President Obama is in Texas today to give a speech laying out his plans on immigration policy. His visit is primarily interpreted as part of a grander outreach to Latinos before his re-election campaign, but there are indications that he may want to put the Lone Star State into play for 2012. The Dallas Morning News quotes one Texas representative whom Obama told, "'You better believe I'm not going to write off Texas. We're going to compete.'"The Morning News quickly counters that statement with a local Republican strategist spouting the conventional wisdom that it is a worthless effort on Obama’s part, as no Democrat has carried the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Could a Democrat realistically grab Texas’ electoral votes? Maybe someday, but 2012 is certainly not that year. When Obama easily swept the general election in 2008, he still lost Texas to John McCain by 11 percent. Texas Republicans crushed their Democratic opponents in 2010, with Gov. Rick Perry defeating his opponent by 13 points while three incumbent House members lost their seats. Unless Obama’s re-election looks more like Reagan in ’84 than Clinton in ’96 or Bush in '04, there is no clearly conceivable way for him to take Texas’ electoral votes in 2012.
That does not mean campaigning in Texas would be a waste of Obama’s time. Texas is one of the largest states in the union, filled with many, many people, some of whom happen to be rich and sympathetic to Democratic causes. Bob Perry -- the funder for the Swift Boats ads in 2004 -- may be the Texas donor with the highest profile, but in the 2010 election, a lawyer named Steve Mostyn contributed over $9 million to state Democratic causes. Texas Dems may be few and far between, but given the size of the state there are still major funders looking for causes. A little acknowledgement from the president could go a long way toward filling his re-election coffers. As part of his jaunt down south, Obama will host DNC fundraisers in Austin.
Beyond boosting fundraising, Obama could help shift the landscape for future elections. The last midterms may have been a bloodbath for Texas Dems, but there are reasons to believe 2012 will look very different. The electorate in 2010 was largely white, old, and well-off -- all groups that tend to vote Republican – but the next Election Day will see a larger turnout from other parts of society that break for Democrats. Texas picked up four new electoral votes in the 2010 census, with the majority of that population growth among the Latino community.
Texas Democrats will be less concerned with Obama’s campaign than state races next cycle. Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is leaving her seat open and the Democrats have already recruited retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and they will likely hope to gain some of their newly appropriated seats in the House. Presidential visits always draw a crowd and rally the base; a little love and attention can go a long way in bringing voters to the polls. Even if they lose all open state elections in 2012, laying the groundwork of Democratic politics is a smart strategy as the demographics continue shifting toward a heavily Latino population that is sympathetic to Democratic campaigns.