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The Sweep: What Democrats Don’t Get About Texas
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The Sweep: What Democrats Don’t Get About Texas

Plus, ‘Walking Dead’ PACs and mail-in ballot snafus in the Texas primary.

Campaign Quick Hits

Quote of the Week: “With two-thirds of the new boundaries set, mapmakers are on pace to draw fewer than 40 seats — out of 435 — that are considered competitive based on the 2020 presidential election results.”—Reid Epstein and Nick Corasaniti of the New York Times.

Down Ballot Moves Up in the World: According to Axios, state secretary of state candidates in top six battleground states from 2020 “had brought in three times as much money as 2018 candidates at the same point in the election cycle.” Obviously, an increased number of donors in both parties now believe their opponents have the famous Stalin quote stitched on a throw pillow: “Those who cast the votes decide nothing; those who count the votes decide everything.” Of course, the irony is that the Stalin quote is fake

But here’s a funny quirk from their reporting: “Wisconsin’s even seen a surge of funds, despite the fact its secretary of state is not currently involved in election oversight.”

Walking Dead PACs: Ever wonder what happens to money sitting in a candidate’s PAC after the candidate dies? Ok, probably not. But it’s perfectly—and shockingly—legal for the PAC to continue or for his family to give all the money to a charity that happens to be run by a family member. And the truth is, the candidate doesn’t even have to die. Former federal candidates with money left in their campaign coffers can let it sit there indefinitely while former campaign staff and accountants continue to draw fees every month.Former candidates who join lobbying firms can donate money to the people they are lobbying from their defunct PAC. An individual like you or me can give only $2,900 to a federal candidate, but a PAC maintained by a former member-turned-lobbyist can give $5,000 to his former colleagues. 

Sens. Michael Bennet and Elizabeth Warren have introduced the Zeroing Out Money for Buying Influence after Elections Act, aka the ZOMBIE Act, which would require politicians to close their campaign accounts within six months if they do not file to run in the next federal election or before they register as a lobbyist.

According to the press release, “unsuccessful candidates from the ten most expensive Senate races in 2020 still had over $35 million combined in their bank accounts three months after the election.” Wow.

Early Voting Starts in Texas for Some: Texans started voting in the state’s 2022 primary this week. But not as many as wanted to. Recent reporting by the Texas Tribune found that 40 percent of mail-in ballots were returned to voters in Harris County, which covers Houston, because they lacked the proper voter ID number. 

A new law in Texas requires voters to include their driver’s license number, partial Social Security number, or another equivalent on their mail-in application and ballot. Most of the rejected ballots so far didn’t include any number at all (probably because the ID field is under the ballot envelope flap), but some did include a number and were still rejected. The trick there is that the number on their ballot has to match the number in the voter’s file. Do you remember which number you used on yours? Sitting here right now, I’m really not sure which one I used. If I had to fill out something on paper, I would have used my SSN because it’s easier for me to remember. But if I registered in person, then I would have handed the person my license. 

Texas doesn’t have no-excuse absentee balloting, so mail-in ballots account for about 5 to 6 percent of the total vote. It also means that the people most affected are the elderly, who vote disproportionately Republican. In a general election with 8 million voters, we’re talking close to 500,000 votes that could be cast by mail with these new envelopes that have the ID requirement under the flap. And if the rejection rate stays as high as 30-40 percent, that could mean 150,000 votes that never get counted. 

Remember the Alamo

Maybe I’m homesick or just craving some decent tortillas, but I figured it was time to explain what’s been going on in Texas. 

Texas Independence Day is just two weeks away and so is the primary election in the state. Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Beto O’Rourke is struggling. While the answer may seem obvious from the outside, I think it bears some explanation. 

I first started in Texas politics in 2002 and even then the “turn Texas blue” crowd had enormous fundraising success every time it told Democratic Charlie Brown donors to take another swing at that red state football. 

The argument is built—at least in large part—on the “demographics are destiny” idea that Democrats would always win people of color and that those groups would continue to grow as a percentage of the voting population in Texas. So it was just a matter of time until there would be a sizable enough voting bloc to elect a statewide Democrat. In pitching donors, it also meant that the tipping point could always be just around the corner. 

There was always plenty of data to undermine this theory. But nobody had any incentive to show it to donors. Texas Democratic candidates would be irrelevant if they acknowledged that they would lose by double digits even if they spent $36 million. Texas Democratic operatives stood to make a big chunk of those millions of dollars, sure, but they would also face rebuke from their fellow national Democrats if they acknowledged that the party was losing potential voters by focusing liberal culture war issues in the state. 

Republican operatives—who also had access to the same data—were happy to see the other side pour millions into a losing gambit. It meant that same money wasn’t being spent in truly competitive races and that they themselves could raise more money from Republican donors that would, of course, mean hiring more Republican operatives in the state. 

