Back in the halcyon days of late January—before the Iowa caucuses melted down, before an ascendant Bernie Sanders was supplanted by a triumphant Joe Biden, back when Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar were viable candidates in their own right and not small parts of the Biden machine that sought to cruise its way to the convention—Tim O’Brien, senior adviser to Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign, came to the candidate’s South Austin headquarters to talk about the future.
O’Brien, a clear-eyed political thinker who spent most of his career as a journalist, explained to me that he saw Bloomberg’s path to the nomination running through Texas, and that its best chances of succeeding would come if you saw the delegates from the first four primary states split among a number of candidates. But he wasn’t worried about what it would mean if that didn’t happen—he and the campaign, he told me, where prepared for every possibility, including the one that exists right now.
“If Biden comes out of it as the clear leader, you’re going to see a lot of the party falling behind him, and that changes our calculus,” O’Brien said in the former taco-themed pop-up on South Congress, near St. Edwards University. “But, you know, for us—and we’ve said this a lot publicly now—we’re hiring people for a year. This office is going to be open till November. Everybody is being hired through the election.”
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The campaign had indeed said that a lot publicly, but it still seemed worth confirming. Committing to people for nearly a year, even if your campaign is rejected by voters—especially at the salaries Bloomberg was paying even his lower-level field organizers—is unheard-of in politics, and for good reason: it would take one of the richest people on the planet to be able to afford that. Bloomberg, of course, is one of those people.
“You said everybody is?” I asked O’Brien.
“In every state. Every state. Full time. We’re paying twice as much as most campaigns pay for our team. And we’re signing them on for a year. This office is open for a year,” he stressed. “Because we’re building this big political machine that Mike wants to put at the service of the party, or ultimately whoever the nominee is. Because first and foremost he wants to see Trump beaten, and that’s really what informed his decision to jump in the race.”
On Monday morning, via a conference call, the Bloomberg campaign announced that it would be taking back its public and private commitments to that team. Staff at the South Congress field office, like all of Bloomberg’s offices in Texas, were told they could keep the shiny new MacBooks and iPhones they received when they took the job, and that they’d be paid through the end of March—but their jobs with Bloomberg were over, most of them effective immediately. (Some were asked to stay on for a few more days to wrap up administrative loose ends.) If they wanted to try to continue on with Bloomberg’s efforts to see Trump beaten in the fall, they were invited to apply for jobs in the states that the campaign says it’ll be focusing its efforts on.
Back in January, O’Brien said there were going to be seven such states. “Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida,” he told me. “Those are the states where we think the juice is going to be in 2020. We’re very optimistic that we can turn Texas blue this year. There’s a lot of momentum behind that. Texas is such a huge and pivotal state that it would have a seismic impact around everything.”
O’Brien didn’t immediately return a call to explain what changed, in terms of Texas’s role, between late January and the conference call on March 9. When I asked the Bloomberg campaign whether fired staffers would be given priority in hiring in the states that apparently do still have “juice,” I received a statement, attributable to “a campaign spokesperson.”
“As we’ve said over the course of the campaign, this election will come down to six battleground states. It’s imperative that we invest there with staff and infrastructure. Staff who were working in non-battleground states and would like to learn about future opportunities in the battleground states are being asked to let us know so we can consider them for jobs there.” Six, of course, is less than seven, the number O’Brien gave me in January. The campaign also didn’t directly answer the question of whether those fired staffers would be prioritized in hiring for whatever new campaign Bloomberg may launch.
The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, added Texas to its list of target states in late February. More voters participated in the Democratic primary than in the GOP primary in this state for the first time since 2008, helping Joe Biden beat Bernie Sanders by nearly 100,000 votes (and Mike Bloomberg by more than 400,000). It does seem, in other words, like the Democratic party sees an opportunity to put Texas in play in 2020—and with 38 electoral votes, it could win the presidency for Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders even if the nominee were to lose all of the other six states on Bloomberg’s list of battleground states. The Texas House of Representatives is also in reach, there are nine competitive congressional races in the state (six of which would replace a Republican representative), and one seat in the U.S. Senate within the realm of possibility for Democrats in Texas, too.
In order to accomplish any of that, though, they’ll have to do it without Bloomberg’s money, resources, or the field staffers to whom his campaign had promised jobs. No staffer was able to speak on the record about their experience working for Bloomberg—the campaign made liberal use of nondisclosure agreements for field organizers—but they all expressed a general sense of disappointment. No longer would they have the chance to help make Texas competitive for Democrats. When I spoke with staffers prior to Super Tuesday, back when the campaign was still going strong, I met surprisingly idealistic young people who believed that working to turn Texas blue was worth making a deal with a billionaire who may not have shared all of their values. A lot of folks worked hard for the candidate in order to keep up their end of the bargain. In the end, they were the only ones who did.