Am I Blue?

The consultants behind Battleground Texas believe the state is ready to swing back to the Democrats. They could learn a thing or two from the Republicans.
Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

In the video, a handsome if slightly geeky-looking young man stands in front of an olive-green curtain. He is wearing a suit jacket and a dress shirt with an open collar. “Hey, everybody,” he begins. “My name is Jeremy Bird. Many of you might remember me as the national field director for Obama’s reelection campaign. I wanted to speak to you quickly about an exciting new movement that launched this week. It’s called Battleground Texas.” The objective, Bird goes on to say in the four-and-a-half minute YouTube clip, posted in late February, is to turn Texas into a competitive state—that is, one in which Democrats can hold their own with Republicans, something that hasn’t happened since Ann Richards defeated Clayton Williams to become governor, in 1990.

It’s a daunting task, but Bird certainly has credentials. He is a veteran grassroots organizer, and he led one of the most brilliant get-out-the-vote campaigns in the history of presidential politics in 2012, heading up the outreach to minority groups, unmarried women, and millennials. President Obama himself has attended several private events in Texas, where, according to state representative Garnet Coleman, he has talked about how important Texas is to the future of the Democratic party.

You might think that weary state Democrats would welcome Battleground Texas with open arms. In fact, they have little love for their Washington brethren, including the president, who (as they see it) parachute into the state, attend lavish fundraisers, and stuff their pockets with cash destined to be poured into congressional races in other states. Glenn Smith, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked on Richards’s 1990 campaign, told me he feared that Republicans would say, “Obama’s carpetbaggers are here.” That’s to be expected, and indeed, Dave Carney, a Republican strategist who worked for Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign, remarked to Politico that the plan amounts to little more than “consultants coming up with a project to get paid.” But what should be more troubling for Bird is that several prominent Democrats have told me essentially the same thing: they worry that his efforts are little more than an attempt to raise his own profile—and a lot of cash.

It’s obvious why Democratic strategists like Bird view Texas as the last great prize to be won in the eternal quest for partisan advantage: the state’s 38 electoral votes are second only to California’s 55, which reliably go to the Democrats. The White House knows that if it can turn Texas blue, Republicans will be boxed out of the presidency. So how does Battleground Texas do that? Bird intends to raise millions of dollars over the next four years, while at the same time expand the voter base for Democrats and get people to the polls. It goes without saying, given the recent performance of Democratic tickets in Texas, that this is easier said than done. 

To be fair, there is a lot of Democratic money in Texas, but there is also a lot of competition for that money. An ongoing debate among Democrats is whether it is better to try to win a statewide race or to pick up more seats in the Legislature. Smith is optimistic about Battleground Texas’s chances, but he is skeptical that a comeback can be based on success in legislative races. “It’s very difficult to get everybody rowing to the same beat,” he said. Now Bird and other operatives who will soon be descending on Texas must somehow persuade donors to fund organizing efforts when the state’s Democratic candidates are in desperate need of campaign contributions themselves. If the Battleground Texas leaders are smart, their first goal will be to flip Harris County: turn Harris blue, with its huge and diverse minority population, and the rest of the state could follow. Dallas County is already Democratic, and, aside from Tarrant County, so is the rest of urban Texas.

If there is some good news for the Democrats, it’s that a pair of Public Policy Polling surveys showed that Hillary Clinton is currently running even with or ahead of likely Republican opponents in Texas for 2016, and Bill White, who lost the 2010 governor’s race to Perry, has a slight edge over him today. Notwithstanding these glimmers of hope, the truth is that the Texas Democratic party barely exists. In the 2010 midterm elections Republicans decimated Democrats in the state House, winning a supermajority. The party lacks the infrastructure to run major campaigns—operatives, consultants, fund-raisers, and county and precinct chairs, not to mention credible candidates. Thirteen counties in Texas no longer hold Democratic primaries. Democrats haven’t had a successful statewide election since 1994, when Bob Bullock, Dan Morales, Garry Mauro, and John Sharp were on the ticket (but Richards lost the governorship to a Republican by the name of George W. Bush).

The last serious effort Democrats made to win a statewide race was in 2002, when they ran the so-called dream-team ticket of Tony Sanchez Jr. for governor, Ron Kirk for U.S. senator, Sharp for lieutenant governor, and Kirk Watson for attorney general. This was a formidable lineup backed by real money; Sanchez alone spent more than $60 million. All the Democrats lost, and the party has not fielded a competitive statewide slate of candidates since. 

Of course, the party is not without rising stars. The best-known Democrats in the state are the Castro twins, Joaquín, a freshman congressman, and Julián, the mayor of San Antonio and the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention last summer. But neither of the Castros is as recognizable statewide, much less nationally, as was another San Antonio politician, Henry Cisneros, at the height of his popularity, in the eighties.  

How can the Democrats win? For many years, their strategy has been to wait for the maturation of the Latino vote. They are still waiting. As the Battleground Texas folks will find out soon enough, Texas is not a high-performing Latino-voting state, and an analysis of Latino voting patterns reveals profound structural weaknesses. The Latino population is

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