Can Obama's Organizing Army Take Texas?
Shortly before the Battleground Texas tour stopped in Austin’s old AFL-CIO building in early April, the sky opened up. Thunder and lightning raged, parts of the city flooded, and traffic came to a standstill. But Democrats kept arriving, some dripping wet, others clutching umbrellas rarely used in the city, and the meeting room soon filled with about 100 folks, some no doubt drawn by curiosity. Launched in February by two of Team Obama’s hotshot organizers, Battleground Texas was promising to inject into the nation’s biggest Republican stronghold the grassroots field tactics—the volunteer-organizing, the phone-banking and door-knocking, the digital savvy—that won the 2012 presidential election. After years of national Democrats seeing Texas as hopelessly red, what made this fledgling group think it could turn the state blue?
Jenn Brown, Battleground Texas’s executive director, was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. But the 31-year-old California native, who projects the energy and enthusiasm of a camp counselor, knew she had some convincing to do. As one attendee put it, “We’re suffering from battered-spouse syndrome. We believe it is impossible to win.” The situation for Texas Democrats has been as gloomy as the day’s weather. The party hasn’t won a single statewide race since 1996—a 100-campaign losing streak. Republicans dominate the state legislature. Mitt Romney carried the state by more than 1.2 million votes. For nearly two decades, the Texas Democratic Party has been the political equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters’ perennial patsies, the Washington Generals.
But the people leading Battleground Texas are proven winners. Brown headed up Barack Obama’s field operation in Ohio, which turned out 100,000 more African American voters in 2012 than in 2008. Battleground Texas founder and senior advisor Jeremy Bird, a 34-year-old Missouri native, is the wonky wunderkind who, as Obama’s national field director, oversaw the campaign’s state-of-the-art turnout operation. They’ve been joined by young, native Texan organizers such as Christina Gomez, formerly with the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, and Cliff Walker, who ran the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee. Bird and Brown got interested in Texas, they say, during the 2012 campaign. Bird was wowed by the enthusiasm of Texas volunteers, who made 400,000 calls to Florida voters in the last three days before the election. Brown says that wherever she went during the campaign, Obama staffers from Texas would talk excitedly about the potential for organizing the state, given its rapidly changing demographics.
Since their effort launched in February, they’ve seen more encouraging signs. Attendance was strong on Battleground Texas’s 14-city getting-to-know-you tour, which stopped in both Democrat-friendly places like Austin and San Antonio and Republican strongholds like Waco and Lubbock. By mid-April, Battleground Texas already had more Facebook friends—23,000—than the Texas GOP. Its organizers refuse to comment on the group’s funding sources, but the state’s biggest Democratic donor, Steve Mostyn, has agreed to help the group raise its estimated $10 million annual budget. As of April, there were ten paid staffers, more than the state Democratic Party employs, with additional hires on the way.
While Governor Rick Perry laughed off the effort to turn Texas blue as “the biggest pipe dream I have ever heard,” other Republican leaders are giving Battleground Texas free publicity by decrying it as a coven of dangerous outside agitators—“masters of the slimy dark arts of campaigning,” state Republican Party Chair Steve Munisteri wrote in a fundraising letter. Speaking at a lunch in Waco, Attorney General Greg Abbott called the arrival of Team Obama members “a new assault, an assault far more dangerous than what the leader of North Korea threatened when he said he was going to add Austin, Texas, as one of the recipients of his nuclear weapons. The threat that we’re getting is the threat from the Obama administration and his political machine.”
For a fledgling effort, Battleground Texas has already become a national media darling, prominently featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Bloomberg News. In February, Bird even had a guest turn on The Colbert Report, where the host described him as “the man behind Obama’s minority outreach-around.” It’s easy to see why there’s so much interest. If Texas were to become a competitive state, the impact on national politics would be enormous. Without the state’s 38 electoral votes, Republicans would find it virtually impossible to win presidential elections with the current national map. Even the threat of losing Texas would influence a presidential contest. If the GOP has to start fighting for votes in such an enormous state—with 20 media markets—it will drain resources the party could devote to other battlegrounds.
No state has greater potential for Democrats. Texas is already “majority-minority,” with Latinos making up 38 percent of the population and African Americans 12 percent. According to the state demographer, the number of Latinos will surpass the number of whites in the next decade; by 2040, 52 percent of the state will be Latino, and 27 percent will be white. Between just 2012 and 2016, about a million additional Latinos in Texas will become eligible to vote. But that’s been the trouble for Democrats: Latinos aren’t voting. Forty-seven percent of eligible Latinos have not even registered. In 2010, when Perry won re-election, the Latino turnout rate was an anemic 16 percent, about half the typical Latino turnout in New Mexico. An analysis by the Houston Chronicle shows that if Latinos voted at the same rate as whites, the state would already be a toss-up.
