Moritz: In politics, if you can't win the battle, exploit the issue
If Texas Democrats lose the short-term fight over the GOP-backed elections bill, look for them to prepare the ground for more political battles in the future.
AUSTIN —In the midst of any knock-down, drag-out political fight, partisan war gamers often will ask themselves, "Do we want the win, or do we want the issue?"
The answer can be nuanced. Sure, they want the win, but there's an upside to carrying the issue into the next election cycle. With the deck stacked against them in their latest quorum bust over a Republican-backed elections bill, Texas Democrats are already looking for ways to exploit the issue rather than shopping for champagne to celebrate a victory.
Step One: Raise tons of money. That's happening now. Texas music legend Willie Nelson donated $5,000 to help cover the absent lawmakers' care and feeding expenses while they're on the road again. Beto O'Rourke, a political cash-raising machine during his 2018 U.S. Senate race, has raked in more than $500,000 for the Democrats.
Plus, the progressive fundraising group ActBlue, the Texas Democratic Party and sundry Democratic lawmakers and candidates are all blasting out breathless appeals for cash to support the quorum-busters.
The wheels were barely up on the D.C-bound chartered jets to ferry the House Democrats away from Austin when a top official from the state party hit the send button on a "Hi Friend" email that both praised the lawmakers' action and pleaded for money.
"Right now, our Democratic lawmakers are in the air on the way to D.C. — after leaving Texas to break quorum and block the latest Republican attack on our right to vote," wrote Hannah Roe Beck, the co-executive director of the party, in the message that ended with a series of "express donate" links.
Step Two for exploiting the issue in the absence of a win is to get on and stay on national TV and in the national newspapers. That helps to keep the party's base fired up and perhaps to awaken some persuadable voters for the coming campaign. That's happening, too. And it's also helping with Step One.
To state the obvious, getting the win carries immediate rewards. Let's assume the House Democrats finally do come back to Austin. Maybe not for this special session, but for the next one that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is sure to call. The elections bill will pass, and so with the sundry others on the GOP's conservative wish list.
Seeing gains, beyond gaining fleeting national headlines and bringing in bundles of cash, is more of a slog — and not a very glamorous one at that.
In 2003, when the House Democrats launched a failed walkout to try to stop Republicans from redrawing Texas' congressional districts, the GOP majority in the lower chamber was 88-62. The House quorum bust, which was followed by an even longer Senate quorum bust, gained sustained publicity, which is generally followed by robust fundraising.
That probably helped the Democrats on the margins. But it took time. Lots of time. They picked up two state House seats in the next election cycle. Five in the cycle after that. And five more in 2008, when they managed to trim the Republican House advantage to razor-thin 76-74.
It's not been that close since.
Presently, Republicans rule the House 83-67. And the GOP controls the state Senate and all of the statewide elective offices in the executive and judicial branches.
Will the publicity from the 2021 quorum bust hack away at the Republicans' advantage in 2022? Democrats certainly hope so. And that's why they'll be trying to keep exploiting the issue for as long as they can.
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.