Democrats in Tarrant County have been on a downward spiral for many years. In the 1990s, many local Democratic politicians saw the changes coming and switched to the Republican side. Now the Democrats have no county-government office-holders, and redistricting has moved out many members of Congress and the Texas Legislature.

The numbers are pretty striking. In 1990, Democrats voting a straight party ticket outnumbered Republicans in Tarrant County by 22,000. In recent elections, by the same measure, Republicans have outnumbered Democrats by more than 40,000. Democrats are also having a hard time filling up the ballot – they will challenge Republicans in only 19 of the 59 county races in November.

So like fans of a losing football team, some local Democrats want to get rid of the coach. That would be Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairman Art Brender. Since winning the chair in 1996, Brender has never faced opposition. But this year, Doreen Geiger, a community service veteran – she spent her last 13 years as an assistant executive director with the YWCA of Fort Worth and Tarrant County – is running against him.

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Brender points out that Geiger has very little political experience. “She has never walked a precinct, never supported a candidate, never financially committed to a candidate, and has never gone to conventions at either the state or local level,” he said. “This job entails more than political strategizing. It’s about absentee voting, making sure the polls work fairly, working a larger system. People who are not familiar with the process can have a lot of things go wrong.”

Geiger thinks Brender is what has gone wrong with Tarrant Democrats. “Art doesn’t have the skills we need right now; he doesn’t stand up for issues publicly that this party stands for,” she said. “We need someone with people skills so we can grow and have a full ballot. But Art says that’s not possible, that everything has already been tried and there’s little left to do. My experience is that we have 1.4 million people in this county, and a lot of them don’t even know we have a Democratic Party.”

If you get the feeling this may be a rough race, you’re right on target. The split began simmering during the 2004 presidential race, when the newer anti-Bush and anti-war Democrats wanted more from their local party. Many local Democratic clubs sprang up – some formed by Howard Dean supporters, others by Kerry backers – and their members wanted to be included in the local Democratic process.

But the new activists claim Brender brushed them off. “There has been an upsurge in grassroots Democratic activity all over the country because we’re getting dissatisfied with leadership,” said Miki Hawkins, president of the Mid-Cities Democrats, formed in 2004. “Brender has discouraged us from being involved, and I think he sees us as a threat. One of his staffers said we were ‘part of the grass-roots wackiness.'”

Brender recognizes the undercurrents. “We don’t exclude anyone, but we can only be as inclusive as they allow us to be,” he responded. “Some of these groups are unlike anything I’ve seen in our party. They don’t have any plans and only a few people involved. We don’t have the money to compete with the Republicans, so we have to have very specific plans. We can’t do everything every group wants.”

And it’s that split that’s driving this race. Brender thinks the demographics in Tarrant County – fewer minorities than in other big Texas counties – make it very difficult to make big inroads quickly. That’s why he doesn’t push loading the ballot. He wants to do things one step at a time, hoping Democratic District Attorney candidate Terri Moore can bring about a county-wide victory. Brender is putting Democratic resources behind her – even though she lost to her opponent, longtime incumbent D.A. Tim Curry, last time – and not pushing to find candidates who will have no chance.

Geiger thinks Brender’s law practice keeps him from doing his job. She is now retired and plans to work full-time as the county chair. “My opponent is hardly ever in the office working, and he and his staff have turned down contributions, volunteers, and new ideas,” she said. “The attitude by him is that this is a ‘can’t do’ party instead of a ‘can-do’ party.”

Bush beat Kerry in Tarrant County 349,462 to 207,286 in the last election, the second-highest margin of any urban county in the country (only California’s Orange County was bigger). So maybe Brender is right, and certainly the resources- and chances- are slim. But Geiger’s supporters say the losing has gone on too long and a change couldn’t be any worse.

As a result, the county chairmanship race on the primary ballot seven weeks from now may be the most interesting local contest of the whole 2006 political season. After all, there sure aren’t many Dems with a shot at any contested race.

That’s a big problem, Geiger says. Just how the numbers work right now, Brender says.