The PJ Tatler

Will Obama make a play for the Lone Star state, or is he just messing with Texas?

Politico reports that the Obama campaign plans to make a big push for Texas, and its 38 electoral votes, in 2012. His El Paso speech, they report, was the opening shot.

President Barack Obama’s campaign is heeding the political siren song of Texas, telling supporters he hopes to make a real effort in a state where the growing Hispanic electorate has long raised — then dashed — Democratic hopes.

Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, speaking to big-money Lone Star State Democrats at closed-door meetings in Austin and Dallas in March, predicted Obama could make a “serious play” in the cornerstone of GOP presidential politics, according to people in attendance.

As I’ve already written, the El Paso speech was a flop. Obama mocked a serious issue that Texans of all backgrounds deal with every day, showing once again his partisanship rather than any statesmanship. He turned the border into a comedy club, with himself playing insult comic before a closed, and therefore predictably adoring, crowd (and still managed to earn a boo here and there). He did not make his way in Texas next year any easier. Add in his negligence on Texas’ wildfire crisis and his administration’s decision to deny Houston a retired space shuttle, and you have the makings of a very unpopular president. Perhaps that is why he took no press questions during his brief swing here. The Brad Watson effect lingers on.

Texas is a large state, with about 26 million residents, five major media markets, and 254 counties, at once increasingly urban yet boasting wide swaths of rural territory, farm country and coasts, huge cities and tiny backwoods towns, with a diverse population growing increasingly Hispanic. It’s that latter fact that has had Democrats pining for victory in Texas ever since they were turned out of power at the statewide level in 1994. They believe that as Texas becomes more Hispanic, it will inevitably turn purple and then blue, and they further believe that because of this demographic shift, they need not change course on their progressive issue agenda. Theirs is an openly racist strategy, but so far it’s all they have.

Texas Democratic political consultants obviously have a vested interest in hoping Team Obama spends big in the state in 2012:

“Look, if he’s really going to be a billion-dollar candidate, why not spend some of that money on Texas?” said Marc Campos, a Houston-based Democratic political consultant who is encouraging the campaign to go all in.

Especially when going “all in” means that you, Mark Campos, stand to get rich as Democrat consultants like Matt Angle have before you, even while continuing to lose, as he has.

The problem for Democrats campaigning in Texas is not necessarily money or logistics, though both are daunting in a state where it can take $20 million and legions of field operatives to run a true statewide campaign. The problem for Democrats in Texas, which the Politico article never gets into, is issues. And President Obama himself is one of the biggest issues.

As a world historic candidate who set the world in fire in 2008, Obama still managed to lose in Texas by a million votes and 12 percentage points. Two years later, two of his most visible supporters in the state, Rep. Chet Edwards and state Rep. Jim Dunnam, had both been turned out of office, the former defeated by one of Texas’ new Republican Hispanic officers, the latter turned out by a newcomer to politics who hammered away at Dunnam’s liberal, out-of-touch with Texas voting record. Obama has become a liability, not an asset. Bill White, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, literally put several counties between himself and Obama whenever the president visited Texas. White’s antics became so comical that Americans for Prosperity parodied him mercilessly, putting him in a Groucho disguise. And White, the former Houston mayor who was seen as literally the Texas Democrats’ great White hope, got trounced by Gov. Rick Perry anyway. Even in a state that’s larger than most countries, White just could not find enough distance to put between himself and Obama, to whom he had cozied up for a job after Obama’s 2008 victory. In the aftermath of 2010, Democrats in Texas have a one-third minority in the state House, a weak minority in the Senate, lost ground in the US House delegation and still hold no statewide offices at all.

Why did Perry and the Republicans win? Aside from being probably the best campaigner Texas has ever produced, he won because he and his party (disclosure: I was working for the Texas GOP during most of the 2010 cycle, developing many of its strategies and themes) stuck to core themes and values of strength, freedom and prosperity, easy to say and understand and easy to contrast with the Democrats’ far left agenda. The Texas record of economic growth over the past few years and especially during the recession has literally flown in the face of Obama’s statist visions. The Republicans also did something in 2009 and 2010 that it had not done successfully before: It recruited quality minority candidates across the state, and helped them defeated liberal Democrats. From the state House, where Republicans Larry Gonzales and Jose Aliseda turned out Democrat incumbents, to east Texas, where black conservative James White defeated the last Democrat in that part of the state, to the US House, where Bill Flores defeated Chet Edwards and Quico Canseco defeated Ciro Rodriguez, the Republicans shifted into a new gear while sticking to their conservative roots.

I’m not spiking the football here, just making the point that Obama may well plan to spend $10 million or $20 million or more in Texas in 2012 but he and his party are unlikely to win. They may well gain a few seats here and there, largely because they have so few left to lose.

Obama may well spend in big Texas, but most likely to feint at the state’s Democrats to give them a false hope and raise even more money from them to spend campaigning elsewhere. Spending in Texas will keep Texas’ Democratic consultants here, putting another round of demoralizing losses on their records, and will tie up campaign money in the state that could be used in more competitive states. However much money Obama plans to spend, if he and his party do not stop messing with Texas — via the EPA’s assault on our energy industry, via foisting more statist policies on a libertarian-conservative state that isn’t interested, by making jokes while the border with Mexico becomes ever more dangerous, attacking Texans’ right to set our own policies — they will not win here. Their racist strategy of waiting on the Hispanic demographic surge will not work, not when Texas Hispanics skew more conservative than white Texans, and they do, and not when the candidate and his party are seen as hostile to the state’s success, and they are.

All of that said, 2012 is no time for the state’s Republicans to grow complacent. The demographic shift will eventually alter the political landscape, and what the Democrats call the “Univision” effect — meaning they will advertise in Spanish media, where Republicans are far less likely to spend money and have fewer relevant resources to bring to bear — will kick in at some point. So far, there is no sign that the Republicans will get complacent, at least not in 2012. Hispanic GOP incumbents can run on the successful 2011 legislative session and beating back the Obama agenda in Washington. It was Rep. Quico Canseco (R-TX23) who greeted President Obama with the “Texas Burns” video on Monday. Candidates like the impressive Dianne Costa will run as conservatives in new Congressional districts, and the Texas GOP will work to shore up its gains from 2010. Costa is a dream candidate; an experienced former mayor, a staunch conservative telegenic Hispanic woman who spares no wrath for liberals and their leaders inside and outside Texas; tough on crime, tough on the border and a strong advocate for conservative thinking and individual liberty. She could be a star in the making. Add in conservatives Ted Cruz and Michael Williams, both beloved by the Texas GOP’s grassroots and competitors for the US Senate next year on the Republican side, and you have the most dynamic and diverse class of candidates and incumbents the party has ever produced. And add in Comptroller Susan Combs and Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, who is also running for Senate, and you have a very conservative party in the nation’s largest red state proffering strong female leadership as well. Simply put, the interesting action in Texas politics is almost entirely on the GOP side.

Meanwhile, across the aisle, Texans will be treated to the same old liberal policies coming from the same old cast of has-beens. So Obama can spend a mint in the Lone Star state next year, and he probably will. But he is very unlikely to win here.