AUSTIN — Using rough numbers and optimistic assumptions, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa figures 70 percent of Texans should be inclined to vote for his party’s candidates.
He lists off the party’s traditional supporters and their percentage of the population: Hispanics are 40 percent, African-Americans are 15 percent and progressive whites add at least another 15 percent.
The trouble, Hinojosa admits, is the majority of those people are not voting for anyone. As the new chair of a party that hasn’t won a statewide election since 1994, he also acknowledges it’s his job to get them to the polls.
“The numbers are out there,” Hinojosa told The Associated Press. “The role of the Texas Democratic Party is to deliver the base.”
The 2010 gubernatorial race provides a yardstick. Former Houston Mayor Bill White — who had plenty of campaign cash — garnered 2.1 million votes against Gov. Rick Perry, who handily won the race by 631,036 ballots. To win, Hinojosa needs to boost voter turnout by at least 10 percent and get them all to vote for his party’s candidate. No easy feat.
“We’re not going to win just by increasing one segment’s turnout,” Hinojosa said, rejecting a popular belief among Democrats that Hispanics alone can return them to power.
There are two things that turn out the vote: big issues and exciting candidates. Hinojosa believes that Republican policies on illegal immigration, health care, public education and college tuition will give Democrats a boost in the years to come, particularly among Hispanics and young voters.
Last year Perry made local enforcement of federal immigration laws an emergency priority, angering many Hispanics who believe the proposed law would lead to racial profiling. Many Hispanics also do not believe it was a coincidence that Republican lawmakers cut $4.3 billion in education funding the same year Hispanic children became the majority of public school children, Hinojosa added.
The new federal health care law, which Republicans oppose, would benefit most low-income Texans who tend to vote Democratic. And the Republican-controlled Legislature has slashed funding for state universities and colleges, angering young voters.
To win, Hinojosa said Democrats must address other liberal issues that motivate core supporters, something the party hasn’t always done in the past. Hinojosa admits he was one of the party leaders who thought pushing centrist positions was the way to win back independents and attract Republican moderates.
“They have left, not to return,” Hinojosa said, adding that hardcore Democratic supporters lost interest and stopped voting.
The party will no longer hesitate to embrace issues important to the base, such as abortion rights, decriminalization of marijuana and equal marriage rights for non-heterosexuals, Hinojosa said. The party’s platform takes liberal stances on many of issues, and Hinojosa did not try to backpedal.
“We don’t believe people should be doing drugs,” Hinojosa said, explaining why the party wants possession of small amounts of marijuana to be a misdemeanor. “We know young people will do things experimentally and they should not have their entire lives destroyed for one mistake.”
The party can look to Nevada, Colorado and Dallas County for lessons on how to boost turnout. Dallas has turned blue because Democrats there ran a coordinated campaign and implemented a “five-touch strategy” to get out the vote. Activists contacted every potential voter at least five times to make sure they cast their ballot, Hinojosa said.
“We know the base is underperforming and needs a little love,” he said.
There is no shortage of young, charismatic Democratic candidates, Hinojosa added, naming San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, his twin brother state Rep. Joaquin Castro, Fort Worth state Sen. Wendy Davis and Dallas state Rep. Rafael Anchia as potential statewide candidates.
“There is an A-team,” Hinojosa said. But he added: “They don’t believe the party can provide them with the support they need to win.”
In order to give them a fighting chance, the party must guarantee at least 48 percent of the people casting ballots will pick the Democratic candidate, he explained. The candidate is then close enough to get themselves over the 50 percent mark by winning over the undecideds, he said.
Looking back at White’s 42 percent in 2010, Hinojosa said the party has a lot of work to do and set minimal expectations for this November. The party’s priorities will be turning out Democrats in the Houston and San Antonio areas to secure them as Democratic strongholds, and to ensure Davis’ re-election in Fort Worth, he said.
If the 2010 governor’s race shows how far Democrats have to go, the 2008 election results demonstrate what’s possible. While John McCain won by 12 percent in Texas, more than 3.5 million voters cast ballots for President Barack Obama. That’s 1.4 million more Democrats voting in 2008 than in 2010, and more than twice the number White needed to beat Perry.
Hinojosa’s job is to convince those people to vote all of the time.