Today, I'm going to try and convince you that, as much as you might think it, the leadership and staff at the Texas Democratic Party (or TDP) are not the reason Texas Democratic candidates didn't win in 2020. And relatedly, replacing them won't be enough to help Texas Democrats win. Because fundamentally, they aren't in charge.
Why's this important? Because if we keep trying to fix the wrong thing, we'll never be able to compete with Texas Republicans.
And when one party wins without competition, that's bad for Texas.1
Fair warning - this is a long piece, but I try to keep it moving and not so repetitive.
If you're a normal person, you probably missed it (there was a lot more going on in January 2021) when the Executive and Deputy Directors of TDP resigned under pressure from members of the Texas State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC). The SDEC accused them, of, among other things:
[missing] the mark on November 3rd and the campaign cycle leading up to that date. From messaging to organizing, political data to simple administration, the Texas Democratic Party has dropped the ball and it is becoming more and more apparent every day that our senior leadership is refusing to take responsibility or, more importantly, the actions necessary to resolve the many shortfalls of our party this election cycle.
Source: See letter to Chairman Hinojosa
(Disclaimer: I know and have worked with Cliff Walker, the former Deputy Director of TDP, and Hannah Roe Beck, a current Co-Director of TDP. I also know current and former TDP staff. None have seen this piece before publication.)
Without getting too into the weeds, the SDEC is like the legislative body, or board, of TDP. They provide direction and oversight to the executive part of the Party (i.e. the Chairman and paid staff), including, crucially, approving all operating budget spending for the year (see Article III, Section D, 1(a)i of the TDP Rules).
In other words, TDP Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa and staff need SDEC sign off to do anything of substance (including pay their salaries). And the SDEC doesn't seem interested in giving their sign off anymore without changes.
More currently, if you're involved in Texas Democratic activist circles, you might have noticed that former Congressional and Agricultural Commission candidate Colonel Kim Olson is exploring a run to replace Hinojosa.
Clearly some folks believe something's broke and therefore they want to fix it.
What Went Wrong in 2020
I've written two posts about November 2020. You can reread my first on the polls and the second on split tickets to get a sense of my takeaways. But for now, I'd like to focus on the assessment of TDP "senior leadership".
For that, I'll go back to December 2020, when I got an invitation from TDP to join a call to discuss the November election results.
Now, certainly those results didn't turn out the way Texas Democrats thought they would. But I want to level set expectations: they didn't turn out the way anyone (including Republicans!) really thought it would.
Non-partisan election observer Jeff Blaylock thought Texas Democratic candidates would pick up ten State House seats (and control the State House) while Donald Trump would barely beat Joe Biden by less than 1%. Two well regarded election predictors, FiveThirtyEight and The Economist, thought Trump would win by 1.5% and 2.2%, respectively. And even Texas Republican consultant Derek Ryan believed that around 12 million Texas voters, a record turnout for Texas, would ultimately cast their ballots.
In the end about 11.3 million people actually cast their ballots, State House Democrats netted zero seats, and Trump beat Biden by 630,000 votes (or about 6%).
During the call, Manny Garcia and Cliff Walker, presented TDP's 2020 efforts. The presentation was based on a document that's publicly available.
At the time, I remember thinking the call focused too much on TDP's accomplishments and not enough on the ways Democrats had fallen short. Clearly, I wasn't the only one. The letter to Chairman Hinojosa demanding "a change in senior staff leadership...including both the Executive Director and the Deputy Executive Director" was dated December 3 – just two days later.
(Now, before I armchair quarterback, just a reminder that you can read all about my biases here.)
That being said, I was surprised to see such an explicit firing call. So I went back to read the document outlining TDP's work. I came away thinking that Staff mostly did what they were supposed to do.
Here are a few examples of their efforts:
- they created (the first ever) in-house state partisanship model based on available data to help candidates and party members target voters (it didn't work as well because it relied on canvassing, but creating the first ever model that broke during a hundred year pandemic hardly seems like "[dropping] the ball"),
- they directly registered at least 125,000 voters (which doesn't count the work of local parties and clubs),
- they managed a 20 person team across the state working to protect voters' rights, including managing a hotline and field operatives,
- they offered 20 training sessions (starting in June) to train county party members on organizing 101,
- and raised more than $1.6 million to fund it all (including pay for paid messaging).
