Embedded in the returns for last Tuesday’s primary election in Texas is an interesting lesson on the difficulty of holding even a minority party’s coalition together. State Sen. Wendy Davis achieved national renown for filibustering a bill prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy (a point at which many babies are viable outside the womb). She became a national heroine to many abortion rights supporters and attracted vast sums of out-of-state money, and those Democrats who have been hoping to “paint Texas blue” have seen her as a possible game-changer, even though in polls she runs behind Attorney General Greg Abbott.
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But there are fissures in the Democratic coalition. Davis won the Democratic primary easily, by a 79 percent to 21 percent margin over Reynaldo “Ray” Madrigal, who spent little or no money and had no perceptible name identification. Yet Davis lost 26 of Texas’ 254 counties to Madrigal, mostly heavily Hispanic counties in the Rio Grande Valley. They included the largest county in the Lower Rio Grande, Hidalgo, as well as Webb County, centered on the biggest U.S.-Mexican border truck crossing, Laredo. Seventeen of these counties voted for President Obama in 2012; indeed they constituted 17 of the 26 Texas counties he carried. Also, zero Democratic votes were cast in 20 counties, and in two counties, Davis and Madrigal were tied.
These numbers point to the conclusion that Davis’ stand on the abortion issue, wildly popular among the Democrats’ feminist left, is significantly unpopular among many Texas Hispanic voters — most of them probably Catholic, but including a significant number of evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants. National Democratic strategists may hope that Davis can build a Texas majority on a feminist-black-Hispanic base. But that Hispanic base looks shaky. What enthuses one part of a party’s constituency can antagonize another part. This is true of Republicans as well as Democrats. But when you start out in the minority, as Democrats do in Texas, splitting your party base is dangerous.
It will be interesting to see whether Greg Abbott (whose wife is Hispanic) runs ahead of party lines in the Rio Grande Valley this fall.