AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Wendy Davis is the big draw for Texas Democrats, but they now believe an even mightier presence can lure voters their way in November: the tea party.
As the tea party swaggers into this week's Texas GOP Convention dominant as ever and empowered to toughen the Republican platform on immigration and spending, Democrats are welcoming the new wave of outsiders, claiming the rightward pull has finally gone too far for voters to stomach.
The largest conservative state in the U.S. handed sweeping primary runoff victories last week to tea party challengers who turned incumbency into a liability and blasted the Legislature — which has passed some of the nation's toughest voter ID and anti-abortion laws in recent years — as not being conservative enough.
Democrats are now aggressively trying to make a case that they can win voters turned off by intense partisanship and the lack of diversity on the GOP ballot. When Republicans' gather in Fort Worth on Wednesday, they'll rally the base with a slate of almost exclusively white and male candidates.
"It's like going to a bachelor party, and there's one woman," said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.
Though Democrats claim the results of the more-conservative-than-thou tone of the Republican primary worked to their advantage, their own races did them few favors.
Winless in statewide race for 20 years and counting, Democrats are enjoying an unusually visible election year: Davis has national support in her high-profile bid for governor, and the arrival of the grassroots liberal group Battleground Texas has poured in millions of new dollars and put solidly red Texas up for grabs.
But that attention also magnified some embarrassments. Davis lost South Texas border counties in the primary to an obscure 71-year-old challenger, and one Democratic U.S. Senate candidate forced a runoff despite promising during the campaign to impeach President Barack Obama.
And while the Davis-Van de Putte is strongest ticket Texas Democrats have offered since Ann Richards, the undercard is little-known longshots with no elected experience. The nominee for agriculture commissioner — a job once held by Gov. Rick Perry — is a cattle farmer from Cleburne who's refusing to raise money or even campaign.
Jim Hogan, who nonetheless prevailed in a three-way primary, is even candid about a main reason he ran as Democrat — the competition was less stiff.
"That's the problem with Democrats. They don't have anybody," Hogan said.
Republicans had plenty of candidates, and overwhelmingly chose state Sen. Dan Patrick, the tea party founder in the Legislature, to be their next lieutenant governor. Patrick, who drew fire from other Republicans for saying Texas was overrun by an "illegal invasion" of immigrants, scoffed at Democrats who felt their odds were better against him than Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
"It's important that the Democrats understand when they say Battleground Texas, they picked the worst ground ever to have a battle on," Patrick said during his victory speech. "If the Democrats think that they're going to bring Obama liberalism to Texas and win, they have a long, cold day in November ahead of them."
Patrick said he will go into minority communities to get their vote, to which Van de Putte quipped, "good luck."
"He said he's coming to into our Latino communities but the harsh, insulting tone he has taken has disrespected them and where they live," she said. "It's very difficult to ask people to go into their home when you've insulted them."
Paul Sadler, who Democrats put up as their U.S. Senate nominee against Ted Cruz in 2012, said it's not enough for his party to wait for demographics to change or pounce on rivals' rhetoric.
"It's not about waiting for one group or another to get larger or turn out more voters," Sadler said. "It's really about your message and having the funds to get it out."
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