In this very Republican corner of central Texas, Democrats have been such an endangered species that some women at a Bill Clinton rally two days before the March 4 Texas primary joked that they had told co-workers they were going to the movies.
And yet, despite fierce thunderstorms that rumbled throughout the evening, the former president arrived that night to find more than 500 enthusiastic supporters of his wife's candidacy waiting for him in a brightly lit aircraft hangar. The crowd's size seemed to surprise no one so much as the people in it. In a county that George W. Bush carried with more than 77 percent of the vote in 2004, it had been a long time since anyone had seen so many Democrats in one place at one time.
"There's no real need to come out of the closet, so to speak, if you don't think you have a chance to win," said Julian Bridges, a longtime Abilene resident. "This could be a real turning point for much of Texas. People are not apologizing for being Democrats anymore."
Abilene isn't the only unlikely location where Democrats are resurfacing this year. The riveting competition between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination has engaged and energized Democrats not only in the party's traditional strongholds but also in reliably Republican states from Georgia and Texas to Kansas and Idaho.
This surge of activity could provide Democrats with the opportunity to construct new organizational foundations in red states where their party has long been in retreat. "You are basically rebuilding a party out of nothing in a lot of these places with a huge infusion of money from the campaigns and the energy on the ground," says Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, the online liberal group.
Within their national party and at the state level, Democrats are formulating plans to channel the enthusiasm that Obama and Clinton are generating in states where such energy had long been in short supply. In many of the red states that have experienced the most dramatic mobilizations, the Democratic nominee will still face long odds next fall, regardless of which candidate becomes the standard-bearer. But many Democratic strategists argue that the eruption of activism could help the party win down-ballot races in the red states, provided that local parties and candidates can galvanize the newly activated voters.
"It's up to the party and individual candidates to keep folks engaged," says Adrian Saenz, who ran Obama's Texas campaign and is an aide to Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas. "But this [presidential] primary is an organizing opportunity the party hasn't had before."
Turnout is up everywhere for Democrats this year, but some of the biggest gains have come in states that attracted little attention from the party in the past two presidential elections. That pattern reflects not only the appeal and organizational work of Obama and Clinton but also the second-term collapse of Bush's approval ratings, even in states that had been among his redoubts.
In Arizona, Georgia, and Tennessee, turnout in last month's Democratic primaries soared by two-thirds over 2004 levels. In South Carolina, the increase was 80 percent. Idaho's caucuses drew more than four times as many participants as in 2004. Perhaps most strikingly, nearly 2.9 million people voted in the Texas Democratic primary. That was more than triple the turnout in 2004 and even slightly more than the 2.8 million votes that John Kerry won there against native-son Bush in the 2004 general election.
In several of these states, no Democratic presidential candidate in years has contacted as many voters, generated crowds as large, or recruited as many volunteers as Obama and Clinton have each done this year. Now, state Democratic parties are trying to capitalize on those efforts. "They are both bringing in hundreds and thousands of new, excited volunteers," says John Pettit, the chairman of the Taylor County Democratic Party in Texas. "That's an opportunity to bring a whole new rejuvenation to the Democratic Party."
The Georgia Democratic Party, for instance, is obtaining both presidential candidates' lists of Peach State volunteers -- and recruiting them to join the party's outreach programs. "We are seeing increased numbers in volunteers and our neighborhood leaders," says Martin Matheny, the state party's communications director. "The presidential candidates definitely gave us a good jump start."
In Idaho, where more than 21,000 people turned out for the February 5 caucuses (compared with just 4,576 in 2004), the state party collected contact information for all attendees and is now soliciting them to work for the party. "I'm sure we won't get all 22,000 people to go out and knock on doors, but if we can get 10 percent or 15 percent, that is a hell of a lot of people... in Idaho," says Chuck Oxley, a state Democratic Party spokesman.
At the Democratic National Committee, officials see the big red-state turnout numbers as a validation of Chairman Howard Dean's "50-state strategy." Rather than focusing on a handful of swing states, Dean and a chorus of like-minded allies have argued, Democrats should invest substantial time and money in trying to restore their competitiveness, even in Republican territory. As part of that initiative, Dean has provided every state party with funds to hire organizers and upgrade computerized voter files.
Dave Boundy, the DNC's political director, says that while Clinton has used voter files from a private vendor, Obama has mostly purchased the files from state parties. Under the agreement with those parties, Boundy added, Obama will update the files to show which voters responded to his outreach efforts. That should help state parties and the eventual nominee target their own turnout campaigns this fall.
In addition, Boundy said, the DNC is about to unveil a computerized tool that will help channel the new wave of volunteers into door-to-door campaigns later this year. The tool will allow state parties and Democratic candidates to identify voters they want to reach -- and then allow activists to access an online list of the targets closest to their own homes. "We have two very sharp candidates... who are going around the country and igniting all of this stuff," Boundy said. "And what we have for the first time is a way to capture that and turn it into productive activity."
Before Democrats can tap the energy from the primaries, they must still overcome several obstacles. It's uncertain whether their presidential nominee will invest much time or money this fall in more than a few of the red states excited during the primary season; the grassroots activism might dissipate if he or she doesn't. Also, many voters backing Obama -- who has carried most of the red states -- predict that the enthusiasm will wane if Clinton seizes the nomination.
Yet much of the activity ignited by the nomination contest may be self-sustaining. Although states like Idaho, South Carolina, and Texas remain a distant reach for any Democratic presidential nominee, analysts in both parties say that an invigorated campaign organization, and a more competitive showing by the nominee, could help the party in contests for lower offices. In Georgia, Democrats are hoping to narrow the Republican state legislative advantages, with an eye toward flipping the chambers in 2010. In Idaho, the party is aiming to elect local officials who could challenge Republican state legislators in two years. In Texas, Democrats hope that this month's awakening will help them recapture the state House, where Republicans hold a nine-seat lead, and rebuild their bench of local officials after 15 years of steady GOP gains.
"If turnout is all on Hillary or Obama's side, and we [Republicans] are where we are now without enthusiasm, it could be devastating," says longtime Texas GOP strategist Royal Masset, a former political director for the state Republican Party. "The [biggest] impact would be... in local races and judicial races, which would give Democrats a tremendous toehold for the future."
Like many fragile spring blossoms, the Democratic expectations of red-state electoral gains could wither by November. But the Obama-Clinton confrontation may have already subtly changed the political equation in these red states by giving previously dejected Democrats the confidence to make the party's case day by day to friends and neighbors. "This is the first time I feel cool to be a Democrat in Texas," Vanessa Russell-Evans, a 26-year-old law student, said at a Clinton rally in Houston just before the Texas vote. "That's never happened."
NBC/National Journal campaign reporter Athena Jones contributed to this report.