Wendy Davis was supposed to be the big blue Texas breakthrough. Back in 2013, she leveraged a 13-hour abortion-rights filibuster into the Democratic nomination for governor, only to get clobbered by Greg Abbott. In 2018 the savior was going to be Beto O’Rourke; the skateboarding, livecasting former El Paso congressman got closer but failed to topple Republican senator Ted Cruz.
The combination of émigrés from California to Austin and the state’s increasing racial diversity were supposed to have pushed Texas to the left a long time ago. Yet Democrats have not won a major statewide office in more than 20 years. So maybe what the party needs to knock off an incumbent Republican is…a guy who used to be a Republican?
That’s part of Matthew Dowd’s theory, anyway. As a political operative, Dowd was an adviser to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, then moved up to become the chief strategist for the 2004 Bush-Cheney reelection run. Now Dowd has become an improbable candidate in the Texas Democratic Party’s lieutenant governor primary, aiming to take on Republican Dan Patrick. “Yeah, it’s not as if I don’t know how unpleasant the life of a candidate can be,” Dowd says with a laugh. “But we’re at an unbelievably dangerous and crucial time in America, in the unfolding of January 6 and how the GOP has refused to hold anybody accountable for the greatest threat to our democracy since the opening shots of the Civil War. And watching what’s happening with GOP politicians in Texas, from COVID and the electric grid failure to women’s rights getting taken away and crazy gun laws, I just kept asking myself, ‘What more can I do?’”
Dowd’s disenchantment with the party is not new: He split with Bush, loudly and publicly, in 2007 over the handling of the Iraq war. He spent most of the next decade as an Independent, consultant, and TV commentator, before becoming a Democrat—a return to the party where he’d started in the ’80s, before joining forces with Bush. There’s a lot of distance from W to MAGA, but does Dowd deserve any of the blame for creating the mess we’re in now, the one he’s running to help fix? “Of course,” he says. “But I don’t think anyone foresaw the time we’re in today, where George W., a compassionate conservative, couldn’t get 20% of the vote in a Republican presidential primary. Did I make mistakes and did we make mistakes? Yeah. And I’ve tried to speak to that.”
Dowd’s Republican past is only one of the hurdles he’s facing. His Democratic primary opponent, Mike Collier, enjoys greater name recognition with Texas voters, especially after Collier came within five points of defeating Patrick in 2018. But the state’s political landscape provides some encouragement: While Texas certainly hasn’t gone blue, it is shading somewhat purple. “No question the change is slower than many folks want,” says Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and 2020 candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. “But in the 2018 midterms, Democrats picked up two congressional seats in the suburbs of Houston and Dallas, two state Senate seats, and 12 state House seats; 2020 was basically a wash for both parties. Then when you add in Democratic county commissioners in the corridor between San Antonio and Austin and Cumberland County, it’s fair to say that during the Trump era, Texas moved considerably to the left. Now, what’s happening with Abbott and Patrick on abortion and voting rights—these guys are dinosaurs and cavemen. The gap between their bullshit backward politics and what people expect—these Republicans are living on borrowed time.”
Perhaps. A veteran Texas Republican operative vigorously disputes that analysis. “The state was competitive when people were saying it was solid Republican, and now they’re writing it’s competitive,” he says. “The irony is that Republicans in 2020 did better than we did in 2018.” One significant factor in the GOP’s favor, the operative says, is that Texas Latino voters are more conservative than commonly understood, and the Republican antiabortion push has resonated with them.
Dowd will eventually need to draw direct contrasts with Collier, his Democratic primary opponent, but his main sales pitch is that he’s the best general-election challenger to take the fight to the Republican incumbent. “I’ll give Dan Patrick credit for something: He’s very consistent, in that every time there’s a big issue facing Texas, he first lies about it and then he chooses a policy that makes it worse,” Dowd says. The primary isn’t until March 1. But Dowd has already succeeded in drawing national attention to what’s usually a low-profile local contest. “It’s kind of like a man-bites-dog-story: George W. Bush’s campaign manager running for Texas L.G. as a Democrat,” says Sean Clegg, a senior adviser on California governor Gavin Newsom’s successful recall campaign and on Kamala Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign. “Texas is moving demographically, but it’s culturally hard to win as a Democrat there. Sometimes you need shock troops to make progress.”
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