Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa has traveled the state talking up the party's chances in 2014, but along the way he found that half the county organizations are barely functioning -- something he's promising to change in order to win.
Democrats haven't won a statewide office in Texas in two decades, something Hinojosa blames on failing to mobilize the party's base -- Hispanics, African Americans and liberals who make up the majority of Texans. Quoting Democratic strategist Paul Begala, Hinojosa says Texas is not necessarily a Republican state but a non-voting state.
County parties and Democratic clubs are the groups that raise awareness, money and votes. If they can't raise money and make sure a Democrat runs for every local race and deliver voters to the polls, even the best statewide candidate has little chance of winning, he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"The biggest problem in the last 20 years was failing to focus on local party organizations," Hinojosa said. As an example, he said the Panhandle has a majority of minority residents, but Democratic turnout in the region is "miserable."
That makes the party ripe for a makeover, something he's been working on since becoming chairman two years ago. Hinojosa was celebrating his second anniversary on the job when hundreds of angry women started packing legislative committee meetings in Austin to fight a ban on abortion after 20 weeks.
Those protests and Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis' almost 13-hour filibuster of the bill attracted international attention and amplified the political classes' chatter on whether Texas could ever be competitive again. The idea that a Democrat could win statewide election for the first time in 20 years has gone from what Gov. Rick Perry called "a pipedream" to simply a longshot.
The state party is providing local volunteers with the latest technology and data to identify potential Democratic voters, Hinojosa said.
"They've never seen the information and training we are providing them before," he said. "They are very enthusiastic about it."
Democrats, though, are not exactly flush with cash. They state party reported raising $57,867 for state purposes in the first half of the year, with $47,775 on hand in its political action committee and $33,144 in its party account. In its Federal Election Commission filing, it reported having $476,329 in total receipts in the first half of the year but only $44, 250 cash on hand.
Democrats also face a chicken and egg problem when it comes to candidates. Politicians don't want to run unless they feel like they can win, but voters don't turn out if they're not excited about whose running.
That's placed all eyes on Davis, who has turned out the coalition of Hispanic, African American and progressive voters that Hinojosa feels can make Democrats victorious.
"Wendy brings out a different demographic of young people and women," he said. Democrats and their allies have begun a coordinated campaign to draft Davis, who has promised a decision around Labor Day.
Once Davis makes her decision, Hinojosa said there is a full slate of smart politicians considering bids for statewide office. But he knows Democrats will have to outperform the Republicans.
"Mainstream Texas voters have not been given an opportunity to hear from our candidates in a way to know what they can do for them," he said. "We've got to have a slate of candidates this time around that is better or equal to what we've had in the last 30-40 years."
Democrats see an opportunity in the Republicans' rightward shift to win primaries dominated by social conservative and tea party activists. He expects the redistricting lawsuit to delay the primaries and trigger an extended battle between Republicans that will push them to the extreme right.
With 7 million ballots cast in 2010, former Houston Mayor Bill White lost by 630,000 votes. Democrats shouldn't fight over the existing 7 million voters, Hinojosa said, but recruit more Democrats from the 7 million eligible Texans who did not vote that year.
"That's our number. It's hard, it's not easy," he said. But he added: "Every bit of the allied community of the Democratic Party intends to take it to the next level."