In a cramped and musty office just across from the Rio Rita Lounge on East 6th Street, its walls painted a sickly Subway yellow, seven folks, average age 30, sit around an oval table, tapping on their laptops, plotting the takeover of the state of Texas.
This, for the moment, is the nerve center of Battleground Texas, an effort led by fresh-faced veterans of the Obama campaign to take what they learned electing and re-electing a Democratic president of the United States and turn Texas blue. And do it without a candidate like Barack Obama, or any candidate for that matter, in what for Democrats has been a vast, snake-bit stretch of no se puede America for a generation, and without much prospect for a discernible payoff for years to come.
So far, it’s going very well.
“Texans are so excited, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before,” said Battleground Texas’ executive director, Jenn Brown, the 31-year-old community organizer from Southern California who ran Obama’s field operation in indispensable Ohio in 2012. “Texans are ready. It’s time.”
Battleground Texas just completed the first phase of its launch – 14 organizing meetings from Houston to Lubbock that drew 3,200 people interested in signing on to the effort, and the kind of breakout coverage in The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg, The Economist and the like that accorded the infant initiative serious consideration as at least potentially a bellwether of epochal political change.
Just as good for Battleground Texas was the reaction of Texas’ Republican officialdom which, feigned or otherwise, granted this little cabal instant street cred.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott called it a greater threat to Texas than reports that North Korea had Austin in its nuclear sights.
State Republican Chairman Steve Munisteri affixed his signature to a fundraising letter characterizing the Obama alumni as “masters of the slimy dark arts of campaigning,” an apparent reference to the advanced campaign analytics that made them the wonder and envy of the political world.
But perhaps most significantly as a sine qua non for success, Battleground Texas quickly won the allegiance of Steve Mostyn and Mary Patrick.
Mostyn is a Houston trial lawyer who, with his wife, Amber, is the foremost contributor to Democratic and liberal causes in Texas. He was among Obama’s top donors nationally. Big, bald and bold, Mostyn has emerged as the Daddy Warbucks of Texas Democratic politics.
Mary Patrick, slight, gray and indefatigably determined, is the epitome of the long-suffering progressive Austin uber-volunteer, on whom Battleground Texas’ success will depend every bit as much as on Mostyn’s money.
It was Patrick signing people in at the Battleground Texas organizing event at the AFL-CIO hall in Austin in early April. It was Patrick, an active volunteer with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin, who has opened the doors of its fellowship hall every Saturday morning since mid-April so that Battleground Texas can train its recruits and have them sworn in as volunteer deputy voter registrars, phase two of their battle plan.
“I’ve been real pleasantly surprised,” said Mostyn over a bowl of gumbo at Shoal Creek Saloon on Lamar Boulevard. “When they came and met with me, the question we had for them was, ‘How do you replicate any enthusiasm when you don’t have a candidate?’”
“They said, ‘We may have to build excitement,’” he said. And, so far, they have.
Persuaded, Mostyn traveled to New York, California, Colorado and D.C., “meeting with people from all over the progressive movement who understand that there are four majority-minority states, and Texas is the only one that’s Republican.”
“We’ve never seen the money commitment that’s coming and the money commitment that I’m going to put in,” said Mostyn. “It’s large, and that’s new and it’s sustaining. All of us are talking – those of us in the donor world – about a long-term plan.”
What kind of money are we talking about?
Mostyn pauses: “Battleground’s budget is millions and millions and millions and millions and millions.” (Battleground Texas doesn’t have to file its first semiannual fundraising report until July 15.)
The Battleground crew likewise impressed Patrick, who has been active in Democratic campaigns and liberal causes in Austin since graduating from the University of Texas in 1968.
“This is a very smart group of people. If they had never done this before, I’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ But they’ve done it before, and they know what to do,” said Patrick.
“It’s very exciting, and I’m very eager. I want this to happen before I get too old; please, sometime before I’m 90,” she said. “For those of us who have been slogging it out for years, we want it now.”
A few hours after the April 27 registrar training, Patrick is back at home with a half-dozen friends from Women for Good Government, a long-standing progressive group she now leads, gathered around a table, talking politics and stuffing envelopes with Battleground Texas bumper stickers for some of the 2,000 folks who requested them online.
Not far away, revelers at Pease Park are celebrating Eeyore’s Birthday, an annual tradition ostensibly to cheer up the depressed and hapless donkey of Winnie the Pooh fame – a fitting symbol for a Texas Democratic Party that hasn’t won statewide office since 1994.
“The Democratic brand is a very low brand in Texas. Democrats themselves feel very demoralized,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Democratic strategist in Houston whose campaigns have included Houston Mayor Bill White’s re-election campaign, explaining why Battleground Texas’ entrance, with its Obama campaign cachet, is so welcome and timely.
