It’s no secret that Travis County is the beating heart of the state’s Democratic Party. Long before Harris or Dallas County began turning solid blue, the state’s capital was home to a well-funded and organized party that had relegated Republicans to the suburbs.
As Democrats across the state strengthen their hold on urban areas and creep into the suburbs, Travis County can serve as a model for what comes next when Democrats are largely successful in kicking Republicans out.
The priorities are, of course, maintaining that majority and picking up some of the few remaining positions still held by the GOP, Travis County Democratic Party chair Dyana Limon-Mercado told the Signal. For example, in the 2018 midterms, Democrats successfully challenged Ellen Troxclair, Austin City Council’s last remaining conservative member.
Mercado said the local party has also been working hard to increase voter turnout in order to contribute more in statewide races. In 2018, Travis County had the highest percentage of voter turnout among Texas’ 10 largest counties. Despite having 300,000 less registered voters than San Antonio’s Bexar County, Travis delivered only 37,000 less votes than the more populated county. “I like to think we punch way above our weight class,” Mercado said jokingly.
That voter turnout is also critical for, ironic as it may seem, making Republicans pay for gerrymandering the state. Three of some of the state’s most gerrymandered congressional districts carve into Austin and happen to be competitive this year, Texas’ 10th, 21st and 25th congressional districts.
Expanding the tent
Mercado is the TCDP’s first Hispanic chair and the third person of color to ever lead the local party.
Her victory over Anne Wynne, an Austin attorney who received the bulk of endorsements from local Democratic clubs and lawmakers, coincided with a record-breaking year for women of color candidates across the country. A New York Times analysis found that the number of women of color candidates running for office in 2018 increased by 42 percent. Their reporting also found that among Democrats, white male candidates were actually in the minority and made up only 41 percent of the candidates for Congress or governor in 2018.
Some of those candidates, notably Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso) and Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), replaced white male congressman in Democratically safe districts.
It’s no surprise that the same effect, a party rapidly growing in diversity, is being seen at a local level too, and Mercado is living proof of that.
“I think it says a lot about the community that it took this long for the Democratic Party– whose base of voters is people of color, both African American and Latino voters– that it is just until now that we’ve got our first Hispanic person chairing the county’s Democratic party,” Mercado said.
The split for who came out to vote for Mercado or Wynne on election day is remarkable. The Travis County map showing the results is quite literally cleaved in half, with Mercado handily winning most of the county’s majority-Latino precincts (in purple).
“I didn’t get many endorsements in my campaign. I only got three endorsements; Tejano Democrats, Our Revolution, and Young Democrats. And that was my winning coalition,” Mercado said.
Her leadership has brought a desperately needed lens for how Democrats can begin expanding their base beyond the voting booth.
“We have to be prepared with long-term invest to be a real partner in those communities, and not show up and try to ‘Christopher Columbus’ them and say, ‘We’re here to save you, we just discovered you, we’re here to politicize you,’” Mercado said. “Those communities have been organizing themselves. They have their own issues, their own organizers, their own community leaders.”
The Democratic Party’s diversifying base– from ideology, race and age– hasn’t slowed progress down in Texas.
As Republicans struggle to defend the state they’ve historically controlled, the state’s Democratic candidates have been enjoying national headlines and an influx of cash. According to the latest fundraising reports highlighted in a recent Democratic memo, Texas Democrats out-raised GOP opponents in at least seven critical races, suggesting the party may continue to weaken the GOP majority in Texas’ congressional delegation.
“Really, I think the story here is that 10 years before this work– before Texas was considered a sexy political opportunity– there were really invested groups doing the work on the ground to help organize, register, turnout and build relationships with communities,” Mercado said of groups like Workers Defense Project, Annie’s List, and Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, the political arm of Planned Parenthood that Mercado also heads. “All of that has coalesced into this critical moment.”
Some of the national Democratic Party’s top figures, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Chair of the Democratic National Committee Tom Perez have all made recent trips to the Lone Star State to headline Democratic fundraising events and energize Texans about the country’s newest and biggest battleground state.
“It’s exciting to see so much attention and investment in Texas this time around, and that Texas isn’t just the ATM for the rest of the nation’s Democratic majority,” Mercado said.