Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa

“We are winning in 49 counties,” said state Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who has held the post since 2012: “There are 49 blue counties in the state.”

AUSTIN — High-ranking Texas Democrats have sought to numb acute pain from a drubbing they took in this month’s midterm election by accentuating the positive:

Predictions of a GOP “wave election” didn’t come true, they note. For the most part, Democrats fended off a nationally funded, much-publicized Republican incursion in South Texas — traditionally, a Democratic stronghold. Also, Democrats posted notable wins in some of the state’s big urban and suburban counties, such as Harris, Dallas and Collin.

Still, momentum from Democrats’ bravura performance in the previous midterm, 2018, has ebbed with each of the past two general elections in Texas.

Some Democrats are asking hard questions about whether the party’s latest statewide slate was too male and white, its messages too stilted and its structures obsolescent.

Some also want to demand more electioneering and resource-sharing by longtime Democratic members of Congress and the Legislature. While their coffers have swelled in seats that are safe because of GOP redistricting gerrymanders, they need to be prodded and shamed into campaigning and giving money to other Democrats on the ballot, critics say.

“The undeniable fact is that we’re not built for statewide victory,” said Ali Zaidi, who managed the lieutenant governor campaign of Houston businessman Mike Collier. Two-term Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick defeated him by 10.4 percentage points.

“We are at risk of becoming a party in search of relevance,” Zaidi said.

In 2018, then-Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke lost to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz by almost 2.6 percentage points. In 2020, successful Democratic challenger Joe Biden lost Texas to then-President Donald Trump by nearly 5.6 percentage points. Earlier this month, though, O’Rourke lost his challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott by 11 points.

State Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, 70, of Cameron County, nonetheless, points to long-term trend lines and insists his party is posting steady gains.

Hinojosa, first elected in 2012, released graphs of U.S. Senate contests that began with former GOP Sens. Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison’s 23-point blowout wins in the early 1990s. His aides issued presidential and gubernatorial election-outcome graphs that used former President George W. Bush’s towering Texas victories as starting points. From those vantage points, state Democrats’ losses have narrowed.

Asked why Democrats fell short this year, Hinojosa blamed two persistent thorns in their sides: Democrats still can’t raise anywhere near as much money as Republicans do. Nor can hundreds of thousands of their lower-income, lesser-educated supporters overcome barriers to getting registered and voting, he said. Republican state lawmakers passed election laws “designed to prevent Democratic base voters from voting,” Hinojosa said.

“Come on, this is very hard to deal with,” he told The Dallas Morning News recently.

His designee as state party executive director, Jamarr Brown, touched on those liabilities and complained of “lack of deeper investment from national Democratic organizations” as some of six challenges Texas Democrats faced.

“2022 was the closest two-way gubernatorial election in Texas in decades — and in a year where Republicans had every wind at their backs,” Brown wrote in a memo to staff and stakeholders two days after this month’s election.

“The statewide trend continues to work in our — not Republicans’ — favor,” he said.

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said this year, Democrats suffered from maldistribution of money. O’Rourke raised $77 million, while Collier and attorney general hopeful Rochelle Garza struggled to raise a budget to pay for an effective statewide TV ad that would run for a week, noted Rottinghaus, who has closely watched the party since he worked for Democrat Victor Morales’ losing U.S. Senate campaign against Gramm in 1996.

“Something like 70% of all the money raised and 75% of all the money spent was at the top of the ticket,” he said. “Democrats had opportunities to beat some vulnerable, down-ballot Republicans, but there wasn’t any money left. And all the oxygen got kind of taken up by the top of the ticket candidates.”

This year’s slate lacked diversity, some Democrats noted. No Black candidate won a primary for statewide office, other than for Texas Supreme Court.

That may have contributed to alarmingly low turnout of Black voters, especially in Houston, Hinojosa and others said.

“There’s a lot of votes we’re leaving on the table,” lamented Harris County Democratic chairman Odus Evbagharu.

