Democrats Are Running Out of States to Flip

White voters in Georgia, Arizona, and Texas are becoming overwhelmingly Republican, while Hispanic turnout continues to lag.

Democratic Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
July 8, 2014, 7:03 p.m.

In as­sess­ing the fu­ture of polit­ics, former Obama cam­paign man­ager Dav­id Plouffe offered an eye-catch­ing pre­dic­tion in The Wall Street Journ­al‘s op-ed page Monday: The Re­pub­lic­an strong­holds of Ari­zona, Geor­gia, and, yes, Texas, are poised to be­come swing states over the next couple of dec­ades. His pro­jec­tion shouldn’t be too sur­pris­ing: When look­ing at the boom­ing minor­ity growth across the coun­try, it’s easy to see how the polit­ic­al com­pos­i­tion of cer­tain states can change dra­mat­ic­ally, even in once-par­tis­an strong­holds.

But it’s also worth tak­ing a closer look at what’s cur­rently hap­pen­ing in those three states, through the prism of the races tak­ing place there this year. If any­thing, re­cent elec­tions sug­gest that the states aren’t turn­ing more fa­vor­able for Demo­crats, but in­stead are be­com­ing more ra­cially po­lar­ized. Mitt Rom­ney im­proved his per­form­ance over John Mc­Cain in all three states from 2008 to 2012, even in Mc­Cain’s home state. Since Obama’s elec­tion in 2008, Re­pub­lic­ans won every gubernat­ori­al and Sen­ate race in the tri­fecta, with a per­fect 9-0 re­cord. White voters in these di­ver­si­fy­ing South­ern states are be­com­ing over­whelm­ingly Re­pub­lic­an, while His­pan­ic turnout con­tin­ues to lag well be­hind their ra­cial coun­ter­parts.

The gap between ex­pect­a­tions and real­ity quickly came to a head in this year’s Texas gubernat­ori­al race, a con­test that Demo­crats be­lieved they could win with a na­tion­ally known can­did­ate (state Sen. Wendy Dav­is, of abor­tion-fili­buster fame) and a re­newed fo­cus on grass­roots or­gan­iz­ing. But Dav­is has found her­self badly trail­ing Re­pub­lic­an At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Greg Ab­bott, re­cog­niz­ing that a con­ven­tion­ally lib­er­al cam­paign fo­cused on so­cial is­sues is of lim­ited util­ity in the Lone Star State, both in per­suad­ing Texas mod­er­ates and boost­ing His­pan­ic turnout.

The num­bers for Texas Demo­crats, des­pite the Latino growth, are daunt­ing even in the long term. While His­pan­ics com­prised 38 per­cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to the 2010 census, they made up only 20 per­cent of the 2008 elect­or­ate. In 2010, Demo­crats nom­in­ated one of their strongest chal­lengers to run against Gov. Rick Perry — mod­er­ate Hou­s­ton May­or Bill White — yet he got only 28 per­cent of the white vote.

By the time Texas has enough re­gistered His­pan­ic voters to make a polit­ic­al dif­fer­ence, it’s pos­sible that many second-gen­er­a­tion Lati­nos will be as­sim­il­ated and less re­li­ably Demo­crat­ic than their par­ents. Already, re­search­ers are find­ing that a siz­able num­ber of His­pan­ics later self-identi­fy as white, dampen­ing the tra­ject­ory of steady His­pan­ic growth in­to the fu­ture.

In Ari­zona, where im­mig­ra­tion has played a cent­ral role in the state’s polit­ics, ra­cial po­lar­iz­a­tion has be­come more pro­nounced dur­ing Obama’s pres­id­ency. In 2008, with im­mig­ra­tion-re­form sup­port­er Mc­Cain as the GOP nom­in­ee, there was only an 18-point gap between his per­form­ance among whites (59 per­cent) and His­pan­ics (41 per­cent). In 2010, with Mc­Cain tout­ing his bor­der-se­cur­ity bon­afides as he ran for reelec­tion to the Sen­ate, that mar­gin grew to 25 points. Mean­while, Gov. Jan Brew­er, who signed one of the most re­strict­ive im­mig­ra­tion laws in the coun­try that year, won 61 per­cent of white voters and just 28 per­cent of Lati­nos. By the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, there was a 41-point gulf between Mitt Rom­ney’s stand­ing with whites and His­pan­ics.

That year’s Sen­ate race offered a pre­view of how Demo­crats can com­pete in the fu­ture. Demo­crat Richard Car­mona came with­in 3 points of GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, on the heels of over­whelm­ing His­pan­ic sup­port and run­ning ahead of Obama with white voters. But even that wasn’t enough to pre­vail, des­pite Car­mona’s unique ap­peal to both mod­er­ate whites and His­pan­ics as George W. Bush’s sur­geon gen­er­al.

For Demo­crats, Geor­gia may of­fer the best long-term op­por­tun­it­ies of the three states that Plouffe cited, but the po­lar­iz­a­tion between the state’s sig­ni­fic­ant (and grow­ing) minor­ity pop­u­la­tion and the con­ser­vat­ive white vote is still gap­ing. In 2008, the last year exit polling was con­duc­ted in the state, Obama won 98 per­cent of the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an vote and only 23 per­cent of the white vote. With a just a little more sup­port from white voters and con­tin­ued minor­ity growth, win­ning a statewide elec­tion is seem­ingly with­in reach.

This year’s Sen­ate race between Michelle Nunn and a Re­pub­lic­an to be nom­in­ated in this month’s run­off (either Rep. Jack King­ston or busi­ness­man Dav­id Per­due) will of­fer a test of Demo­crat­ic com­pet­it­ive­ness. Nunn, the daugh­ter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is down­play­ing her par­tis­an iden­ti­fic­a­tion, talk­ing about her work lead­ing the Points of Light char­ity foun­ded by George H.W. Bush and avoid­ing po­s­i­tions on hot-but­ton is­sues, such as the pres­id­ent’s health care law. Giv­en that pro­file, she’s ex­pec­ted to com­pete, but if she doesn’t come close, it could be a wor­ri­some sig­nal that the South­ern white vote is trend­ing in a con­ser­vat­ive dir­ec­tion, re­gard­less of the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee.

After 2008 and 2012, Demo­crats have come close to hit­ting the up­per lim­its of their elect­or­al-vote po­ten­tial, so strategists are un­der­stand­ably look­ing for ways to ex­pand the map fur­ther. But what’s more real­ist­ic is that Re­pub­lic­ans will be able to con­test tra­di­tion­ally Demo­crat­ic Rust Belt battle­grounds, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, be­fore ad­di­tion­al GOP strong­holds flip. In­deed, Re­pub­lic­ans picked their 2016 con­ven­tion site of Clev­e­land with an eye to­ward mak­ing in­roads with tra­di­tion­ally blue-col­lar Demo­crat­ic con­stitu­en­cies in the Mid­w­est. Demo­crats may be wise simply to con­sol­id­ate their gains from the past two pres­id­en­tial elec­tions.

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