So while Battleground Texas aims to make inroads with other groups—including white women, who are overwhelmingly Republican in Texas, counter to national trends—driving up the Latino vote is the key to a Democratic turnaround. On paper, it looks straightforward, which is one reason Democrats outside of Texas tend to be more sanguine about a partisan flip than Democrats in the state. They don’t know what the folks in Austin know all too well: that Republicans have continued to gain congressional and legislative seats over the past decade, even as Texas’s Latino population has swelled.
One challenge is scale. Bird and Brown cite Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada as models for turning out Latinos. But none of those states has more than 516,000 Latino citizens total—which is fewer than the number of Latino citizens in Houston’s Harris County alone. “In those little states, you can just throw money and get all kinds of stuff done,” says Antonio Gonzalez, head of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. Not in Texas, where size is only one of the complicating factors.
Another wrinkle: Battleground Texas will have to tangle with a state Republican Party that has been far smarter about connecting with Latinos than the national Republican Party. The tone was set by Karl Rove and George W. Bush, who actively courted Latinos in the 1990s as they set about building the Texas GOP into a dominant force. Battleground Texas will also have to overcome deeply entrenched political disengagement among Latinos and other nonwhites, born in part from years of Democratic neglect.
Even given the rosiest of scenarios, Texas Democrats aren’t likely to elect a governor in 2014 or help to elevate a Democrat into the White House in 2016. But Battleground Texas’s leaders swear they’re committed for the long haul. As Brown said in Austin, “If 2020 is the year we turn this state around, that is OK with me.”
Republican supremacy in Texas is a relatively recent phenomenon. From Reconstruction until the 1960s, Democrats—mostly conservative, exclusively white—ran the state. The party always had a vocal progressive wing, and in the wake of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Latino leaders began to emerge. Most came from San Antonio, which had both a large Latino population and a strong activist tradition. Community organizer Willie C. Velasquez founded the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which registered thousands of Latinos and filed more than 80 lawsuits to ensure their access to the ballot. In 1974, Ernie Cortés started San Antonio’s Communities Organized for Public Service, which helped Latino neighborhoods push their policy agendas. In 1981, Henry Cisneros was elected mayor, making him only the second Latino mayor in U.S. history.
While other Southern states were trending Republican, Democrats still looked like the party of the future in Texas. Houston, fast becoming one of the nation’s largest and most diverse cities, had elected Democrat Barbara Jordan, the state’s first African American legislator and, later, first African American member of Congress. In 1990, Dan Morales, a state legislator, became the first Latino elected statewide, as attorney general. A year later, Governor Ann Richards appointed Lena Guerrero to the powerful Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas industries, making her the first woman and person of color on the commission.
But white conservatives still made up most of the state’s electorate, and they backed Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984—the first time a Republican had carried the state since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. In 1978, Republicans elected their first Texas governor since Reconstruction, Bill Clements, after a bitterly contested Democratic primary divided the party. Suddenly, the GOP didn’t look completely hopeless in Texas, and conservative Anglos began to get accustomed to voting Republican after generations as yellow-dog Democrats. Karl Rove laid out a strategy for taking control of the state, systematically targeting vulnerable Democrats he could either unseat or convince to switch sides. “When there was a straggler in the pack, he would take them in the bushes and cut their throat,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist and author of Texas Politics: Governing the Lone Star State.
The tipping point came in 1994, when Richards lost her re-election bid to Rove’s candidate, George W. Bush. Democrats still carried most statewide offices that year and maintained a sizable edge in the legislature. But the Republican tide was rising fast. In 1998, against weak opposition, Bush won re-election with 69 percent of the vote—including nearly 40 percent of the Latino vote—and Republicans swept statewide offices. Meanwhile, Democrats lost their most promising Latino candidate for higher office when Cisneros, who’d gone to Washington as President Bill Clinton’s housing secretary, was felled by a scandal involving hush money given to a former mistress. By then, Velasquez and Cortés had left the state as well.
In 2002, Democrats ran what they thought was a “dream team”—wealthy businessman Tony Sanchez for governor and Ron Kirk, an African American who’d been elected mayor in Dallas, for U.S. senator. “We had a really well-funded and sophisticated outreach to Hispanic voters,” says longtime Democratic consultant Glenn Smith, who ran the Sanchez campaign. “The problem was we were doing it all of a sudden in one campaign cycle. That’s just not enough time.” The dream team lost badly, and Republicans took control of the state legislature.
Texas Democrats went into a death spiral. Their bench of potential statewide candidates was empty. National leaders saw no upside to investing in the state and began using it as a cash machine for campaigns outside the state. As the Latino population continued to swell, Democrats failed to launch the type of sustained outreach needed to bring new voters into the system. Latinos still voted for Democrats, usually by about a 2-to-1 margin. But far too few were voting.
