Wendy Davis has lost her bid to become governor of Texas, according to projections from multiple networks. But she was always going to lose. The amount she loses by — which isn't yet clear — will determine whether her bid is viewed as a step forward in Texas Democrats' efforts to turn the state blue, or a step backwards.
Texas hasn't become more Democratic yet
The Republican advantage in Texas has been deep and enduring. "No Democrat has come within 12 points of winning a statewide race here since 1998," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist from Southern Methodist University. "Good Democratic candidates have lost by 12 to 14 points, and poor ones have lost by 30." Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, concurs: "When you look at who actually turns out to vote in the state, any Republican starts off with somewhere between a 10 and 15 point advantage."
Since Obama's strong performance among Hispanics in the 2012 elections, however, Democrats have increasingly hoped that the demographic transformation of Texas would lead their party to greater success. In 2005, Texas first became a majority-minority state, and the Hispanic population has only grown more since. "It was 38 percent in 2010, it could be 40 percent now," says Jillson.
Yet so far, these new demographics haven't given Democrats much reason to celebrate — Obama didn't do any better in Texas than previous presidential candidates. One reason, Nate Cohn argued, is that "White Texans keep getting more Republican." Another reason is that Hispanics make up a far lower percentage of the state's electorate than its population — only 22 percent in 2012, according to a report by Latino Decisions. Some are too young to vote, and some aren't citizens. But there's also low registration and turnout among Hispanics, and particularly among lower-income Hispanics.
"These demographic changes are being filtered through a political system that has very low voter turnout among the groups that would possibly cause political change," says Henson. Former Obama staffer Jeremy Bird launched the high-profile organizing effort Battleground Texas in 2013 to try and change that — but always emphasized that it would be "a really long-term project." Jillson expects it will be "the work of decades."
There are some other features of the Texas political situation that always made a Davis victory seem very unlikely. Unlike in Kansas, where the GOP has fractured ideologically, Texas Republicans have tended to unite around conservative candidates who oust moderates in primaries. What's more, Texas' budget situation is basically the opposite of beleaguered Kansas'. "The big issue in 2015 is going to be what to do with the gargantuan surplus the state has," Jones says. Additionally, outgoing Republican Governor Rick Perry remains popular despite his indictment, so there's little sense among Texas voters that they need a major change — particularly in a year that looks to go poorly for Democrats nationally.
Overall, the conditions that would enable a major upheaval of the state's politics don't exist now. "While Texas may eventually turn blue, it was never going to turn blue this election cycle barring some cataclysmic gaffe by Greg Abbott," Jones says. Henson concurs: "The story of the campaign has always been, 'Would Wendy Davis's really rapid ascension be the beginning of a successful effort to reverse what have been deep structural trends in Texas?'"
The margin will tell
With that in mind, Davis will be judged on whether she draws a greater share of the vote than the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Bill White — whether she made progress for the party. White received no national buzz and lost to Rick Perry by 12.7 percentage points in a very Republican year.
"If she does worse than Bill White, despite having all this money, the national star power, Battleground Texas, and demographics in her favor, that's going to really demoralize Texas Democrats and set them back in their efforts to turn Texas purple or blue," Jones told me in October. "On the other hand, if she manages to move the margin of defeat to 6 or 7, that will likely invigorate the Democratic Party and create a virtuous circle of more investment and enthusiasm." We'll see as the results come in.