We’re broadcasting live today from Congress Avenue in downtown Austin, just a few blocks away from the Capitol, at the Texas Tribune Festival – the annual event that’s become a kind of ground zero for everything politics in Texas and beyond. TribFest is a sort of South by Southwest for political junkies. Thousands of people attend; it used to be at a conference center on the University of Texas at Austin campus, but it’s become such a “thing” that it now takes over several blocks of downtown Austin for the weekend.
Major national political figures come to the festival in large part because Texas has such an outsized footprint on the country’s political scene: John Kerry, the former secretary of state, delivered the keynote last night; U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke will be here Saturday. Also, former Sen. Bill Bradley, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Jeff Flake, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are all here. Plus, Republicans, Democrats, mayors, lawmakers, educators, technology innovators, business leaders are in attendance, roaming the capital city. In fact, it’s important to point out that this weekend is about more than just politics; it’s all about the state of the Lone Star State, and a wide-ranging conversation about where it’s headed.
Today, we’re leaning on some experts who know Texas and politics well to tell us what we need to know today and what to look for in the months ahead. Nancy Barnes is executive editor of the Houston Chronicle, Anna Palmer is a senior Washington correspondent for Politico and co-author of their twice-daily newsletter Playbook and Mike Wilson is editor of The Dallas Morning News.
Barnes on the Cruz-O’Rourke Senate race being a toss-up:
“I think why you see this being put into the toss-up category is there is some inkling that perhaps Democrats are more motivated and are gonna turn out this year. It could be wishful thinking but, you know, the pendulum does swing from time to time in history and this may be the time.”
Palmer on Republicans bracing for large Democratic voter turnout in November:
“What’s interesting this time, though, is you really see the money going into this race at a national level. Beto O’Rourke has been able to have a national footprint in some of the ways he’s attacked the politics. … [Republicans] are concerned that this could be a 2016 – a presidential-size turnout for Democrats – and Republicans feel like they need to be ready for that.”
Wilson on why the Cruz-O’Rourke contest is the most interesting races in the country:
“[It’s] a battle for the soul of Texas. I mean, you couldn’t have two more different visions for the kind of state that we want to have, and to see as much grassroots support for the Beto O’Rourke campaign has been revelatory … to all of us and to Ted Cruz. And yet, Cruz is a national brand … and also has serious support, but just a very different approach.”
Palmer on Texas’ role in potentially flipping the U.S. Congress:
“The number of seats that have never been considered swing seats that are in play. … If they can kind of go on the tails of [Beto O’Rourke], that kind of a groundswell on the ground game, there is a lot of seats here that Republicans may have to spend a lot of money where they haven’t even had to think about them before.”
Barnes on the Texas Legislature staying conservative:
“[Texas] is a state of blue cities surrounded by red oceans. … I don’t see there being significant change in policy in Texas until you have a change in leadership at the top. Everybody in Texas, not everybody but almost, has been sort of driven to the right and they feel that they need to go right to survive politically in Texas, and until that is no longer true, you’re not gonna to see a change in terms of regulation in Texas.”
Wilson on education as a top issue for the next legislative session:
“I think funding of education is right up there. … That doesn’t mean that the legislature will take a different approach because though we’re talking about a potential shift at the U.S. Senate level, for now, the most conservative wing of the party controls state government.”
Barnes on how the Texas Legislature needs to focus on college readiness for students:
“I think you don’t understand how huge these school districts are and the inability that they have to really get students to college readiness. It’s a significant problem all across the state. … Business leaders in all the major cities will say their major concern is having students who are ready to either go to college or coming out of college ready to work with the skills they need.”
Wilson on how Dallas business leaders will lobby lawmakers on college- and workplace-readiness during the session:
“People who are trying to raise the next generation of quality employees in Dallas are very concerned about this and have some skin in the game.”