Evbagharu, whose Nigerian-born parents brought him to this country when he was 5, said younger voters don’t know that two decades ago, Texas Democrats fielded a racially diverse “dream team.” It included Laredo banker Tony Sanchez, who is Hispanic, for governor; former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who is Black, for U.S. Senate; and then-Comptroller John Sharp, a onetime real estate agency owner from Victoria County, who is white, for lieutenant governor. They lost, respectively, by 18, 12 and 6 percentage points.

“It’s probably awful to say but I couldn’t even tell you who was part of that slate in 2002,” said Evbagharu, who is treasurer of the state party. “Young people want to see people who look like them. That’s not a secret. We haven’t had a well-funded, qualified Black candidate run statewide in a while.”

Democratic consultant Colin Strother of Buda said the party’s structure and playbook aren’t working — and need a major overhaul.

“Why is the state party of Texas run out of Austin?” he said. “It makes no sense. How much are we going to improve our margin in Travis County? We’re not going to. … We need satellite offices in Lubbock, Longview, Lampasas, Laredo — satellite offices around the state that are focused on organizing year round.”

Strother called for expanded voter registration drives and paying more attention to loyal Black Democrats in big cities and East Texas, as well as Hispanic party members south of Interstate 10.

“We’ve got to get back to organizing and mobilizing and turning out our base and stop trying to change hearts and minds” of non-Democrats, he said.

Hinojosa responded that mounting the sustained voter registration efforts in Texas that have been seen in Georgia in recent years would cost at least $30 million per cycle. That’s twice what the Texas party raised this cycle, he said.

Hinojosa said he’s pleaded — to no avail — for donations from the “billionaire Democratic activists” who helped former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams fund Fair Fight Action in the Peach State. Strother’s proposal of satellite offices could cost up to $30 million more, he said.

“If he can tell me where we can raise that $30 million to $60 million to do all these things, he can raise it and he should become chair of the Democratic Party,” Hinojosa said. “Because that’s just really impossible to do under the environment that we live in today.”

On issue stands, party executive director Brown in his memo said Texas Democrats need to shed an image that they are “aloof or oblivious” to concerns about illegal immigration and border security. Also, they must “be more forceful in proactively reiterating our support” for police and desire to stamp out crime, he wrote.

Jason Lee, O’Rourke’s deputy campaign manager, said Abbott and Republicans enjoyed an advantage built up over two decades: They’re the more trusted party on border and crime. Trying to dispel such “established narratives” was too costly, given Abbott’s 2-to-1 money edge, he said.

“It wasn’t lost on us that these issues were not good for us, that they were hurting us,” Lee said. “But we had to make serious choices about what ability we have, in the period of time that we have and with the resources that we have, to switch the narrative” to a discussion of abortion, health care, education and guns — issues on which O’Rourke had “credibility,” Lee said.

Strother, the consultant who says he’s been “kind of anti-establishment, on the outside of the Democratic Party,” said most Texans agree with Democrats’ stands on “gun safety,” legalization of casinos and marijuana, paying teachers more and expanding Medicaid. But Democrats are too wonky. They need to talk more like ordinary people do, telling stories and stressing values.

“We continue to get beat in the ‘who would you rather have a beer with’ poll,” he said.

Incumbent congressmen and state senators in safe Democratic districts need to share their wealth and campaign vigorously to “run up the score,” which would help the party’s statewide hopefuls, said Zaidi, the Collier aide.

“The folks that are most pessimistic about statewide victory in Texas are incumbent Democrats. They are our Achilles’ heel,” he said.

Rottinghaus, the Houston professor, said the state party’s “autopsies are too sprawling,” a cataloging of woes but not an action plan.

“You read the memo from leadership that basically had 10 different reasons why the Democrats didn’t do well,” he said. “That’s probably true. But this isn’t a roundtable discussion. They need to … assess the damage and try to cure the problem. That’s a Hinojosa problem more than it is a candidate problem. The party has got to be able to help make that reality.”

Hinojosa has said he wants to remain chairman to keep nudging Texas toward being a competitive, two-party state.

At the party’s convention in Dallas in July, he beat retired Air Force Col. Kim Olson and Houston activist Carroll G. Robinson for a third four-year term.

Asked if he intends to complete it, Hinojosa said, “Yeah, unless I get sick or something.”