The Democratic Party’s civil war continues to take its toll. Jim Geraghty noted that across the South, a handful of elected Democrat officials switched parties this week, and the week prior to that I noted that several others had switched, including two black Democrats in Georgia.
In Texas Tuesday, two Democratic state Representatives hung up the donkey and switched teams: State Rep. Allan Ritter of southeast Texas (District 21), and state Rep. Aaron Pena of Hidalgo County (District 40) , are now Republicans, giving the Texas GOP an almost unthinkable 101-49 supermajority in the state House.
Ritter (on the right in the photo above) hails from a conservative district, and was in many ways the last of the Democratic Party of yore, conservative and in line with the values of Texas. Pena, at the podium in the photo, could turn out to be a more historic switch. His district is in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, right on the Texas-Mexico border. Until today, there were no elected Republicans in Hidalgo County. Now there’s one.
If Pena’s name sounds familiar (and you’re not a Texas political junkee), it may be because I’ve written about him here at PJM before. He has been an outspoken critic of the Texas Democratic Party, and in particular its lack of attention to the values and beliefs of Texas Hispanics. Today, Pena voted with his feet and is now a Republican. I caught up with him after the event, iPhone in hand, to ask him a few questions. It was a noisy environment, but pay attention to how Pena says the liberals in his own party treated him for holding to some conservative ideas and values such as his pro-Second Amendment beliefs and his respect for the Constitution.
He describes the progressives’ attitude toward his values as a “hostile work environment.” Strong words. Here’s why he’s right.
The Texas Democrats made a colossal miscalculation a few years ago. When the Republicans took over the legislature and all the statewide offices, the Democrats rested their return to power on demographics. They believed, first, that the state would become majority Hispanic before long (and it will), but second, that such a demographic shift spelled unstoppable doom for the Republicans. So the Democrats saw no need to recalibrate their issue stands or messaging. They saw no need to figure out why ever more Texans were voting Republican. They saw no need to understand the voters here or come to grips with the issue environment. As a result, as the state has become increasingly conservative/libertarian, the Texas Democrats have become increasingly liberal/progressive and beholden to the Beltway, Organizing for America Democrats. As they might say on Mythbusters, “There’s yer problem.”
What the Democrats forgot to account for is elementary in politics. They failed to account for what voters actually believe. Hispanic voters tend to be Catholic, they tend to be socially conservative, and they tend, at least in Texas, to be Texans and Americans before they’re Hispanic. And that priority of self-identification makes a world of difference.
When you see politics through an entirely economic lens, as the progressive set does, you miss out on what really motivates people as people from the heart. We don’t make all of our decisions along purely economic or ethnic lines of interest. We make many, maybe most, of our decisions for reasons that have little if anything to do with economics. No one joins the military, for instance, as a purely economic choice. No one becomes a police officer or a firefighter out of purely economic motives. Few get married or attend church or engage in any sort of charity work out of pure economics. Economics may drive much of what we do, but it doesn’t define who we are, not really. The Texas Democrats made the mistake of leaving voter values entirely out of their issue priority, instead of hearing them and mixing them in within their issue calibration. And they’re paying the price for that mistake now. Democrats in Texas have been winnowed down to a rump party, and after these latest two party switches, the Democrats are even more liberal and off the political edge than they already were. So their problem, which predates Obama and his mistakes which have added to the Democrats’ woes, just got a little bit worse.
The liberal, activist Burnt Orange Report crowd will undoubtedly assail Ritter and Pena for their switches. They’ll accuse them of only switching for committee chairmanships or access, and of course those political concerns are in the mix of why the two switched. But they don’t explain the switch in its entirety, not by a long shot.
At the event, Gov. Rick Perry described the switch as a “homecoming” for conservatives who are no longer welcome in today’s Democratic Party. Like everything else Perry says, the Democrats will either ignore or attack this comment. But they would do well to listen, and remember: Rick Perry was once a Texas Democrat himself. He knows, better than most, what it means when your party leaves you and your values behind.