Texas Republican leaders wisely avoided the mistakes of their counterparts in California and Arizona, where anti-immigration laws turned Latinos into avid Democrats. As governor and president, Bush spoke Spanish at campaign events, appointed Latinos to key positions, and broke with most Republicans by championing comprehensive immigration reform. His successor as governor, Rick Perry, signed a state version of the DREAM Act into law and spoke out against measures like Arizona’s “papers, please” law. When Republican lawmakers tried to float such bills, Perry and other party leaders quashed their efforts before they became an embarrassment.
“Democrats think that if they just wait and the state becomes more Hispanic, they win,” says the current GOP chair, Munisteri. “That ignores the fact that we are doing Hispanic outreach.” Even as the Tea Party wave of 2010 drove the state legislature further to the right, Texas Republicans launched new efforts to attract nonwhite voters. The party used data analytics and cross-checks to identify conservative Latinos and get them involved; as a result, last year’s state GOP convention had 600 new Latino delegates. At that same convention, delegates changed the party platform to eliminate calls for mass deportation of undocumented Texans. (However, it still advocates rescinding citizenship for those born in the country to noncitizens.) A full-time Republican outreach coordinator now goes on Telemundo and Univision, the two major Spanish-language networks, as a regular commentator. On June 4, Munisteri said the national GOP would even start kicking in to help the state party hire nearly two dozen full-time field organizers and open five new outreach offices around the state.
The party’s efforts have been bolstered by Hispanic Republicans of Texas, a political action committee co-founded by George P. Bush (son of Jeb) and two Republican consultants with strong national connections. Hispanic Republicans recruits, trains, and backs candidates for local, state, and federal offices. The group built a lot of buzz in 2010, when seven Hispanic Republicans were elected to the state legislature and Congress. But in 2012, the results were decidedly mixed. Though Ted Cruz was elected to the U.S. Senate and two new Latinos won state House seats, only two of the winners from 2012 were re-elected, and a coveted congressional race was lost. Bush, who’s 37 and whose mother is Mexican-born, has announced that he will be running statewide in 2014 for Texas land commissioner—a launching pad to bigger things.
The party’s strategy is based on the belief that Latinos in Texas are more conservative than their counterparts in other states—and thus “persuadable” for Republicans without a wholesale change in policies. There’s a large bloc who are swing voters, says George Antuna Jr., who co-founded Hispanic Republicans of Texas with Bush. “Those voters are up for grabs.”
“They’re dreaming,” Jillson counters. With rare exceptions, Latinos have been voting 2 to 1 Democratic in Texas since the days of LBJ. In 2012, an election-eve poll by Latino Decisions found 53 percent of Texas Latinos identifying as Democrats; only 15 percent said they were Republicans. Polling data show why. Particularly on economic issues, Latino voters in Texas line up overwhelmingly with Democratic positions. Young Latinos, who will dominate Texas politics in the near future, are more liberal than their elders. Latino voters’ top priorities, aside from immigration reform, are improving education and health care—two issues that are not exactly strengths for Texas Republicans. In 2011, GOP lawmakers, cheered on by Perry, made the largest cuts in modern Texas history to public schools. Republicans are also responsible for policies that have left one-quarter of Texans—and a far larger slice of Latinos—without health insurance.
For a couple more election cycles, Republicans can continue to win Texas with overwhelming white support—it often reaches 70 percent in statewide races—combined with one-third of the Latino vote. But if enough Latinos start voting, the GOP will have to recalibrate its message while holding on to a right-wing base that has shown little taste for moderation. If anything, the party has moved rightward in recent years. Its most visible Latino champion, Senator Cruz, is a Tea Party stalwart. If Republicans were expecting Cruz, whose ancestry is Cuban American, to boost their Latino vote, it didn’t happen in 2012; he received about 35 percent, one point less than Senator John Cornyn received in 2008. “Republicans like Ted Cruz talk about how Republicans are different in Texas because they have a few Hispanic candidates,” Bird says. “But the first speech Cruz gave in the Senate was about his opposition to Obamacare, which an overwhelming majority of Hispanics support.”
Still, Republicans profess confidence that they’ll keep Texas red—and conservative—for decades to come. If Battleground Texas begins to pose a threat, Munisteri says, national Republicans will pour limitless money and resources into the state to keep from losing the party’s crown jewel. Battleground Texas, he claims, “may end up doing me a favor. We’ll have more resources than they would if they left it alone.” Since the group announced itself, Munisteri says he’s already raised $300,000 by sounding the alarm about a potential takeover by Team Obama. “When Texas begins to look competitive, there’s going to be an avalanche of Republican money coming home to protect the state,” Jillson says. But that would come with a cost: fewer resources for Republicans everywhere else.