Of course, TDP did not canvass voters last cycle. And while some independent Democratic candidates and clubs did try to canvass voters, the decision not to canvass wasn't made by Walker, Garcia or Hinojosa. It came from Biden and the DNC and was the same across the country.
Lastly, just to be clear about the actual numbers:
- voter turnout in Texas (as a percentage of eligible voters – which includes those not registered) was 60.4% , a record high, and an increase of 9 percentages points since 2016 (51.4% );
- there were an additional 2 million registered voters (a 12% increase) since 2016; 1.2 million more (an 8% increase) since 2018 after Democrats took back the U.S. House, won 12 seats in the State Legislature, and scared a sitting Republican Senator (Ted Cruz), like no one had in a generation;
- Joe Biden earned an additional 1.4 million votes more than Hillary Clinton (an additional 36%, or 3x the increase in registered voters),
- and Trump's winning margin dropped by nearly 3.5% (for context, Trump's 2016 margin in Arizona was 3.5% and Biden's 2020 margin was 0.30%).
Now, it's not clear that these numbers are purely the result of TDP's efforts (Donald Trump was a powerful motivator), but no one can say that turnout wasn't through the roof and that Democrats didn't get more votes than they'd ever had before.
It's just that Republicans earned even more votes - Trump motivated an additional 1.2 million more voters to support him in 2020 than in 2016 (a 26% increase). And if you remember from my piece on split tickets, Trump won 76 House Districts, but House Republicans won 83. So there were at least some voters that voted for Republicans locally, and also voted for Joe Biden.
Run it again
Given these results, why do the SDEC and Kim Olson think that TDP leadership "dropped the ball" as opposed to attributing Joe Biden's loss to the ability of Trump to win even more votes than before and State House Republicans' win to their ability to convince suburban voters to split their tickets?
Because, like leadership in most organizations, it's easier to believe you've got an incredible product/mission that people just don't get yet or that they don't understand, than to believe folks just might not like what you're selling. So let's try the same thing again - but this time harder!
That's why it can be helpful to have more dispassionate analysts review the situation. That's what Hudson Cavanagh, the Director of Data Science at TDP has done. Back in February, he wrote an election debrief looking at turnout and Democratic performance.
I won't quote it line by line (you're welcome to read it), but to me there were two instructive portions.
On the Texas Latino vote:
Our analysis shows that Latino voters, despite some worrying trends, did not abandon Democrats. Latino Republicans turned out at a higher rate than Latino Democrats. Although the Rio Grande Valley supported President Trump more than prior cycles, this pattern did not apply to the majority of Latino voters in Texas. In any case, we need to improve how we connect with Latino Texans, inside and outside the Rio Grande Valley. [emphasis added]
Ever year since I first got engaged in Texas politics (2004), it's been taken as an article of faith among Texas Democrats that as soon as we get Texas Latino turnout up (especially in the Valley), we'll start winning the state again.
Well, Texas Latino turnout was up in 2020 and it turns out some of those new Latino voters weren't naturally Democrats. We need to figure out why.2
From the report's final conclusions and recommendations:
Sustainable victory is possible, if we:
- Register voters and expand access to the ballot...
- Build a robust turnout operation...
- Surgically target persuadable voters...
I think the report buries the lede ("we need to improve how we connect with Latino Texans") in favor of focusing on increasing registration and turnout. And this is what I am guessing certain members of the SDEC and Col. Olson have in mind when they want staff changes.
The split-ticketers are at it again
Except there are a few problems with this strategy.
First, from what I can tell, no one seems to be trying to figure out how much of the increase in registration, turnout and Democratic votes candidates did earn are attributable to TDP staff efforts and how much is attributable to everything else.
That's important at the recruiting and staff level - would you apply for a job in which your boss wasn't trying to figure out how well you did your actual job? This isn't how an organization recruits top talent.
