For Texas Democrats, the Republican National Convention was a joy to behold. From start to finish, and beyond.
The nasty rules fight. The beautiful speech by Melania Trump, followed by the twin bombshells that it was plagiarized from Michelle Obama and that Melania Trump really likes and admires Michelle Obama. The blockbuster speech by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in which he refused to endorse Donald Trump, driving a stake in the heart of Republican Party unity to a crushing crescendo of boos.
Trump shouting his dystopic vision of the U.S. into living rooms across America. And, icing on the cake, Trump the next day blistering Cruz for his defiance and declaring he doesn’t want his former rival’s endorsement and wouldn’t accept it if it were proffered.
“What I thought was wrong with their convention was they made no attempt to broaden their base,” former Land Commissioner Garry Mauro of Austin told the American-Statesman on Saturday. “I don’t see how they can get a bounce out of it.”
“It’s like Trump ran a convention to stoke the 25 to 30 percent that’s already excited about him and excite the 45 percent that hate Hillary, hell or high water. But 45 percent doesn’t win the election, and I am stunned at the number of people who don’t consider themselves Democrats but are just scared to death of Trump,” said Mauro, leader of the Hillary Clinton forces in Texas.
“I keep thinking, in a normal year, they’d be lucky to break 40 percent,” Mauro said. “I just don’t know if this is a normal year.”
And there’s the rub.
With the Republican National Convention in Cleveland just ended and the Democratic National Convention about to get underway Monday in Philadelphia, Clinton holds a slender 2.2 percentage point lead over Trump, according to the latest Real Clear Politics polling average, in a race that most Democrats and most pundits think she should win handily.
If Trump has proved anything in the past year, it is that he is not to be underestimated, that he has tapped into something in the American psyche, and that there is a method — maybe even a genius — to his madness.
How else to explain his diatribe Friday against a vanquished foe, rubbing salt in the wounds of a man and especially his large, loyal following across America, which Trump presumably needs to win?
“One of the theories that is being posited is that word had already leaked that Hillary was planning to announce her VP pick and she was going to put it out Friday in an attempt to step on the Republican convention news wave,” said former Travis County Republican Party Chairman James Dickey, a Cruz delegate. “If nothing else, there is little disagreement that Trump is a master at arranging and directing and dominating press coverage, and this was an intentional, masterful stroke to steal the limelight away from Hillary’s attempt to steal the limelight from us.”
But at what price?
“It leaves me angry, like most conservatives,” Grant Moody, a Cruz delegate from Bexar County, said of Trump’s Cruz-bashing Friday. “He refuses to pivot and make efforts to unite the party. It’s baffling, and yet the Trumpers will blame conservatives and Cruz supporters for not getting on board. Who wants to board a train when the conductor is cursing your name and tells you he doesn’t want you on board?”
‘A net positive for Trump’
Even as the balloons were dropping and confetti was flying at the Q in Cleveland after Trump’s acceptance speech, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who chaired the Texas delegation in Gov. Greg Abbott’s absence, exulted: “That’s the greatest speech I’ve heard anyone give at any convention. Didn’t miss a beat, covered every issue; keeping that energy level up for that long is amazing, and considering how new he is to this.”
“The Democrats tonight have to be on their heels knowing they are in for a tough ride because he has upped his game tonight,” Patrick said. “He had to deliver, and he did.”
Patrick said it was such a strong performance that the bad scene around the Cruz speech would be forgotten.
It was Patrick, who chaired the Cruz campaign in Texas but has said that there is no longer any good excuse for a Republican not to back the party’s nominee, who made a last-minute personal plea to Cruz before he delivered his speech to endorse Trump — to no avail.
Dickey, who was among those who came to Cleveland hoping that the party would somehow nominate someone other than Trump, also thought Trump did well Thursday night in delivering a speech that was “more presidential” than what people had come to expect — or imagine possible — from him.
“I think my conclusion after Thursday night was the convention was overall a net positive for Trump,” Dickey said.
He said Trump’s Friday headline grab undoubtedly didn’t help with those — including many Texans — who have a “deep emotional bond” with Cruz, who fashioned his campaign as a moral crusade as much as a political campaign.
“I have heard some people say if they choose not to vote in the presidential race, it will not change the result in Texas,” Dickey said.
“I always caution against taking anything for granted in Texas politics,” said Dickey, who plans to vote and work for the whole ticket, from Trump down to Travis County constable.
Texas Democrats hope Dickey’s caution proves prescient.
“I think we’re going to have a lot of Republicans not show up, and I think that’s scary not just for Texas Republicans but for Republicans in general because they’ve been searching for an identity since 2008,” said Katie Naranjo, a Clinton superdelegate from Austin.
“Texas will be competitive this year,” said Travis County Democratic Party Chairman Vincent Harding, a delegate in Philadelphia. “With Ted Cruz not getting on board, you’ll see a lot of Republicans either vote for Hillary Clinton or stay home. … It’ll be at least single digits; hopefully we’ll get it close enough to potentially pull off an upset.”
Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama by nearly 16 points in Texas in 2012.
Running to the middle
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a Clinton delegate, said he was “astonished” by how badly the Republican convention was managed.
“Every night there was something new, from plagiarizing language in Mrs. Trump’s speech to Ted Cruz deciding to go to a party and act like the guest that spills wine on the table and insults the host.”
Watson said that U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, with whom he became friends when he was mayor of Austin and Kaine was mayor of Richmond, will prove an asset as Clinton’s running mate.
“Tim Kaine’s the best news for the national campaign,” Mauro said. Elections are won in the middle, Mauro said, and even as Clinton moved left in the primary to compete with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the socialist from Vermont, “Tim Kaine is about as establishment and middle of the road as you can get.”
“What it means is she’s going to run to the middle,” Mauro said. “I just think he’s somebody that everyone will feel comfortable with, and it will be just one more way to differentiate our party from their party.”
Former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, a Sanders delegate from Austin and author of “There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos,” doesn’t believe that moving to the center is the way to differentiate the parties.
He didn’t like the choice of Kaine – “classic Clinton trying to be too clever, trying to triangulate.”
But he agreed that the Republican convention offered vivid evidence of why Trump must be stopped.
“My guess is that it was Hillary Clinton’s best convention,” Hightower said.
The task for Democrats in Philadelphia is to present Clinton as a safe and comfortable alternative to a scary and dangerous Trump, Mauro said, and to boost the public’s personal assessment of Clinton.
On the latter, he said, “we’ve got some work to do.”
American-Statesman chief political writer Jonathan Tilove and politics reporter Sean Collins Walsh are covering the Democratic National Convention in Philadephia, which will run Monday through Thursday. Tilove will offer his insights mornings on the First Reading blog on mystatesman.com.