How will Battleground Texas mount a challenge to Republican hegemony in the ultimate red state? Slowly but surely, as Jenn Brown told the Austin Democrats. “We know this is a long-term effort,” she said. “We know it will take time.” The initial focus will be to create a massive network of Democratic organizers and volunteers across the state. Imagine, Brown said, what could happen with 250 paid field organizers in Texas, each with five teams of volunteers; they could reach 500,000 potential voters if everyone just knocked on 50 doors.
At this point, the details are hypothetical: A full-scale plan for “getting that started” won’t be rolled out until this summer. But Jeremy Bird offers a few more details. In the next couple of election cycles, Battleground Texas will target “battleground zones”—races that organizers believe could either be winnable or could help Democrats build infrastructure by training new candidates and registering voters. A battleground zone could be a city council race with a promising young Latino candidate in Waco or a state House race in a heavily minority district in Houston. The idea is to seize every viable opportunity to build new Democratic networks around the state, creating new voters along the way.
For the time being, that’ll be done without backing candidates for statewide offices. Texas has a few rising Democratic stars—most notably San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and his twin, Congressman Joaquin Castro—but running them for major offices too soon and losing risks diminishing their appeal. Democratic strategist James Aldrete says the Battleground Texas approach—build the base rather than expecting miracle results right away—is refreshing. For too long, Aldrete says, Texas Democrats tried the opposite approach: “waiting for the amazing candidate that’s gonna inspire everyone and solve all our problems.” Finally, Texas Democrats are attempting to replicate what has worked elsewhere. “The way I look at it,” Bird says, “Texas is our candidate.”
But Obama-style grassroots politics is brand-new for most Texas Democrats. While the national party was putting an increasing emphasis on door-knocking and turnout over the past decade, the party in Texas was falling behind. Battleground Texas will have to change fundamentally the way Texas Democrats think about politics, reorienting them from a campaign-to-campaign mentality to one of year-round organizing.
The leaders of Battleground Texas say there’s reason for optimism—partly because there is some recent history of grassroots politics working in Texas. During the 2010 midterm elections, Austin Democratic Party Chair Andy Brown selected 21 largely black and Latino precincts where turnout had traditionally been low and pledged to run the type of hardcore turnout campaigns usually reserved for the wealthier, whiter parts of town. With a paid field staff organizing volunteers, the Travis County Democrats knocked on every registered voter’s door in those precincts two or three times and called each one at least twice. The effort paid off: Although 2010 was the worst year in history for Texas Democrats, 18 percent more ballots were cast in Travis County and the number of straight-ticket Democratic voters went up 54 percent. “There was nothing fancy about it,” Brown says. “It was a really well-run field program.”
A similar strategy has also worked wonders in Dallas. In 2006, Democrats in Texas’s oldest Republican stronghold bucked convention by spending as much on phone-banking and door-to-door campaigning as on media ads and mailers. The results were stunning: Democrats swept all 47 local offices, including 40 judgeships that had previously belonged to Republicans.
But elsewhere, Texas Democrats have been slow to learn from Dallas’s example. The party’s most glaring failure has been in Harris County, home to Houston and the nation’s fourth-largest population. Harris County already looks like the Texas of the future; only 33 percent of its residents are white, while 41 percent are Latino, 19 percent are black, and 6 percent are Asian. Houston voters elected the first lesbian mayor of a major city, Democrat Annise Parker, in 2009. But in 2012, President Obama carried the county by a measly 971 votes, and Republicans remain competitive in local races. How is that possible? Because there’s a staggering number of voters who are eligible but unregistered—estimates run between 600,000 and 800,000.
Democrats can’t simply start knocking on doors in neighborhoods that have long been shunned, asking for votes and expecting results. The Latino Decisions election-eve poll showed the depths of Texas Democrats’ dysfunction: Only 25 percent of Texas Latinos had been contacted by a campaign, a political party, or a community organization of any kind—compared with 59 percent in Colorado, 51 percent in Nevada, and 48 percent in New Mexico.
Harris County Democrats and Battleground Texas volunteers will have to start making calls and venturing into minority neighborhoods for the first time in decades. The effort has, at least, belatedly begun. Houston elected a new Democratic chair in 2011, Lane Lewis, who is focusing the party for the first time on Dallas-style field organizing. Lewis estimates that if the party registers 120,000 new nonwhite voters, it will result in 80,000 more people going to the polls. “We’re already block-walking,” Lewis says. “We’ve already had phone banks this year.” But his field team is not just trying to woo new voters; Democratic staffers and volunteers are participating year-round in projects like building a community garden in the tough Independence Heights neighborhood, an effort to show that the party cares about more than winning votes.
If Democrats can galvanize Houston’s nonvoters, they will be well on their way to turning Texas blue. But all those years of ignoring minorities will make it a formidable task. “You’ve got to commit at least ten years,” Antonio Gonzalez says. “It takes at least ten years to undo twenty years of neglect.”
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