Photo: Edward A. Ornelas, Staff / San Antonio Express-News
Hey, Texas Democrats: It’s the second week of June in 2017. Less than nine months away from our next state primary. Do you have any idea who your gubernatorial candidates will be?
That’s good, because I don’t either. Over the past few days, I’ve talked to several local Dems with decades of political experience between them. Not one of them could offer a viable option for the party in the 2018 gubernatorial race.
In one sense, this hardly qualifies as shocking news. Texas Dems have a 23-year winless streak in statewide elections and have only once come within 12 points of winning a gubernatorial race during that long drought. They’ve learned, the hard way, that viability is just another word for something more to lose.
On the other hand, Democrats have usually been able to find some cause for optimism in the months leading up to a gubernatorial election cycle.
Around this time in 2001, they were hitching their wagon to Tony Sanchez, a Laredo oil-and-banking magnate that the late columnist Molly Ivins dubbed “the Great Brown Hope.” Sanchez proved to be a dud on the stump, but for a while at least, his deep pockets and potential appeal to Latino voters had Democrats thinking upset.
Four years later, Democrats could dredge up some optimism over the ballot chaos emerging with the independent campaign of musician/writer Kinky Friedman (and the eventual independent run of GOP state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn).
In the next two elections, Democrats pinned their hopes on the bipartisan, technocratic steadiness of then-Houston Mayor Bill White and the grassroots-energizing filibuster phenomenon of then-state Sen. Wendy Davis.
While it’s true that neither White nor Davis was set for the governor’s race this early in the process, there were at least other options on the table.
Former state Rep. (and ambassador to Japan and Australia) Tom Schieffer declared early for the 2010 race, with White — who initially planned to run for the U.S. Senate in a special election that never materialized — a possibility lurking in the background. And who can forget Houston hair-care mogul Farouk Shami.
And even before Davis’s star-making June 2013 filibuster against a restrictive anti-abortion bill, Democrats could at least talk themselves off the ledge with the notion that then-San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro could be persuaded to give it a go.
This time around, Democrats’ options range from slim to non-existent. Castro, who returned to S.A. early this year after a two-and-a-half year stint in Washington D.C. as housing secretary, has been emphatic about his disinclination to run for anything next year. No other serious prospects have emerged.
This is happening (or not happening) at a time when Democrats across the country are hoping that the low poll numbers for Republican President Donald Trump will carry over into next year and create a tea-party-in-reverse wave election. We see local Indivisible groups pushing to oust Republican congressmen Lamar Smith and Will Hurd, among others. But the governor’s race is a big fat question mark.
This has to be particularly frustrating for Dems because Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has drifted through his first 29 months in office, firmly in the shadow of attention-getting Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
George W. Bush put his stamp on education. Rick Perry built his 14-year tenure around the effort to lure business investment to the state, getting considerable credit for what came to be known as the “Texas Miracle.”
The closest Abbott has come to creating an issue for himself comes from his repeated calls for an Article V Convention of States, a pipe dream even more remote than a 2018 Democratic gubernatorial victory. His most memorable legislation signing was memorable for all the wrong reasons: enacting a controversial (and now legally challenged) sanctuary cities ban on a Sunday night away from the public, and seen only on Facebook Live video.
In a different state, at a different time, Abbott would be politically vulnerable. But he’s not.
Texas Democrats are stymied by many factors: a thin bench brought on by years of losing; the financial challenges (probably around $50 million) of running a credible gubernatorial campaign; and the unwillingness of promising figures to damage their brand by putting themselves on the line for an extreme long-shot.
One veteran San Antonio Dem put it this way: “There is so much Democratic PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in this state.”
Paging Farouk Shami.