National Democrats are taking steps to create a large-scale independent group aimed at turning traditionally conservative Texas into a prime electoral battleground, crafting a new initiative to identify and mobilize progressive voters in the rapidly-changing state, strategists familiar with the plans told POLITICO.
The organization, dubbed “Battleground Texas,” plans to engage the state’s rapidly growing Latino population, as well as African-American voters and other Democratic-leaning constituencies that have been underrepresented at the ballot box in recent cycles. Two sources said the contemplated budget would run into the tens of millions of dollars over several years – a project Democrats hope has enough heft to help turn what has long been an electoral pipe dream into reality.
At the center of the effort is Jeremy Bird, formerly the national field director for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, who was in Austin last week to confer with local Democrats about the project.
In a statement to POLITICO, Bird said the group would be “a grass-roots organization that will make Texas a battleground state by treating it like one.”
“With its diversity and size, Texas should always be a battleground state where local elections are vigorously contested and anyone who wants to be our commander in chief has to compete and show they reflect Texas values. Yet for far too long, the state’s political leaders, both in Austin and in Washington, D.C., have failed to stand for Texans,” said Bird, who recently founded a consulting firm, 270 Strategies. “Over the next several years, Battleground Texas will focus on expanding the electorate by registering more voters — and as importantly, by mobilizing Texans who are already registered voters but who have not been engaged in the democratic process.”
Said Bird: “Candidates who represent Texans should have to fight hard for the honor — and Battleground Texas will help make sure they do.
One Democrat close to the planning process said the group intended to bring in “top campaign talent to Texas” for a long-term organizing push. Strategists filed papers with the Texas Ethics Commission to create Battleground Texas earlier this month with that goal in mind.
“It’s going to take a sustained effort and we’re going to have to prove ourselves over time,” the Democrat said. “We need to have the talent in state to build something real over time and make the environment such that you can look someone in the eye and say, ‘You can run statewide and you can win,’ or you can tell a presidential candidate that you should really consider putting resources here.”
Another strategist tied to Texas called the project a “very positive effort to try to put together a pretty broad grass-roots organization to try to identify and ultimately mobilize progressive voters.”
“There’s a realistic view that that will take more than one cycle,” the strategist said. “None of this stuff is ever real until you’ve got money.”
Democrats have eyed Texas longingly for years, watching as the Republican bastion has transformed into a majority-minority state. The 2010 census found that 38 percent of Texans identified themselves as Latino or Hispanic; just under 45 percent were non-Hispanic whites.
But the Democratic infrastructure in Texas has decayed over two decades of GOP ascendancy. Congressional and legislative redistricting has undercut the party’s efforts to rebuild there. Republicans control every statewide office, and Obama lost to Mitt Romney in the state by 16 points in November. No exit poll was taken in Texas last November, but Latinos have typically made up a smaller share of the electorate than the overall population.
Still, Democrats buoyed by the breadth of their 2012 victories are looking to Texas as a political holy grail: a prize so spectacular that it might just be worth a big, sustained investment of money and energy. If state and national party leaders committed the time and almost presidential-level resources required, the thinking goes, the most important cornerstone of the GOP’s electoral map could become competitive.
“I’m excited to see that at national levels, people are now looking at Texas and saying, ‘That’s where we need to make our next investment. That’s where the next opportunity lies.’ The enthusiasm that I’m hearing in that regard is growing every day,” said Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis.
The Fort Worth legislator, who won a difficult reelection campaign last year in a conservative district, is viewed in and outside of Texas as perhaps her party’s strongest statewide prospect for 2014. Both Davis and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro visited Washington during the Inauguration this week and addressed a fundraiser for the Lone Star Project, an influential outside group that drives Democratic messaging in Texas.
At the Sunday event, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, the former Dallas mayor, whipped up the crowd with a concise version of the case for competing in Texas: “When Texas turns blue, this country’s going to turn blue and it’s going to stay blue.”
Matt Angle, the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who founded the Lone Star Project, argued that there’s “a lot of optimism in Texas, but it’s tempered with realism.”
“People understand that it’s going to take a lot of focused resources and a deliberate effort to define the Republican leadership in Texas for what it is, which is failed. Absent that, the hill remains very steep,” Angle said. “The demographics are coming into place and Republicans have created an opportunity … But it’s also doing the hard work and raising the money that it takes.”
Davis — whom multiple Republicans privately described as “scary” to the GOP — agreed that there’s political opportunity for Democrats in Texas but said it remains to be seen how quickly the party can take advantage of it.
“Our issues already are the issues that are reflective of the values of the people in Texas: building a strong public education, creating an opportunity for higher education and making sure that we keep our citizens healthy so that their families are strong and our economy is strong,” Davis told POLITICO. “I’m excited that people are talking about the opportunity for me to do something statewide one day. What I’m smart enough to know is that you can’t decide that’s a good idea for yourself. Instead, the support for that has to generate from under.”