But perhaps more importantly, if Joe Biden gained 1.4 million votes in part by persuading voters that he was a better candidate than Donald Trump, while State House Republicans persuaded voters that's best to split their tickets, then there's very little TDP Staff can do to change those voters' minds - they aren't the candidates!
And that seems to have happened. Biden overperformed our Texas House Democratic candidates (he won 74 State House Districts, they won 67)3. In particular, Biden persuaded suburban Republican voters in nine districts (see below table) to ditch Trump and vote for him, while still supporting their State House Republican incumbents.
And on the flip side, Trump persuaded Texas Latinos (both in the Valley and likely also in major metros per this Catalist report) to vote for him, even as they voted for the Democrats in their local State House races. Trump actually won two State House districts that also voted for their Democratic incumbent (HD 31 and HD 74) - the inverse of Biden in the suburbs.
If you've made it this far, thank you. I'm going to diverge for a moment, but I promise I'm almost done.
If you've ever wanted to sell lemonade, you know you need a few things: the supplies to make lemonade, some glasses to hold the lemonade, a table with signage to advertise your lemonade, cash to make change, etc.
After you've chosen a corner, set up your table, made your lemonade and put up a sign, you just wait for the customers. As they say, easy, peasy, lemon squeezey.
Now suppose for a moment, you ran into these problems:
- Instead of using lemons, you had to make and sell something called "lemonade" with any fruit that anyone walking by might give you. So if your neighbor stopped by and gave you a passion fruit or a tomato (it's a fruit!), you'd have to turn it into "lemonade" and sell it.
- And what if your best friend from school decides to stand right next to your stand and yell loudly, "As a spokesperson for Corner Lemonade, I just have to tell you, this is the sweetest lemonade in the world. I love how much sugar you put into it!", even though you're lemonade doesn't have any sugar in it (you're trying to sell to the neighborhood diabetics). And no matter what you do or say, people really believe them.
It'd be pretty hard to sell lemonade right?
Well that's how TDP works today.
Today, anyone can decide to run as a Democrat, no matter their past or what they believe, as long as they win the Democratic Primary. And anyone can become a Democrat to vote in the Democratic Primary as long as they decide to vote in the Democratic Primary.
Second, very little of what you, I or most people in Texas think of as "Democratic" branding is controlled by TDP. You're hearing from Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, AOC, or Joe Manchin. Maybe if I'm lucky you'll hear from my old boss Lloyd Doggett - he's at least a Texas Congressman!
But probably worse, you're hearing from all the
special interest constituent groups that are trying to get their way with elected Democrats representing super blue districts, not trying to win in pink-red districts. So you and all your persuadable friends are hearing a message that probably isn't meant for you.
Just like you with your lemonade problem, TDP can't really control the product or the operations of the product they are selling - the candidate.
Which leads to the title of this piece - who's in charge?!
I don't have space to try and answer that question in this post. Not to mention that I imagine there are political scientists who are much smarter than I am that do a better job.
But suffice to say, it's not TDP Staff. They are dutifully trying to support candidates, clubs and activists as best they can given the dysfunctional system that's been created for them.
Though candidly, if anyone should really be in charge, it's the SDEC members (who you'll remember are supposed to approve all budgets). They are elected at the State Convention every four years by their fellow Democrats and they could try to take greater control of messaging in order to help candidates win office.
But even they have limited authority - the primary process isn't part of TDP bylaws, it's part of the laws of the State of Texas. And no Republican is ever going to help TDP fix the law so we can choose better candidates, or better control our messaging.
As always, your feedback is greatly appreciated. I'm also considering adding a comments section to this page. If that's something you'd be interested in, please let me know. You can email me at [email protected].
1. And in case anyone asks, yes, it was bad when Republicans (as a general rule) couldn't win in Texas from 1877 (the end of Reconstruction) till 2000. Competition is good!
2.Some qualitative reporting from Politico is worth reading - including an interesting factoid that in Zapata County, a Clinton/Trump county, 94% of the county identifies their ethnicity as Hispanic and 98% identify their race as White.
3.Including two State House Districts in the Valley that Trump won, HD 31 and HD 74.