There are dozens of interesting stories about the recently concluded 2006 elections. These include the Democratic takeover in New Hampshire and dramatic Democratic victories in states like Iowa and Kansas.
However, nothing is more startling that what happened in the reddest of all red states: Texas.
Against all odds, Texas Democrats picked up five seats in the Texas House of Representatives (closing the Republican edge to only six seats), swept every contested county-wide race in George Bush’s real home county (Dallas), the second largest county in the state, won Tom DeLay’s Congressional seat and forced another Republican Congressman, Henry Bonilla, into a Dec. 12 run-off that he could lose.
This all happened in a state where everyone had declared the Democrats dead and buried, and it happened because of the dogged determination of the state Democratic Party, local Democrats in North Texas and the behind-the-scenes work of a little-known entity, the Lone Star Project.
I am particularly proud of the strategic advice offered by the Lone Star Project and the Texas Democratic Trust, which are directed by my former Chief of Staff Matt Angle.
The Lone Star Project conducts detailed policy and political analysis and targeting. The Texas Democratic Trust is an ambitious long-term project to help rebuild the Texas Democratic structure statewide. I am no longer actively involved in Texas politics but have followed Matt’s work with great admiration.
Let’s start with the State House of Representatives. Going into the election, Republicans had an 86-64 margin, largely as a result of the 2002 redistricting implemented by a Republican controlled redistricting board. Democrats very carefully recruited and funded candidates in a selective number of Republican seats where demographic changes in the past four years gave the party a chance.
Much to everyone’s surprise, five seats fell to Democrats. The Lone Star Project provided sophisticated targeting, key research and strategic advice to many of the Democratic legislative candidates.
Then there was Dallas County, the place where both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney lived in 2000 when they were nominated (Cheney quickly changed his voter registration to Wyoming to satisfy the legal requirement that the president and vice president be from different states).
Dallas, a long-time bastion of Republican power in Texas, has gradually been becoming more Democratic in recent years as a result of Republican white flight to the neighboring counties to the north, east and south.
In 2004, Bush-Cheney only won Dallas County 51percent to 49 percent. Democrats that year won the sheriff’s office and several countywide judgeships. This year, the Democratic Party swept all 42 contested judicial positions (elected county-wide) and all five contested county offices including county judge (the presiding officer of the county commissioner’s court), district attorney, county clerk and county treasurer.
These victories were put together by a carefully coordinated and targeted get-out-the-vote effort which was run professionally and funded by money from the state party, a local Democratic North Texas PAC (TXVAC), the county party and local candidates. The Lone Star Project helped recruit experienced political operatives to augment the new strong party leadership in Dallas County and help construct a winning campaign plan and insure that the coordinated campaign was professionally managed.
The two Congressional races – the 22nd District (former DeLay district) won by former Democratic Rep. Nick Lampson and the 23rd District being contested by former Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez in this week’s runoff – are both extraordinary stories of perseverance.
Lampson had been running against DeLay for a year when DeLay withdrew from the race weeks after he had won the Republican primary. The Republican Party attempted the replace DeLay on the ballot; however, Texas Democrats went into federal court to block the Republicans from putting anyone else on the ballot.
Matt Angle and others pushed hard for a legal challenge to the DeLay ballot scheme. After a decision by state party chairman, Boyd Richie, to pursue the case, Angle worked closely with talented attorneys and party leaders to coordinate the suit and to develop an effective message that convinced voters that Democrats were right on the law and on principle.
The federal courts agreed that once the primary had been conducted DeLay could not have his name replaced on the ballot simply by moving out of state (he claimed he was now a resident of Virginia but the courts said it was impossible to determine where he would live on election day). This court decision forced the Republicans to field a write-in candidate who then lost to Lampson on election day.
It is yet to be determined whether or not Democrats can pick up an additional seat in tomorrow’s run-off in the 23rd District. However, if Rodriguez does win, it also will be result of a successful legal strategy pushed by Texas Democrats and the Lone Star Project.
The Texas Democratic Party and key Hispanic advocacy groups insisted on taking a challenge to DeLay’s congressional redistricting map all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court even though many people in Texas doubted that the challenge could be successful. The Lone Star Project conducted critical research and provided coordination and encouragement for the legal challenge.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected most of the challenges to DeLay’s redistricting map but ruled that the Texas Legislature had violated the federal Voting Rights Act in the way it redrew the 23rd District in South Texas. The lower court then redrew the 23rd District, adding additional Hispanic voters and, as a result, making the district more competitive for a Democrat.
Since the district was redrawn after the party primaries, the lower court reopened candidate filing and required the winner to have a majority of the votes cast (normally a candidate can win with a plurality in the general election but not in the case when a district is redrawn late in the cycle).
Bonilla, the Republican incumbent, finished first but did not get a majority. Rodriguez, the Democrat, ran second. Rodriguez now has the full financial backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and it is not inconceivable that he could win this Tuesday given that he would have a chance to serve in the new Democratic majority in the U.S. House and Bonilla, if re-elected, would be part of the minority.
The dramatic victories in Texas have inspired other Texas Democrats to start thinking about 2008 and the chance to pick up additional State House seats and the opportunity to sweep other urban counties such as Harris (Houston) and Bexar (San Antonio).
If that happens, Democrats can thank the dogged efforts of Matt Angle and the Lone Star Project for refusing to give up and helping show the way to victory.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Welte and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.