In red-state Texas, new signs of rising Democratic tide

The drawn-out fight for a Democratic presidential nominee is driving left-leaning Texans into the open, infusing them with a sense of relevance for the first time in a generation.

Mark Thomson
The Stubbes: Deep in Bush country, they welcome growing activism among Democrats.
Mark Thomson
Clinton rally: Supporters Tan Pham (right) and her husband Dang Nnanh cheer at the opening of a new Clinton office outside Houston. Texas Democrats are newly resurgent after 14 years of GOP control.
Mark Thomson
Obama-mania in Texas: At a newly opened Obama field office in heavily Republican Sugar Land, Texas, a campaign staffer works the phones.

For most of his life Ken Stubbe has voted for Democrats for president. But as a resident of a deeply Republican suburb of Houston, in the heart of Bush country, the retired oil and gas project manager kept quiet.

He didn't talk politics with neighbors or friends. He didn't sink presidential campaign signs in his lawn. He sometimes even voted in Republican primaries, often because no Democrats were running in local races and, well, why waste his vote?

"I just kind of accepted that living here in Texas, that's the way it was," he says.

But the drawn-out fight for the Democratic presidential nomination is driving left-leaning Texans like Mr. Stubbe out of the closet, infusing them with a sense of relevance for the first time in a generation. Ahead of the Texas primary Tuesday, they are wearing buttons, putting up signs, and volunteering, even in GOP redoubts like this well-to-do city southwest of Houston.

Most significantly, as party activists see it, Texas Democrats are emerging from the shadows to vote. Democratic turnout at early-voting stations statewide is nearly four times 2004 levels and is exceeding Republican turnout even in the conservative Dallas and Houston suburbs.

Here in Fort Bend County, a Republican stronghold represented until recently by Rep. Tom DeLay (R), the former House majority leader, Democratic turnout for early voting is 19 times greater than it was in 2004.

This month, Stubbe went to classes on caucusing and delegate selection, discreetly scouted for Democrats in his leafy subdivision, and called the local party to volunteer as an election clerk on March 4. On Wednesday, he picked up a sign at a newly opened Barack Obama campaign office here, determined to plant it next to the Hillary Rodham Clinton sign his wife Karen had put up beside the driveway a few days earlier.

"There's history being made and people just want to participate," Stubbe says.

The outpouring has caught Democratic activists by surprise, mostly because the nomination fight was supposed to be settled long before it reached the Lone Star State. But an indecisive Super Tuesday has made Texas, with 193 delegates at stake, a crucial battleground for the first time since 1988.

A surge of funds, volunteers

Democratic officials see voters' fervor as a sign that the pendulum may be swinging left after a decade and a half of Republican rule that began with George W. Bush's election as governor in 1994. The weeks since Super Tuesday have seen a surge in volunteering and political donations, they say, including $300,000 the state party raised at a $50-a-head event the night of last week's presidential debate in Austin.

"There is a recognition by Democratic activists, donors, and elected officials that there's a real opportunity here, and we have to be the kind of organized party that can take advantage of it," says Amber Moon, a spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party.

Because party officials can obtain lists of voters in primaries – but not in general elections – a key windfall will be a long list of new targets for phone calls, mailers, and get-out-the-vote drives.

"These people then become your precinct captains, your volunteers, sometimes your campaign managers, sometimes your candidates," says Matt Angle, director of the Texas Democratic Trust, a political action committee founded in 2005 to help rebuild the ailing state party.

The fortunes of Texas Democrats dimmed with Mr. Bush's 1994 victory over incumbent Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, then crashed after Bush won the White House. Republicans soon swept every statewide office, won majorities in the legislature, and redrew political districts to lock in their gains.

With Bush in the Oval Office, "there was a feeling that Texas politics had been ratified and writ large at the national level," says Prof. Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the author of "Texas Politics: Governing the Lone Star State." "Institutionally, the Democratic Party in Texas at the state and county level and below was moribund. Democrats were beaten down."

Reports began circulating that the party was struggling to pay the light bills at its Austin headquarters.

Kathleen Troiano, a yoga teacher in Sugar Land, recalls that her John Kerry signs were stolen almost as soon as she posted them on her lawn in 2004. "I found them in our sewer drain," Ms. Troiano, who moved here from Vermont in 1993 when her husband got a job transfer, said after casting an early ballot here Tuesday.

She says she still knows better than to discuss politics with neighbors – "one even thinks yoga is bad" – but is heartened by the Democratic turnout in her city. "It feels good that maybe people are seeing it's time for a change."

Some Texas Republicans scoff at the idea that the March 4 contest is pumping life into the Democratic Party, noting that high turnout in past primaries rarely translated into victories in general elections. "Texas is a blazingly red state," says Hans Klingler, the communications and political director for the state GOP. "The Democrats are hanging a lot on anecdotes and shadows right now."

But other GOP activists see cause for concern. Rick Miller, chairman of the Republican Party of Fort Bend County, says he's heard from more than two dozen Republicans planning to vote in the Democratic primary because there is no suspense left on the Republican side and they harbor strong feelings – pro or con – for Senators Obama and Clinton. (Texans do not register by party and can vote in either primary.)

Mr. Miller frets that such decisions reflect a worrisome apathy about important local GOP contests. "The key issue for us is to get our base out to vote" Republican, he says. "If we don't, we're going to lose, because we're seeing numbers here on the Democratic side that are just incredible."

GOP still in charge

Republicans still control every statewide office and the legislature. But in the 2006 elections, Democrats picked up six House seats and ended two decades of GOP dominance in Dallas County. An infusion of donations and staff has put the state Democratic Party back on par with its Republican counterpart. And in Republican Harris County, which includes Houston, a growing Hispanic population, displeasure with the Bush White House, and a scandal involving a local district attorney are raising hopes for a Democratic takeover there in November.

Texas is home to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, a George Bush Park, and a soon-to-be-built George W. Bush Presidential Library. Democratic activists expect few major shifts in the balance of power this year but are seeing enough encouraging signs to set 2010 as a target for wresting back the Texas House and at least one statewide office.

"This will be the first time in Texas in 28 years," says Mr. Angle, "that there won't be a Bush either on the ballot or sitting as president, vice president, or governor after an election was over."

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