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For Democrats, a Texas-Sized Challenge

Texas, because of its growing Hispanic population, is sometimes thought of by Democrats as representing the next frontier in the party’s electoral aspirations. So far, however, the party has been able to make only a few inroads.

In 2008, Barack Obama won 44 percent of the vote there — better, certainly, than John Kerry’s 38 percent in 2004. But considering that Mr. Obama outperformed Mr. Kerry in almost all states — and that, unlike Mr. Kerry, he was not running against George W. Bush, who makes his residence in the state — the result did not do much to suggest that Texas was trending toward Democrats over all.

Last November, meanwhile, the incumbent Republican governor, Rick Perry, won re-election in Texas by 13 percentage points, defeating Houston’s mayor, Bill White, while Democrats lost control of three of the 12 U.S. House seats (out of 32 in the state) that they had previously held.

If Democrats are going to compete in Texas anytime soon, they may have a better-than-average opportunity next year, as the incumbent senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, announced today that she will retire. There are a lot of Republicans in Texas and so they will not lack for competent candidates — led, perhaps, by the state’s lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, who strongly hinted today that he would run. But none of their candidates look like superstar talents.

The Democrats’ best bet might be Mr. White, who before switching into the gubernatorial race had been interested in running for Senate when it looked as though Ms. Hutchinson might retire prior to 2010. Polls showed that a plurality of voters were left with a favorable impression of Mr. White even as he was defeated, and although his race against Mr. Perry had been expected to be closer, it was not an embarrassing result considering how poorly Democrats performed throughout the country last November.

A poll conducted in February 2009 found Mr. White trailing Mr. Dewhurst by 5 points in a hypothetical matchup, which would certainly suggest a wide-open race. But the political climate was relatively favorable to Democrats then, and that is probably what would determine whether they have more than a puncher’s chance in 2012. Even as the Hispanic population in Texas grows, many Hispanics are not registered to vote or do not do so regularly. Meanwhile, there has also been a lot of migration into exurban areas of the state, most of it by white, conservative-leaning voters. It is a state where a Democrat could win a race in a very good year for the party nationally, but probably not in an average one.

Still, Democrats are likely to make a concerted effort in the state, with Mr. White or another candidate, for want of opportunity elsewhere. Suppose that the political environment does improve for them between now and 2012. While that would benefit Mr. Obama and their candidates for the U.S. House, they would have more trouble capitalizing it on the Senate since there are only 9 Republicans running for re-election, most of whom survived the difficult political cycle of 2006 and figure to be heavily favored.

The exceptions include Scott Brown of Massachusetts — he remains well-liked, but his state remains extremely Democratic — and John Ensign of Nevada, whose popularity flagged after he admitted to an affair with a campaign staffer. Olympia Snowe of Maine, meanwhile, could be vulnerable to a primary challenge from a more conservative Republican, which would put her state squarely into play. But these three states are all quite small, which means that there could be a lot of Democratic resources sitting on the sidelines for Texas and its 20 media markets.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.