how to do it. … But the Republican Party keeps relying on old dinosaurs to try to figure out how not to go extinct."
By 2022, Latinos are expected to become the largest population group in Texas. The population is young, though, so a large swath won’t be able to vote in the near future.
Muniz says that makes the population a good investment down the road. But President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and racist comments about Latinos have been hurting the party’s brand in the state.
Muniz says undoing that damage will take serious commitment.
“It is going to be a very difficult job in Texas to repair the relationship between the Hispanic community and the Republican Party,” he says.
Republican leaders in Texas have decided not to push back against Trump’s rhetoric, and the political costs are becoming starker.
“The days where Republicans could get 35 percent of the Latino vote are probably in the past,” Rottinghaus says. “It’s an interesting dynamic that really will change the face of Texas.”
There’s been a lot of focus on other members of the current Democratic coalition who are going to matter, but Rottinghaus says Latinos “are ultimately going to serve as the difference, because they are shifting in terms of their party allegiances.”
For now, though, Republican politicians are not publicly panicking. During a town hall Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott talked about the congressional resignations, saying he doesn’t see any signs that political winds are changing.
“Texas is a red state, and it is going to stay a red state after this election,” he said.
But Muniz says he knows better.
“The signs are pointing toward Texas going blue," he says, "but I still have hope."