Years ago, a savvy lawmaker told me that the political reality of Texas pointed to a two-party system in which the Republican Party would become the last bastion of a white power structure and the Democratic Party would emerge as the place for minority political power.
Of course, the lawmaker, a white Democrat who lost his next election, said this privately because of the sensitivity of his comments. But his observation may prove prescient this election season as two women — Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte — vie to make history by becoming the first all-female governor and lieutenant governor team to be elected simultaneously in any state in the country.
Davis may be garnering national accolades by Democrats after her 12-hour filibuster last year over the nation’s most restrictive abortion legislation, but it’s Van de Putte who could be the key to breaking the 20-year-long Republican lock on statewide offices in Texas because of the very trend my lawmaker friend predicted.
Leticia’s maiden name is San Miguel and her Hispanic heritage runs as deep as the Latino population in San Antonio, the city where she was raised and which she now represents. She may have been born out of state, where her father was stationed in the military, but she is a ninth generation Tejana.
Any hope the Democratic Party has in turning Texas purple — and eventually blue — lies with electing a charismatic Hispanic leader such as Van de Putte, and the Valley could play a significant role in securing an electoral victory for such a candidate.
Davis’ own campaign manager, Karin Johanson, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant, told the Texas Tribune recently that part of her optimism about this year’s election is based on what former Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala said: that Texas is a nonvoting state.
“There’s enough votes here to win this race,” she told the Tribune of the governor’s race. And she’s right. But those votes may be more likely to come from Hispanics than moderate, white independents.
Van de Putte may be a flawed candidate only because she took her husband’s name, which is Belgian in origin, but her political credentials are as impressive as her ability to wage legislative battles. Van de Putte has been in the Texas Legislature longer than Davis and served in both chambers — elected to the House in 1990 and the Senate in 1999.
All of this makes the apparent strategy among Democrats — one that relies on the populist appeal of Davis — so perplexing.
One longtime Austin politico said of Davis that he has not seen this much Democratic voter excitement over a candidate since the days of Ann Richards.
But electoral politics is about money and votes, and I don’t see enough of either for Davis. Indeed, there is a palpable sense of enthusiasm for her, but I fear that it will only ignite the enthusiasm for the conservative white base of this state, which has demonstrated that it will turn out to vote.
Van de Putte, however, has the potential to draw real enthusiasm from an Hispanic electorate, which could frustrate the GOP establishment in this state. The Republican Party knows it has a problem attracting Hispanic voters and dreads the day that a viable Hispanic statewide candidate will come along — a day that most demographers say is a certainty in this state.
Van de Putte could be that candidate if only the Democratic Party would invest more in raising her profile and relying less on the populist appeal of Davis. This should include more trips to the Valley and other border towns to demonstrate she is one of them, much the same way the good ol’ boys of Texas politics have been demonstrating the same thing for the past century.
It may be a risky strategy, but the time must come when Hispanics move to center stage in any political calculus.
Carlos Sanchez is editor of The Monitor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (956) 683-4460.