Election 2016

Texas Democrats Aim To Use Trump To Turn The State Blue

At the Texas Democratic Convention, rising stars HUD Secretary Julián Castro and his twin brother Congressman Joaquin Castro mapped out a strategy they hope will both boost their own party’s turnout and hobble state and local GOP candidates.

Castro Brothers
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (left) and Congressman Joaquin Castro (right)

Texas Democrats haven't elected a candidate to statewide office since 1994. The last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976. But at last week's state convention, the party's leadership seemed optimistic that Texas Democrats are nearing the end of their years in the wilderness.

Houston Public Media's Coverage of Election 2016

Houston Public Media's Coverage of Election 2016

Mariachi Campanas de America provided the warmup act at the Alamodome. Audience members waved Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders signs, as well as plenty marked "Castro for VP." Julián Castro, the secretary of housing and urban development, is frequently mentioned as a potential running mate for Clinton. He and his twin brother, San Antonio Congressman Joaquin Castro, met with reporters shortly before the evening's speeches. The HUD secretary sounded confident this would be the Democrats' year.

"We believe that 2016 is a time for change in the State of Texas," Secretary Castro said, "and that with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket, with a whole slate of strong Democrats that are on the ballot, we think that Texas is going to be competitive."

It's a familiar refrain in Texas politics. Every two to four years, Democrats point to developments in Austin or in Washington and predict Texas is about to turn blue. And still, the state remains one of the deepest red in the union.

But Congressman Castro, who chaired the convention, said the Republicans' presumptive nominee for president could finally tip the balance in the Democrats' favor.

"Donald Trump is the Republican Party, and Texas Republicans laid the groundwork for him by moving so far to the right that they've left the average Texan behind," he said.

The party seems to be adopting a two-pronged strategy. First, use Trump himself to get Democrats to the polls, particularly women, Latinos, and other groups who often find Trump’s remarks offensive.

Congressman Filemon Vela, who represents an 11-county district in Southeast Texas, summarized this approach. Vela recently published an open letter to Trump, condemning the candidate's call for a wall on the Mexican border in language some would call salty. His speech to the convention was milder – though just barely.

"Mr. Trump," Vela said, "you can take your racism, you can take your bigotry, and you can take your wall and shove it."

But the Democrats are hoping to more than just win the state for Clinton. The second prong of their strategy is to tie state GOP leaders to Trump in order to win down-ballot races, from congressional seats to school boards.

"When Governor Abbott endorsed – he endorsed – Donald Trump, he betrayed everything our state represents," said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.

HUD Secretary Julián Castro took the argument further. In his keynote speech, he argued that Republicans' long dominance of state politics has led to corruption and waste.

"An attorney general under multiple indictments. An ag commissioner who doesn't mind spending your money for his own leisure. One state official after another giving sweetheart deals to their cronies. This is what happens when a party doesn't believe in government in the first place, but has absolute power over the people for decades," Secretary Castro said.

Whether the strategy works depends on two developments, only one of which is in the Democrats' hands. The first is getting supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to unite behind Hillary Clinton.

"We cannot enter the fall with a Team Hillary and a Team Bernie," said Carlos Uresti, who represents San Antonio in the Texas State Senate. "Donald Trump's largest asset in this race is not his make-believe $10 billion. It's a divided Democratic Party."

But the plan also hangs on the GOP remaining divided. Nearly 2 million Texans voted against Donald Trump in the state's Republican primary. If they decide that any Republican, even Trump, is better than a President Hillary Clinton, the Democrats are in for a rough ride.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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