After Obama’s re-election, analysis focused on Mitt Romney’s abysmal performance with Hispanic voters and what that portended for a party in an increasingly less white America. That narrative trail naturally led to Texas.
“In not too many years, Texas could switch from being all Republican to all Democrat. If that happens, no Republican will ever again win the White House,” Ted Cruz told the New Yorker last fall, before his election to the U.S. Senate. The quote is now the opening slide of the Battleground Texas PowerPoint presentation at the organizing meetings.
“Never thought I’d say this – Ted Cruz, smart guy, right?” said Brown, the Battleground Texas director, wincing a smile at an organizing meeting held in a big, bright side room at a Luby’s in San Antonio.
When Gov. Rick Perry was asked about Battleground Texas’ ambition, he responded, “Competition is good, but the idea that Texas is going to become a purple state, or even a blue state is out of the realm of — give me a time frame, are we talking 50 years?”
In other words, sure it could happen, but not for a good, long time.
But, those who study political demography, such as Robert Stein and Mark Jones at Rice University, project that Democrats could start winning statewide in the 2020s – a long time from now, but, considering the enormous stakes nationally, well worth a protracted Democratic effort to lay the groundwork.
Still, Richard Murray, director of the Survey Research Institute at the University of Houston, is dubious that national Democrats will pour money into a sustained long-term effort in a state as vast and expensive as Texas when the money could be used to far greater tangible effect elsewhere.
“To my knowledge, there is no precedent nationally of an attempt to change a state that is pretty solidly in the other party’s political base by investing surplus resources that don’t have any immediate payoff,” Murray said.
Texas Democrats have romantic notions about what Hillary Clinton as the potential Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 could do in Texas, but Murray observes that if Clinton were within striking distance of winning Texas, she would be on her way to an electoral landslide that wouldn’t require Texas.
For now, Brown finds herself having to tamp down the expectations her very presence has excited.
“I’d like to do well in 2014 and convince somebody we are here for them,” she told the Austin organizing meeting at the AFL-CIO hall on Lavaca Street.
But if not, “that’s OK,” she said. And if Democrats don’t carry Texas in 2016, “that’s totally OK too. If 2020 is the year we turn this state blue, that’s OK with me.”
Years of neglect have left Texas overripe for organizing.
Texas is 47th among the states in its percentage of voting-age population registered to vote. It is dead last in the percentage of the voting-age population that votes. Hispanics are the least likely to be registered or to vote.
Bruce Elfant, the Travis County tax assessor/collector, who has been training the deputy registrars at Patrick’s church, tells the new registrars that the county’s voters have failed to keep pace with Austin’s explosive growth. In 2000, 92 percent of the eligible population were registered to vote, a percentage that has slipped to 72 percent.
In 2012, Obama won Harris County by 585 votes.
But, said Mostyn, “We have 500,000 minority voters in Harris County that haven’t voted in the last three elections.”
“Nobody’s gone and knocked on their door,” said Mostyn. “GOTV (get-out-the-vote), door-to-door, face-to-face, is the best. It’ s the simplest thing. It’s also the hardest thing to pull off.”
“What was the secret to the Obama campaign? We talked to voters, neighbors talked to neighbors,” said Brown at the Austin meeting. “That is 100 percent how we won the election.”
Battleground Texas is the brainchild of Jeremy Bird, 34, the national field director of Obama’s 2012 campaign, who is guiding the effort from his perch as a consultant in Chicago.
He is an apostle of blending creative, mission-driven, door-to-door community organizing with state of the art data analytics that takes the raw information gathered in the field, drenches it in a massive array of demographic, consumer and social media data, and — through rigorous experimentation and testing — devises the best way to approach each individual voter, down to the script the door-knocker will use on the next visit.
“What they did was create this kind of efficient positive feedback loop between data analytics and volunteer field contacts,” said Sasha Issenberg, who studied the inner workings of the Obama campaign in his book, “The Victory Lab.”
Issenberg writes, “No one represented the evangelical side of Obama’s advocacy as perfectly as Bird, who had grown up in a Missouri trailer park to conservative Southern Baptist parents,” first learned about organizing at Harvard Divinity School, and was given to Zen-like aphorisms, like “You have to let the ground tell you when your targeting is working and when it isn’t.”
Of Bird’s Texas venture, Issenberg said, “I think the Obama experience will be hard to replicate. The thing that really made that sort of synergy of data analytics and field work was the scope and scale of volunteer activity.”
But he wonders, “Will people volunteer for Battleground Texas? People tend to volunteer for parties or for charismatic candidates, or volunteer for some issue group or identity group.”
Asked whether Battleground Texas possesses a secret Obama recipe, Trey Newton, who directs Hispanic Republicans of Texas and is managing George P. Bush’s candidacy for Texas land commissioner, raises the Mexican Coke he is drinking. “Like this?’
