Texas Democrats See Opportunity In Changing Demographics

For most of the 20th century, Democrats were the only game in town when it came to Texas politics. But that changed and Republicans have been in charge for decades. For Democrats to return to power, they'll have to hold together a coalition of minority voters.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

All week, we are looking at demographic changes in the currently very red, very Republican Lone Star state. Democrats hope the growing size and potential voting clout of the Latin population will turn Texas blue.

Whether that happens or not, the Texas Democratic Party already bears little resemblance to what it looked like when it last dominated Texas politics decades ago.

NPR's Don Gonyea brings us the latest in our series Texas 2020.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Texas has been ruled by Republicans for so long, that it's easy to forget that it wasn't always so. But listen as Karl Rove - George W. Bush's the legendary political strategist - recalls the state's politics when he was first starting out. The interview is from 2003, on public television in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC TELEVISION BROADCAST)

KARL ROVE: In 1977, of the 30 statewide elected officials, there was one Republican, U.S. Senator John Tower. Every other statewide office was occupied by a Democrat. So it was a Democrat state.

GONYEA: Texas had been Democratic turf since Reconstruction. For decades, the party was a mix of traditional, progressive Democrats and the more dominant Southern conservatives known as Dixiecrats.

Lyndon Johnson - the future president - came from that wing of the party. But one of Johnson's biggest achievements in the White House would also be instrumental in changing the politics of his home state.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: My fellow Americans, I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I want to take this occasion to talk to you about what that law means to every American.

GONYEA: Ben Barnes is a long-time Texas Democrat who was the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives in the '60s and later served as lieutenant governor. Barnes knew Johnson well.

BEN BARNES: He said that signing the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act was probably going to turn not only Texas, was probably only going to turn the South Republican for the next 20 or 30 years. And again, he was correct in his political vision and wisdom, that it happened as Johnson had predicted.

GONYEA: You can hear how tough that legislation made things for Johnson and conservative Democrats in Texas in this phone call archived at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum at the University of Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED PHONE CALL)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Congressman Teague of Texas on line two.

GONYEA: Johnson is talking to Congressman Olin Teague. He needs Teague to cast a tough vote on the poverty bill later that same year, and he needs him to bring other conservative Texas Democrats along.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED PHONE CALL)

JOHNSON: This one, if I don't get it, I'm in deep trouble as far as being a leader of this country's concerned.

GONYEA: In presidential elections, the last Democrat to win was Jimmy Carter, who carried the state in 1976. Conservative Democrats began to defect to the GOP, especially as it became clear a Republican could actually win an election. Among the most prominent was Phil Gramm, a Democratic congressman who was thrown off the budget committee for backing President Reagan's economic policies. He resigned his seat and recaptured it, running as a Republican in the special election. Here's Gramm talking to voters in 1983.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PHIL GRAMM: I had to make a difficult choice in early January. I had to choose between you and Tip O'Neill, and I chose you. I have faithfully tried to represent the interests of the people of our district.

GONYEA: Over time, the state legislature turned Republican. The last Democrat elected governor of Texas was Ann Richards in 1990. But these days, the Texas Democratic Party sees opportunity in changing demographics. A fast-growing Hispanic population is the biggest reason. It's now the largest minority in the state, and is projected to be the largest single group in Texas in a decade. In the last election, President Obama won more than seven in 10 Hispanic votes. The key for Texas Democrats is to boost their low turnout rate. There's already been change in places like Dallas County. Democrat Rafael Anchia represents that area in the statehouse.

STATE REP. RAFAEL ANCHIA: Every countywide elected official is a Democrat. We have an African-American district attorney, the first one in Dallas County history. We have a Latina lesbian sheriff, obviously a pioneer in all kinds of ways. Our county treasurer, our county judges are all Democrats today, and it's because of demographics, plus infrastructure - and finally, a lot of hard work.

GONYEA: Analysts say the new Texas Democratic Party looks a lot like the national Democratic Party. The key in Texas will be to hold together a coalition of new Hispanic voters, African and Asian-Americans, progressive white voters and suburban voters. It's a very different look from the Texas Democrats of old. Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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