The roll-out in Houston drew 200 – 300 people on a Saturday afternoon at a local union hall. My reaction to the event, and the overall effort, is cautious skepticism. Maybe this will work, but it is going to be both difficult and time-consuming. To highlight the difficulties, I focus on the three Ms – Money, Message, and Messengers.
Let's start with money. If anything like Battleground Texas (BT) is going to work it will take sustained resources over several years. These resources cannot be generated within Texas, given the Democrats' lack of influence in state government, so a lot of outside help will be needed. And the only way that will happen, in my opinion, is strong support from President Obama and his political team to this effort. Will that occur? Only time will tell. The argument for an Obama commitment to Texas, a state he did not need to get elected and reelected, boils down to breaking the national partisan gridlock by cracking the very base of the Republican Party. If Texas becomes competitive, as our junior U.S. Senator Ted Cruz noted, the national Republican Party's odds of recapturing the White House are nil. And without the presidency, control of the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary will inevitably swing back to the left.
In an era of divided government and sharp party polarization, it is extremely difficult for reelected presidents to get much done legislatively. That reality means second termers now have an incentive to move beyond Washington and try shifting the balance of power across the nation toward their party. George W. Bush did this is 2005, when he announced that his reelection gave him political capital, and he planned to spend it. Bush 43 hoped that initiatives like his "ownership society" and out-reach to minority voters would produce an era of Republican dominance comparable to that of the early 20th century. That did not happen, as his reform of social security failed in 2005 and comprehensive immigration reform died in 2007. Add in the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, plus the economic collapse of 2007-2008, and Bush's second term had the opposite effect of his 2005 plans.
Will the number one beneficiary of Bush's second term travails, President Barack Hussein Obama, fare any better in his last four years? Who knows, but with even less legislative opportunity than his predecessor (Bush had Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate in 2005 and 2006) to get anything out of Congress save immigration reform, Obama might well try to enlarge the playing field by targeting Texas. The President is expected to raise a million dollars at a Dallas fund-raiser Thursday, so there seems an initial commitment here. But this is just a very small part of what will be needed over the next few years if BT is going to make any real difference in the realigning the state's partisan balance.
The bottom line: Everything hinges on a continuing commitment to BT from the President as party leader. Today he seems interested in doing this, but events often refocus presidential efforts as a second term moves along.
If money is uncertain, message is not. After more than a decade of total Republican control in Austin, BT has plenty of ammunition to attack the partisan status quo in Texas. With the primary target of BT being engagement of the growing Hispanic population, the birds' nests on the ground are restoring funding for public education, expanding health insurance coverage, and passing comprehensive immigration reform. Hispanics account for over half the children in Texas public schools – schools whose funding was cut by more than five billion dollars by the 2011 Legislature. And Texas has the largest number of uninsured persons in the nation with Latinos constituting the majority of this population. So pushing back against Governor Perry's adamant refusal to expand Medicaid coverage – with federal dollars – is a no-brainer for the BT folks. As is comprehensive immigration reform, because of the estimated eleven million undocumented persons in the U.S., 1.6 million are Texas residents. And with both Texas Republican senators signaling opposition to the deal Florida's Marco Rubio helped craft in the Senate, BT has an opportunity to exploit the hard-line local GOP opposition to immigration reform.
So the money for BT is uncertain. Message is not. What about messengers? From where I sit, that is a very big problem for the Battleground Texas initiative. More on that later.
About Dr. Richard Murray
Richard Murray is a native of Louisiana with B.A. and M.A. degrees in Government from Louisiana State University (1962, 1963) and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota (1967). Dr. Murray has taught at the University of Houston since 1966 and is currently the Bob Lanier Professor of Public Policy in the UH Department of Political Science and Director of Surveying for the UH Center for Public Policy.
His academic interests are in Houston and Texas politics, focusing on campaigns and elections, political parties and interest groups, and public opinion. Professor Murray has written extensively in these areas, while teaching courses ranging from graduate seminars to introductory American Government.
In a previous life, Professor Murray consulted in more than 200 political campaigns before completing the 12-step recovery program in the late 1980s. He occasionally conducts polls for local media and governments and is a political analyst for Channel 13, KTRK Television.
Professor Murray is married to Deborah Hartman, and has three sons, Robert, Keir, and Dylan Murray.
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