“No,” said Newton. “They came up with a widget, and it’s a very good widget, but we’re coming up with our own.”
He said Hispanic Republicans of Texas already has a voter file with the names of 13 million Texans.
“It is micro-targeted, and we are building our own analytics system similar to what Battleground Texas is doing,” said Newton. “We can be Coke, and they can be Pepsi.”
Newton’s great advantage is that he has a candidate, a near-sure winner in the first of what will likely be other statewide runs by someone who, as both a Bush and an Hispanic, might, at a crucial juncture in Texas political history, help his party maintain its hegemony.
Democrats, meanwhile, are left to ponder the riddle of the chicken and the egg.
“There are several very attractive candidates in Travis County and beyond. I have heard several of them say, `I am not going to run until Texas turns blue,’” said Patrick. “Well you know, you’ve got that chicken-and-egg thing happening.”
One thing Patrick knows for sure: “If you don’t run, then the person from the other party is going to win.”
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, counsels patience.
“Democrats in this state have been waiting decades for Texas to become the center of political conversation, and now that we are becoming the center of conversation we shouldn’t be in a hurry. There’s no reason to rush. Let’s get it right,” he said.
“I’m 42 years old. I still have shelf life in politics. The Castro twins are 38,” he said, referring to Julián, the San Antonio mayor, and Joaquín, the congressman, Castro. Perhaps the most obvious potential statewide candidate in the House, state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, is 44.
“We’re going to need a presidential cycle to build this infrastructure,” said Martinez Fischer. “If we’re hitting our marks in 2016 that tells us that 2018 is a pretty good year to start winning races.”
Mark Jones doubts Democrats can win even in 2018. But, in a presentation he made to the House Republican Caucus in January, he warned that if the GOP doesn’t carefully tend the Hispanic vote, Democrats might be able to turn a strong if ultimately losing campaign for state office by someone like Julián Castro in 2018 into what he called a “virtuous circle of confidence, enthusiasm, quality candidates, financial investment and mobilization” that could yield Democratic victories in 2022 and beyond.
To David Zapata, the boyish, 30-year-old San Antonian assigned by Munisteri to recruit Republican Hispanic and other minority candidates, the opening salvos from Battleground Texas sound a welcome warning.
“Sure, we have every statewide office for the last 20 years, we have 95 of 150 representatives, 19 of 31 senators and 24 out of 36 members of Congress, but if our Republican leaders were getting complacent or comfortable, this helps wakes us up,” he said.
For all their failure statewide, Texas Democrats aren’t as hapless as they are sometimes made out to be.
“The truth is that some of the best campaigns in the country have been run in Texas,” said Matt Angle, a veteran Democratic strategist. There are Democratic candidates like state Sen. Wendy Davis, who defended a tough district in Fort Worth, and Pete Gallego, who ousted a freshman Republican to win a seat in Congress.
Austin is frequently depicted as a blue dot bobbing in a red sea, but Dallas County, home to George W. Bush and his presidential library, is a blue county. Harris and Bexar counties are headed in that direction..
“The state is already a competitive state,” said Munisteri.
“Four years ago there were 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats in the House,” he said. “It’s always been competitive; we’ve just been winning the competition.”
Munisteri said a poll Republicans did last December found that their candidates in 2012 received “on the low end mid-30s (percent) and high end low-40s” of the Hispanic vote.
“At those levels, if we kept that, we could control the state until I’m dead,” said Munisteri. He is 55.
A generation of controlling statewide offices has provided his party the candidates and contributors to keep winning the competition.
“They talk about they’re going to be putting tens of million into Battleground Texas,” said Munisteri. “If there ever were a significant threat because somebody put $20 million in, our business community would probably spend that on Republicans by a factor of several-fold; $75 million was raised just from Texas for Romney. None of that money was spent in the state. Over a six-year period, the RNC raised $41 million in Texas and spent about $400,000. Those dollars can easily flow back the other way if we need them, so if they spend $10 million, we can spend $100 million.”
If so, for a national Democratic donor that would mean for every dollar spent in Texas, Republicans would spend $10, money they wouldn’t be spending elsewhere. That’s not a bad return on investment.
When Battleground Texas launched, Jeremy Bird described its ambitions simply: “Texas is a big part of the country. We’re making sure this is not a state that is ceded to Republicans.”
Battleground Texas doesn’t have to win the war to succeed. Simply opening up a new front that Republicans have to defend might be enough.
As Brown told the organizing meeting in San Antonio, “When you see your first Republican presidential campaign ad you’ll remember that you were here this night.”
“And then,” said Brown, “you’ll see your second and third and wish you weren’t in a battleground state.”
Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman’s chief political writer; previously he spent 25 years as a Washington correspondent and has covered race and immigration issues. He blogs most weekdays at statesman.com/firstreading.