Democrats' best shot in Texas election is party-switching judge
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) The last time a Democrat won statewide office in Texas, Lisa Marie Presley and Michael Jackson were newlyweds and “Friends” would soon make “The Rachel” haircut a thing.
If you didn’t understand the pop culture references, you couldn’t just Google up an explanation in 1994; it would be four more years before the technology giant's founding.
After two decades of statewide election losses, Democrats seem unlikely to end Texas Republicans' longest-in-the nation winning streak come November. The only real threat looks to be incumbent Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Lawrence Meyers, who switched parties to become a Democrat in 2013 and now faces a tough reelection race.
Even Meyers acknowledges he’s likely to lose: “When I first got into this, I wasn’t real hopeful as to my chances,” he said of switching parties. “But now, there is a possibility, at least.”
Meyers is the longest-serving judge on Texas’ highest criminal court - ironically becoming the first Republican elected to it in 1992. Meyers, who left the GOP because he was wary of the tea party’s growing influence, says becoming a Democrat “absolutely” jeopardized his re-election in Texas, where Republicans control the other 28 statewide offices.
Meyers is already 0-1 with his new party, defeated in 2014 when he sought a seat on the Texas Supreme Court, which handles civil cases. Instead, he remained in his current post and now is squaring off against state District Judge Mary Lou Keel of Houston, who sees Meyers as the underdog.
“I do think it’s an advantage to be a Republican statewide in Texas,” Keel said. “I think he has an uphill climb.''
Texas is the country’s largest conservative state but not its reddest. Democrats have 11 congressional seats along with Meyers' post. In neighboring Oklahoma, Republicans control every statewide office and every congressional seat. Same goes for Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah, where no Democrat has won statewide office since 1996.
Some polls have shown Texas could be in play in the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, though the state hasn’t voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since backing Jimmy Carter in 1976. Support for Clinton could be fueled by a surge in registration among Hispanic voters nationwide, many of whom have expressed anger at Trump’s harsh immigration rhetoric and promises to build a wall the length of the U.S.-Mexico border and make America’s southern neighbor pay for it.
Some traditional Texas conservatives also have been alienated by Trump. The Dallas Morning News editorial board endorsed Clinton, its first time siding with a Democrat for president since 1940.
No one knows, though, if increased registration will actually mean higher voter turnout and if all those potential extra voters really will go for Clinton. Also, Mitt Romney won Texas by nearly 1.3 million votes in 2012 - a margin large enough to absorb some usually loyal Republicans not voting for Trump.
Something else that’s changed since 1994 is Texas’ population, which has boomed from around 18.3 million then to nearly 27.5 million today. That growth was driven primarily by Hispanics, who tend to vote Democratic.
But Texas’ electorate has become more conservative over the same period because a disproportionate number of its Hispanics are too young to vote or non-U.S. citizens. Hispanics now make up about 39 percent of Texas’ population but only about 28 percent of eligible voters.
“You aren’t going to see the amount of impact on voting that you would in other populations simply because there’s a larger proportion of the Hispanic population that’s less than voting age,” said former Texas state demographer Steve Murdock. “It’s going to take some time.”
Turnout in 2014 was 22 percent of eligible Texas Hispanics, according to U.S. Census Bureau surveys, compared with 27 percent of Hispanics nationwide. During the last presidential race, it was 39 percent of eligible Texas Hispanics, compared with 48 percent of Hispanics nationally. Even small increases in Hispanic turnout could transform statewide races, particularly down-ballot ones, but that hasn’t happened so far.
When Meyers switched parties three years ago, Democrats celebrated the move as something to build on for the future. Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa says that even if Meyers doesn't break the Republican streak this year, his party will win another statewide election eventually.
“At some point, you’re hoping that the base of the Democratic Party that’s staying home will wake up,” Hinojosa said.