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In Lone Star State, High Hopes for Rising Democrats

After Gov. Ann Richards’ failed re-election bid in 1994, Texas Democrats attempted to build well-financed statewide campaigns around candidates with star power — and all came up short.

Now, the Lone Star State has a stable of Democratic rising stars not seen since the days of its last liberal lion. Things are looking up, Democrats argue, with long-awaited demographic changes on the horizon and a Republican Party potentially damaging itself for the future in this cycle’s primary battles.

But with a state as big and expensive as Texas, a fighting chance requires statewide candidates to raise an incredible sum of money, which in turn demands a vast network of donors who believe victory is attainable.

“In Texas, unfortunately, it’s not just a matter of having the talent or the political skills, but you also have to have the ability to raise millions and millions of dollars under the federal rules,” Democratic consultant Matt Angle said.

“And so the qualifications for candidates in Texas are a little more stringent than just being a good candidate,” he added. “There are a lot of good candidates who can’t get from here to there $2,700 at a time.”

Democrats rarely fielded competitive Senate candidates over the past two decades — the party’s three best performers in that time span received 44 percent, 43 percent and 43 percent — but that may change by the next midterm cycle. State and national Democrats are gearing up for a competitive Senate bid as early as 2018, when Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is up.

The first potential candidate names out of the mouths of most operatives are the Castro twins, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and freshman Rep. Joaquin Castro — though there are mixed opinions about which one is more likely to jump. Wendy Davis’ name comes up as well, should she comes up short in this year’s gubernatorial race, and the buzz in some Democratic circles is that Davis’ running mate, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, has as promising a political future as Davis.

Beyond those four, there is a second tier of candidates who could possibly run statewide but don’t quite yet have the same star power. It includes freshman Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who ousted eight-term Rep. Silvestre Reyes in 2012. He is young and attractive, but his geographic base is weak — El Paso is remote and actually closer to the Pacific Ocean than it is to the Louisiana border.

Democrats also named state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer and Chris Turner as possible statewide contenders and pointed to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, albeit with caution. Parker is openly gay, and some say that while Texas is evolving on a number of issues, gay rights is not likely to be one of them in the immediate future.

While there are some Anglos among the names floated for statewide office, there are few avenues for an ambitious white Democrat to run for the House in Texas, given the state’s demographics and the way the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew the lines in redistricting.

Reps. Lloyd Doggett and Gene Green are the last of the white Democrats elected when the party controlled the map-making process. Each was able to leverage their incumbency to hold onto heavily minority districts, but both are likely to one day be replaced by a Hispanic.

Among the future contenders for Green’s seat, Democrats identified state Reps. Armando Walle, Carol Alvarado and Ana Hernandez, plus Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

There is perpetual scuttlebutt in the state that Doggett is vulnerable to a Hispanic primary challenge. Other Democratic strategists discount that line of thinking, citing Doggett’s war chest and ability to weather whatever lines he’s drawn into.

Whenever he leaves office, Democrats named Martinez Fischer and state Rep. Mike Villarreal as likely contenders. Martinez Fischer could also run in Joaquin Castro’s 20th District if he seeks higher office.

As for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s Houston-based 18th District, state operatives pointed to state Reps. Sylvester Turner and Garnet F. Coleman, who could also run for Rep. Al Green’s seat.

Texas’ 23rd, which includes much of the state’s border with Texas, is the only competitive district in the state and turns over regularly. If Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego lost re-election and Democrats were on the hunt for a new recruit, one could be state Rep. Mary González.

Should 11-term Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson retire, Democrats said attorney Taj Clayton, along with state Reps. Yvonne Davis and Eric Johnson would be likely contenders for her Dallas-based 30th District.

State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez is also a rising star. But his local seat in the Brownsville-based 34th District is unlikely to open up any time soon — Rep. Filemon Vela, from a well-known family in South Texas, was elected in 2012.

The great hope for Democrats is that continued Texas redistricting litigation will provide an additional majority Hispanic district based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. State Rep. Rafael Anchia is the obvious choice for that hypothetical seat, along with Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Sergio L. De Leon.

And then there are a handful of Texas Democrats who stir up chatter but have no obvious place to run for federal office. Democrats put former state Rep. Mark Strama and Jane Hamilton, the current chief of staff to Rep. Marc Veasey, in this category.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Lily Adams, granddaughter of Ann Richards, is a respected political operative in Washington, D.C., and recently earned attention as a possible candidate talent.

Adams’ mother, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, said she is optimistic about the future of her party in the Lone Star State. She says the enthusiasm behind the Davis and Van de Putte campaign is reminiscent of her mother’s 1990 race.

“I think we’re seeing a whole new crop of folks who will cut their teeth on these races,” Richards said. “It’s better than it’s ever been in terms of new talent and new leadership.”

Farm Team is a state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress. The column runs on Thursdays. The previous Farm Team focused on Republicans in Texas.