Democratic Houston Mayor Annise Parker said her party couldn’t afford to wait passively for population change to turn Texas blue. Instead, they should dig in for a longer, harder campaign to make it a swing state.
“We have been waiting in Texas for a very long time for the Latino vote to come into its own and turn the tide. But many of us have decided that we can’t wait for that. We have to do the old-fashioned work of going out and talking to Texans,” said Parker, who didn’t rule out a statewide campaign “when I am done [being] mayor.”
“Do I think we’re going to turn Texas in two years? Probably not. Do I think we can turn Texas in four years? Absolutely, because I think the Republican Party in Texas is going to drive itself off a cliff,” Parker said. “You hear Republicans with rhetoric, literally talking about the jack-booted thugs coming and taking guns out of people’s homes, going door to door. You have legislators who will file, once again, virulently anti-immigrant legislation in the state House.”
Any new national group aimed at building up Texas Democrats would join a small but significant array of in-state organizations developing progressive infrastructure. In addition to the Lone Star Project and the germinal Battleground Texas effort, strategists pointed to the group Be One Texas as a significant player in their comeback effort.
That organization plans to spend heavily across several elections to coordinate action among Democratic interest groups, said Texas strategist Robert Jones, who’s taking over as the group’s CEO next week. Be One Texas will follow the “roundtable” model adopted successfully by Democrats in states such as Colorado and Minnesota, where collaboration between big donors, labor groups, women’s groups and other core Democratic constituencies have powered major gains.
“I think there’s a lot of conversations about Texas right now, looking at the electoral map and how you change the nature of politics in the country,” said Jones. “The state is on track to have 42 electoral votes in the 2020 census, so it has the potential to be a huge player in national politics.”
Ideally, Democrats said, the existing progressive groups there and a new entity would end up “embracing and reinforcing one another.”
Republicans have consistently scoffed at Democratic attempts to woo the Texas electorate — and with some cause. As strategists in both parties see it, national Democrats periodically find themselves gripped with excitement about competing there, only to find that the state is too big, too expensive and too culturally conservative for them to pull it off.
The party fielded a strong candidate for governor in 2010, former Houston Mayor Bill White, only to see him lose by 13 points to incumbent Gov. Rick Perry. Two years later, Democrats recruited retired Gen. Ricardo Sanchez into the open-seat Senate race, presenting him as a candidate who could appeal to conservative voters and energize Latinos. Sanchez withdrew several months later after raising a paltry sum for the race.
From the deeply skeptical Republican perspective, Democratic hopes for flipping Texas — even over the medium to long term — recall the GOP’s short-lived aspirations to compete in California at the height of George W. Bush’s popularity.
Republican strategist Dave Carney, who has worked extensively in Texas and steered Perry’s 2010 reelection, dismissed Democratic claims that a brand-new voter mobilization project would help transform the state. He called it a matter of “consultants coming up with a project to get paid.”
“The more money they spend on [Battleground Texas], the better it is for Texas and the taxpayers of Texas, because it will basically lead to continued conservative dominance of the state. There’s a reason voters are low-propensity voters. They don’t vote,” Carney said. “It’s their message that hurts [Democrats]. It’s their inability to articulate a message that the vast majority of Texas voters agree with.”
Andy Seré, a national GOP strategist with Texas ties, emphasized just what a steep challenge Democrats have ahead of them: “Democrats simply lack anything close to the statewide infrastructure that a majority party has, and they don’t appear even close to it. In order to become competitive, they need to expand their donor base beyond trial lawyers and their voter base beyond minorities. And until they do, they are not going to be competitive in a state as big and fast-growing as Texas is.”
Even more-than-usually upbeat Texas Democrats acknowledge that state Republicans have built a formidable edifice to protect their majority. If Perry currently looks like a weakened governor, he has been underestimated before; and state Attorney General Greg Abbott is waiting in the wings as a possible successor with a massive war chest at his disposal.
“Republicans here have a decade’s worth of fundraising and infrastructure that plays to their advantage. I don’t care what state you’re in, that’s going to be hard for any challenger to go up against,” said Austin-based Democratic operative Ed Espinoza. “Having said that, we have some really bright stars. We don’t have a deep bench, but we do have a good bench.”
Looking to 2014 and beyond, Espinoza echoed the Democratic consensus that building viable statewide institutions for Democrats is the top priority.
“We do need to have a good team, and we do need to have a good ticket. We’ve had too many go-it-alone candidacies that just weren’t able to do it on their own,” he said. “Coordination should focus on things like who can raise money, who can build structure and who can build votes. Too often we say, ‘Well, this person’s brown, so they can win brown votes, and this person’s a woman, so she can win women’s votes.’”