Republicans Play Defense in Texas

AP Photo/Harry Cabluck

On Tuesday, the Texas Republican Party chair Steve Munisteri announced plans to open five new field offices and hire nearly two dozen full-time outreach workers, who will target nonwhite voters and young people. The national party will help support the effort, investing a currently undisclosed amount. According to a spokesperson for the Texas Republican Party, the details are still being worked out. Since the GOP already dominates the state, you might expect the news would only further depress beleaguered Democrats—a well-funded effort to build inroads among voters who don’t typically vote Republican.

Instead, some Democrats were celebrating. Battleground Texas, the group headed by former Obama staffers that promises to turn Texas blue largely through an emphasis on door-to-door canvassing, registration drives, and the like, sent out an email blast highlighting the news, with “This is amazing” as the subject line. The email proclaimed: “There is no clearer sign that Texas matters and will become a battleground state than the national Republican Party investing money in Texas in 2013.” Battleground Texas founder Jeremy Bird, who served as Obama’s national field director in 2012, tweeted out the news with the hashtag “#GameOn,” the group’s favorite slogan.

The celebration makes sense. Republican activity may be the only development Battleground Texas can point to in the short term to show it's having an impact. The group, which I profiled in our most recent print magazine, faces a tough situation. Texas is already a year and half away from a major election, and there’s almost no chance the Democrats can be competitive for statewide office in 2014. The 2016 presidential race is a similarly long shot—as in, it requires binoculars. The Democratic losing streak, which currently stands at 100 consecutive statewide races lost, may even continue into 2020. Right now, Democrats are almost toxic among the state’s white voters, more than 70 percent of whom tend to vote Republican. Making the Democratic effort even harder, Latinos, who tend to vote 2-to-1 Democratic, vote at significantly lower rates than their counterparts in other states.

Battleground Texas executive director Jenn Brown has promised that her organization is committed long-term to building a Democratic base, which includes boosting Latino participation. But in the short term, promising candidates like the San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and his twin brother, Joaquin, who serves in Congress, aren’t likely to want to run losing campaigns statewide. Battleground Texas’s outreach program could help make statewide Democratic victories happen faster, but they're still a long way off. That means, to be successful, they’ll have to continue to raise money, get volunteers, and raise enthusiasm—without necessarily winning any major races.

Without statewide wins, Battleground Texas could wear out its welcome. While almost no Democrats in the state will publicly criticize the group—they’ve long hoped for a serious effort by national Democrats in the state—it’s not hard to hear muttering from time to time. The group’s already got more staff than the state Democratic Party, and is fundraising in the same pool as other liberal groups. Just about all the Democrats I’ve talked to are willing to give Battleground a chance. But if the group can’t show it’s making a difference, other Democrats might start showing them the door. Or the group could simply fade away, slowly dismissed as yet another ill-fated "turn it blue" effort.

To stick around and fulfill its mission, the group is going to have to find some new metrics for showing success. One big one could be enlarging the Democratic bench by challenging more Republicans in local elections and in the state legislative races. Another would be to focus on winning Houston’s Harris County, which is only 33 percent white yet continues to be competitive for the GOP. (Democrats already dominate Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, the state’s other big cities.)

But one way Battleground can show its impact is to point to responses from the Republican National Committee and the state party. The GOP and Battleground have a bizarrely symbiotic relationship. Last month, Munisteri told me that he’d already raised $300,000 through ominous warnings about the new Democratic group; one letter called Battleground “masters of the slimy dark arts of campaigning.” Leaders at Battleground Texas can point to those same fundraising efforts and say, effectively, “See? They’re scared! We have a chance.”

The news on uesday that the national GOP will put even an unknown amount into Texas offers Battleground an opportunity to establish a new metric for success. Republicans can’t afford to let Texas turn blue, and will likely invest millions if need be to counter the new group. Big conservative donors from Texas who currently send their money to other states may choose to spend it on races at home. If Republicans have to start investing in Texas, it will change the national calculus, particularly in presidential years. There will be fewer Republican dollars to spend in Florida or Ohio—another victory for Battleground Texas.

But there’s also the possibility, slim though it may be, that Republicans in Texas actually find a way to win over Latino voters. Munisteri has been an outspoken proponent of diversifying the party and welcoming nonwhite activists. The party leaders in the state legislature have prevented overtly anti-immigrant measures from coming to the floor the way they have in other states. George P. Bush, the Latino son of Jeb Bush, is already planning a run for land commissioner, typically a stepping-stone to higher office. Bush has also helped start Hispanic Republicans of Texas, a group that pushes for more Latinos to run. Battleground Texas has already gotten the GOP’s attention and there’s a chance state conservatives will find new ways to appeal to and mobilize at least a larger percent of nonwhite populations.

In the meantime, Battleground Texas can still claim success if it uses the GOP response as a measurements of success. It’s a win-win—at least for now. 

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