Texas Democrats try to unify against GOP “extremism” as their own challenges and strife persist

The first day of the Texas Democratic Convention in El Paso on June 6, 2024.
The first day of the Texas Democratic Convention in El Paso on June 6, 2024. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune

Texas Democrats are heading into the fall campaign arguably more bruised and battered than ever, coming off numbing losses in 2022 and back-to-back legislative sessions dominated by conservative policy. And they are battling real headwinds this year, including internal divisions over immigration and the Israel-Hamas war, and a party standard-bearer, President Joe Biden, with a Texas approval rating stuck underwater for nearly his entire term.

But those pitfalls got only passing attention during the Texas Democratic Party’s three-day convention in El Paso, where party leaders and a few thousand rank-and-file activists gathered to mobilize behind their nominees and hone their pitch for November. The party emerged with a message that boiled down to defying Republican “extremism,” energizing voters around abortion rights, public education and gun access, and painting a dark picture of a second Trump presidency.

“We have a candidate for the other major party, the nominee for the presidency … who describes immigrants as those who poison the blood of America — a line he could have lifted out of Mein Kampf or out of the mouth of Adolf Hitler,” Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic nominee for Senate and governor, said at a convention kickoff reception Thursday. “He says he’ll be a dictator on Day One and describes this election as the final battle.”

In speech after speech on the convention floor, Democrats offered a similar refrain. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, told the party faithful “it’s on us to fight extremism this November.” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said the state GOP’s platform was teeming with hate; Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called it an “ugly, angry document.”

“It is Looney Tunes, my friends,” former state senator and 2014 gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis said of the GOP platform. “And if we think it isn't our new reality, it is, unless we rise up and fight back.”

And U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, who is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, took aim at his opponent’s attempts to portray himself as bipartisan, charging Cruz with trying to take credit for laws he had opposed.

U.S. Representative Colin Allred speaks during the first general session at the Texas Democratic Convention in El Paso, Texas on June 7, 2024.
U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, speaks during the first general session at the Texas Democratic Convention in El Paso on June 7, 2024. Allred is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by incumbent Republican Ted Cruz. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune

“No one is more self-serving, more disconnected from Texans’ needs,” Allred said, calling the state’s junior senator "the ultimate 'me guy.'"

As party leaders sought to unify around the GOP’s hard right turn, however, some were unwilling to ignore signs of progressive discontent sparked by Biden’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

David Albert, a government professor who ran to be a Biden delegate at the Democratic National Convention, said it’s “absolutely vital” Democrats come out of the national gathering unified, citing divisions in 1968 and 2016 that he said cost respective Democratic nominees Hubert Humphrey and Hilary Clinton the presidency.

“What I'm really worried about, and this relates to my candidacy, is that our party is not going to be unified there. There's a lot of fear right now. There's a lot of division over the Middle East,” Albert said, describing himself as an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who had worked on Jewish peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East.

People stop to look at an information booth about the war in Palestine on the second day of the Texas Democratic Convention in El Paso, Texas on June 7, 2024.
Attendees stop at an information booth about the war in Gaza on the second day of the Texas Democratic Convention. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune

Underscoring further intraparty tension, the convention kicked off days after Biden issued an executive order clamping down on the ability of migrants to claim asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border — a move that drew criticism from several Democrats set to speak at the El Paso gathering, including U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, who represents the border city in Congress.

In a statement earlier this week, Escobar, a co-chair of Biden’s campaign and of the Texas Democratic Convention, criticized Congress for not giving the president enough resources to deal with a surge of migrants — but also expressed disappointment in the administration’s new policy. Another speaker, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said it was “the wrong approach and goes too far."

In caucus meetings and on the main convention stage, speakers and delegates devoted scant attention to the immigration rift. When it came up, Biden’s executive order was framed as a necessary recourse after Republicans shot down a bipartisan border deal earlier this year.

​​"It's not perfect and it won't fix everything all at once,” said Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar. “But what this executive order does is make the first substantive change to border policies in over 25 years."

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, speaks at the Texas Democratic Convention Reception Kick-Off in El Paso on June 6, 2024.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, speaks at the Texas Democratic Convention reception kickoff in El Paso on June 6, 2024. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune

Amid a stream of anti-Trump rhetoric and talk of Republican “extremism,” Escobar told the convention crowd that Democrats can’t just focus on the GOP’s policies.

“It's not just that we have to stop Republicans, but we’ve got to be proud of what Democrats stand for and what Democrats do when we are elected to office,” Escobar said, alluding to Biden’s infrastructure spending package and efforts to drive computer chip production.

At the same time, Democrats made clear they see Texas’ abortion ban as a ripe opportunity to pick up the votes they need to finally get over the hump.

“We must redouble our efforts to get women in suburban communities to vote for Democrats,” state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said in a convention speech Friday. “We need to intensify our outreach to young voters who don't want government dictating their health care options, couples who are struggling to start a family.”

Alvarado added in an interview that she doesn’t see abortion as the sole issue Democrats should campaign on, but she argued it has struck a unique chord among voters since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. She pointed to a line from Amanda Zurawski, a plaintiff in a lawsuit that argued Texas’ abortion laws stopped women from getting medical care for their complicated pregnancies.

Zurawski, who went into sepsis and spent three days in the intensive care unit, said in a convention speech that she “wasn't dead enough for an abortion in Texas.”

“If that doesn't sink in with people, I don't know what will,” Alvarado said.

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