Democrats fan out candidates to make up for weaknesses
FORT WORTH -- Michael Cooper wants to find more people willing to take a chance running for office like he did this year.
He spent little more than $10,000 — much of it his own money — to wage a tight statewide battle for the Democratic party’s nod to run for lieutenant governor. The only African American to run for the office, he fell short of the Democratic nomination by less than 5 percentage points in this spring’s primary election, even though he was outspent at least 40 to 1.
“I did get people excited. I didn’t have $2 million,” Cooper said, smiling under his black cowboy hat at the Texas Democratic Party’s biennial convention this week in Fort Worth.
Democrats here and across the country hope that a “blue wave” of people frustrated with the Trump administration will elect Democrats in November. Conventional wisdom suggests a party needs exciting candidates and a lot of money to win elections — two elements where the Texas party is arguably light.
“We need to find other candidates like myself,” Cooper said. “You can’t build a roof without a foundation.”
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Texas Democrats have fought extinction and irrelevancy for years at the Texas Capitol. Republicans control the governor’s office, all statewide elected offices and both chambers of the state Legislature, where Democrats are a small minority. The last time Democrats won a statewide race was more than 20 years ago.
Republicans parked a hearse outside the convention center Friday, trolling The Texas Democratic Party with a sign reading “RIP 1846 - 2018.”
Inside, though, 7,000 of the most faithful Democrats are trying to breathe new life into this year’s election. Much of that hope is riding on Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso maverick. His frankness, accessibility and social media savvy have made him a star within the party, and his logo a brand for Texas progressives.
“Maybe [a win] is not attainable statewide, but I think it is. I think maybe there is a breakthrough candidate. Maybe it’s a Beto,” said Leticia Van de Putte, who ran in 2014 for lieutenant governor. She also sees potential in retired Air Force Col. Kim Olson, the party’s candidate for agriculture commission who wowed the convention.
“Even in places that I would say are totally red, there is movement,” she said.
There’s less electricity for Lupe Valdez, a former sheriff running for governor. A Latina and lesbian with careers in law enforcement and the military is revving up some circles. But the 70-year-old with little campaign cash is gunning to unseat Greg Abbott, a popular Republican governor toting a $41-million political war chest.
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Fundraising can be a reliable indicator of support for a candidate, and Valdez has struggled to raise money. Some analysts say she’ll need to raise $10 million to compete against Abbott in the general election. At last report in May, she had $115,000 on hand.
O’Rourke has raised $13 million from small-dollar donors, which worries Republicans because he’ll be able to go back to those people for more. He may also share those donors with other Democrats in the future.
Valdez, lieutenant governor candidate Mike Collier and other statewide candidates’ fundraising efforts, though, have paled in comparison. Collier warned that raising money for statewide races alone does not guarantee success.
Democrats watched gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis raise tons of money in 2014 but fail to turn out voters. This election year, there was a concerted effort to field more candidates even in tough red areas. That way dozens of candidates will be using money to turn out Democrats instead of just hoping the top of the ticket will take care of everything.
“It has to come from the bottom up,” said Collier. “It can’t be top down.”
Democrats have fielded candidates in each U.S. House race and in almost 90 percent of Texas House and Senate districts. Each race is part of the larger get-out-the-vote strategy that party leaders hope could sway a statewide election where Republican incumbents are well-funded or popular with the conservative base.
Even with the run-in-every-race strategy, Democrats have struggled to raise money, but Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, said they’re working to turn that around.
”We’ve raised more money online than any Democratic party in the country. We are raising more money today than we ever did before,” he said, adding that the Democratic National Committee is giving the state party $100,000 for a digital outreach program.
The key is motivating people outside the convention to vote, and vote for Democrats. Part of that means getting people registered and excited about candidates.
Plenty here are pumped about this year’s slate. Many are wearing shirts promoting Beto or Valdez, or are walking the convention center crooning about Olson.
“My problem is there’s not a lot of young people” at the top of the Democratic ticket, said Greg Callow, a semi-retired appraiser, convention delegate and precinct chair from Henderson County. Many candidates for statewide office are well over 50 years old and Democrats need a younger perspective, he said. Valdez will win the base, but he doesn’t have a feel if independents will get on board.
What the party particularly needs is more women or parents of young children who have big ideas about what they want for their state to run for office, he said.
“They’re the ones who will be around in 10 years.”
Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report.