Melissa Thrailkill witnessed Republicans in Texas win the messaging battle and elections for years by using immigration as a unifying issue for the party’s base.
She said it’s now time for Democrats to unify around a single issue that evokes strong emotion and turnout in midterm elections.
And in Texas that issue is voter ID.
“It’s time not to be so nice,” Thrailkill said. “The whole conversation around Voter ID and voter fraud is b.s. from Republicans and that could be a rallying point for Democrats in 2018.”
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The 38-year-old Democratic Party precinct chairwoman and lawyer from Dallas said Democrats in blue areas like Dallas aren’t unified around one or two issues, and instead complain about the Trump administration or Republicans in the state capital of Austin. She said the conversation needs to change, and scaring some voters could be the spark that’s needed for Democrats to make gains next year.
“Senate Republicans refused to vote on Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court and now they demand a vote on their nominee,” Thrailkill said, arguing that Republicans have no intention of compromising with Democrats when the GOP doesn’t control Washington. “We’ll go nuclear, that’s the way Dems need to play.”
Thrailkill and fellow Democratic precinct chairwoman Rebecca Carter were on hand for a “coffee with your congressman” event with Fort Worth Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey on Friday morning in Dallas.
While they were impressed with Veasey, they didn’t like the constant airing of grievances without solutions from some of their fellow Democrats in attendance.
“I was frustrated in general with the tone of their dialogue,” Carter, 45, said. “It’s the stereotype of Democrats that we complain without offering solutions. Single-issue voting is powerful.”
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, up for reelection in 2018, championed a strict voter ID law while serving as attorney general. If Democrats choose to emphasize voter ID concerns in Texas, Veasey could be a natural face for the movement, as the congressman is the plaintiff in the court challenge to Abbott’s law.
“It all comes back down to communication,” Veasey said.
Veasey remembers the town halls that Tea Party Republicans held around the country in 2009 and 2010 to protest the implementation of Obamacare, and the fearful message they sent to voters.
“Republicans tried to divide the country with talk of death panels,” Veasey said.
But the tough talk succeeded. Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 election, and Democrats have been losing ever since.
Thrailkill and Carter said Democrats need to use some, but not all, of the tactics Tea Party Republicans used in 2010 to spur their own officials into action.
Primary challenges are one tactic the Tea Party used to push politicians further right and, as in the case of Ted Cruz, pull off electoral upsets. Thrailkill and Carter said most Texas Democrats don’t need to be challenged by their own party, but red state Democrats like North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who has voted in favor of most of Trump’s Cabinet picks, should face pressure from the left.
In terms of electoral gains, unseating Cruz and Abbott is a dream for North Texas Democrats, but party organizers admitted that organizing at the local level instead of completely focusing on a statewide race will serve the party better in the long run.
“If we can’t win local races, we can’t win at the national level,” said Denton County Democratic Party chairwoman Phyllis Wolper. “We have to take care of our own backyard.”
In the Dallas-Fort Worth area multiple Democratic Party operatives named two incumbent Republicans as potential pickups for Democrats in 2018: state Sen. Konni Burton in Fort Worth and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions in Dallas.
“Cruz is the most important one, but Sessions is the most realistic one,” Thrailkill said. “We plan on going into Sessions’ district and knocking on doors.”
Sessions is one of three incumbent Texas Republicans on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s target list for the 2018 election, meaning the national party will attempt to use money and manpower to flip the seat. Houston-area Rep. John Culberson and Rep. Will Hurd, whose large district stretches from San Antonio to El Paso, are also on the list.
Veasey said Burton’s voting record doesn’t reflect her diverse district, which was once represented by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis.
“It’s hard to rep a district like that and be a strident conservative,” Veasey said.
For Mid-Cities Democrats president Sean Hayward, the attention to local races is crucial for Democrats to gain a foothold in more conservative areas like Bedford and Grapevine in Tarrant County, where Democrats outperformed their 2012 election results by nearly 10 percentage points but still trail Republicans by a large gap.
“As Democrats, the bench has been decimated,” Hayward said. “A lot of people run for Congress and you haven’t heard of them. You’ve got to run for city council, serve there for a few terms, then maybe run for the state legislature and then maybe think about running for Congress. That’s what the Tea Party did.”
For Texas Democrats already in Congress, the question now is which one will potentially challenge Cruz or Abbott in a statewide race. El Paso Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke and San Antonio Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro are mulling statewide runs.
And as Veasey rattled off potential challengers to Cruz during his constituent meeting, someone shouted out “Marc Veasey.”
But the Fort Worth Congressman has no intention of seeking higher office for now.
“No,” Veasey replied, with a forceful tone but a smile on his face.
Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty