Election analysis: it wasn’t the demographics, it’s what Republicans did with ’em

Republicans, I am not without my sympathies. As a Texas Democrat, I’ve been there. Hell, I live there.

The Republican Party simply cannot ignore—or worse, pick on, scapegoat, or otherwise rhetorically molest—entire swathes of the electorate all year, and then expect them to have collective amnesia, forgive all that, jump in the car and show up late at night on command, just because Republicans texted a booty call.

In politics, as in life, if you’re making enemies faster than you’re making friends, you’re doing it wrong. In the face of undeniable demographic and voting behavior shifts that have added to the clout of women and amplified the influence of minorities, too many Republican nominees said and did too many stupid things. They were richly punished for it.

It’s not hard to understand how it could happen. Republican candidates have understandably, over the past several election cycles, developed an absolute terror of their own primary voters. As Mr. Romney himself learned, the things you must say to win a Republican primary these days are nothing short of amazing. And the only thing worse than a candidate like Romney, who was faking it, are the Tea Party-fueled candidates—like Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana—who weren’t.

We Texans are used to this sort of thing. Since Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 1994, when this year’s college freshmen were born, statewide Republicans well understand that all one must do to win public office around here is win their primary. And so, not irrationally, the only voters Republican candidates in Texas have effectively communicated with in recent years are their own primary voters. Too often they’ve done so by appealing to the worst instincts of the party faithful. The scapegoats in that narrative have included women, students, minorities, gay Americans, and disaffected Anglos. Sure, it’s been more than enough to win statewide elections. But it doesn’t grow a political party. Over time, in fact, it shrinks one.

“But what about our prize Latino, Ted Cruz?!” Republicans screech. Mighty good spin, but not only was Mr. Cruz not elected by Latino voters, last night’s results show that he didn’t even appeal to Latino voters in the slightest. Cruz was effectively elected by a tiny slice of the most right-wing, and Anglo, Texans: those who vote in Republican primary runoff elections. And in last night’s general, opposed only by a candidate who couldn’t have raised enough money to compete if he’d been given a gun, a ski mask, and a list of 7-11’s, Cruz got pounded in many of the counties controlled by Latino voters. Mr. Cruz was elected last night for only one reason: he wasn’t the Democrat in the race. That’s not exactly hero material, nor is it a path forward for a political party attracting fewer and fewer voters among the fastest-growing demographic in the state.

Wendy Davis’ win in the state senate race in Fort Worth represents another case in which Republicans are holding themselves back. Even though the federal courts had little trouble wrapping their heads around the intentional discrimination, as courts termed it, in the Republican-drawn redistricting maps, Republicans have been unwilling to acknowledge it. To be sure, Senator Davis is a great candidate, and she undoubtedly gets her fair share of independent voters. But minorities control the outcome of elections in that district, and this is the second election in which Davis has proved it by attracting virtually all of their votes, and winning. Yet best I can tell, Republicans made little effort, and no headway, in attracting minority support there.

It would be one thing if electoral results like these had been engineered by a Democratic Party so brilliant that they successfully attracted the coalition of women, minorities, working families, and disaffected Anglos with whom they won nationally last night. But I bluntly doubt we’re that brilliant. My strong suspicion is that Democrats won based on a coalition of voters that Republicans effectively offended and forced out.

Let me say that again, because Republicans should ponder it: Democrats didn’t so much create their winning coalition, as much as Republicans repelled the coalition with which Democrats won.

And therein also lies Texas Democrats’ greatest challenge looking forward. It’s not as if we’ve been doing a bang-up job statewide of working to attract those voters; underfunding in recent years has prevented the Democratic Party from doing so, to say nothing of the poor choices of various better-funded statewide Democrats. And it’s not as if any group anywhere is genetically predisposed to vote Democratic, or to show up and vote at all. Rather, it has mainly been the Republican Party’s focus on communicating only with its own primary voters which has alienated women and minority voters in the state and, at best, prevented Republicans from making inroads with them.

While Democrats benefitted from it last night—even in Texas—they’d be well-advised to learn how to stand on their own two feet with those voters, before Republicans crack the code.

(note: a version of this piece appeared originally in TexasMonthly.com)

Update: a companion piece to this one, guest-written by Jeff Rotkoff, is here.