It was a political operative full employment plan, and in a state with no contribution limits in state races, the only people who got hurt were the big donors who didn’t need their money anyway. So regardless of how badly Democrats had lost two years earlier, each successive cycle brought even more enthusiasm and more money. 

But that was then. The 2020 election may have put Joe Biden in the White House, but it may keep Democratic donors out of Texas for a long time.

In the wake of the 2020 election, I saw a lot of mainstream writeups about how the Rio Grande Valley was oil country (as it had been in 2016 and 2012?) or that voters focused on the economy (unlike everyone else?). But a reporter named Jack Herrera writing for Politico got it. 

Zapata County runs along the Rio Grande border just south of Laredo; 94 percent of Zapata residents are Latino. “Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Zapata County’s vote in a hundred years …” as Herrera noted. “To the north, in more than 95-percent Hispanic Webb County, Republicans doubled their turnout. To the south, Starr County, which is more than 96-percent Hispanic, experienced the single biggest tilt right of any place in the country; Republicans gained by 55 percentage points compared with 2016.” And now, not surprisingly, Texas’ four southernmost border counties have Hispanic women as their GOP party chairs. 

So what happened? First, it’s important not to over-interpret these numbers. As Herrera also wrote, “Trump still lost [the Latino] vote by more than double digits statewide, and Joe Biden won more of the nationwide Latino vote than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.” But while national Democrats were used to talking to the Puerto Rican community in New York or Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, I wonder how many of them really understood what it means to be Tejano. 

Tejano is a distinct part of Texas culture. It’s not synonymous with someone who lives in Texas who has Mexican heritage. That would be like saying a “good ol boy” is any male who lives below the Mason-Dixon line. Necessary, maybe, but not sufficient. And I don’t want to speak for Tejanos—after all, I’m not Tejano—but I grew up in and around Tejano culture my entire childhood. The most famous person I had ever met by the time I left for college was  restaurateur Ninfa Laurenzo. (To this day, I doubt there’s a person raised in Houston in the last 50 years who couldn’t recite chapter and verse on Mama Ninfa, as we all knew her.)

We have Tejano music popularized by Selena. Fajitas are Tejano food. Actually, fajitas are even a Tejano word referring to the “little strips of meat cut from the skirt steak.” Go Tejano Day is a special celebration during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo every year that comes right after Go Texan Day. Just like being Texan is distinct from being American, Tejano is distinct from being Mexican American. It’s a culture and a heritage and a point of pride. As one woman interviewed by Herrera noted, “No soy Mexicana, ni gringa. Soy Tejana.”

And so when you look at what happened in the 2020 election, a lot of it centered on the Tejano vote. As another man interviewed by Herrera put it, “the Tejanos in the Rio Grande Valley ‘who wear a cowboy hat and belt buckle and drive their pickup trucks’ aren’t the same as the ‘woke Latinos’ in Dallas.”

I hope you’ll read the whole piece by Herrera in which he explains the history of Tejanos in my state, but the political point is simple: There is a segment of traditionally Democratic voters in Texas who are pro-life Catholics who love to go hunting on their ranches, work in oil and gas, and support law enforcement—including border patrol. To put it another way, there’s a portion of the Democratic vote in Texas that doesn’t look on paper anything like the modern Democratic Party. But because they checked a box on a census form that identified them as Latino, the Democrats assumed their numbers in Texas would always be headed in the same direction.

So this brings us back to poor former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. A poll from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin has Gov. Greg Abbott ahead 47 percent to 37 percent and leading among independents 42 percent to 21 percent. 

It appears the shine is off the apple. And O’Rourke’s seems to understand the dilemma as well. Remember during his presidential run in 2019, O’Rourke famously quipped that “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47, and we’re not going to allow it to be used against your fellow Americans anymore.” But last week while on the campaign trail he declared, “I’m not interested in taking anything from anyone. What I want to make sure that we do is defend the Second Amendment.”

Therein lies the problem. Major Democrat donors now understand that demographics alone are not going to win them Texas. They’ll need a candidate who can speak to Dallas Democrats, Tejano Democrats, and everyone in between. That’s the 2018 Beto O’Rourke who lost to Ted Cruz in the closest U.S. Senate race in Texas since 1978. The problem is that O’Rourke then ran for president and online, small-dollar donors weren’t going to get excited about a moderate Democrat. So O’Rourke tried to be the candidate who could also speak to Manhattan Democrats and Silicon Valley Democrats. 

Democrats may well turn Texas blue at some point. When that day comes, people will no doubt say it happened slowly and then all at once. Texas Democrats may not realize it, but 2020 did them a huge favor. Like holding an inner tube underwater, it showed them where the hole was. The West Wing television show even accurately predicted in my view what their savior would look like: a Latino from Houston with a young family who speaks fluent Tejano and progressive. No doubt, it would help if he also looks like Jimmy Smits.

O’Rourke’s 2018 run will be seen as an important marker along that path—but so far, his 2022 run shows that he won’t be the one to cross the finish line.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.