Texas Democrats have, as we all know, been flailing over the past few decades. They are the minority party in both houses of the Lege and haven’t won a statewide race since 1994. Underdogs, we might call them. And even if they’ve been showing signs of life over the past few months, many observers remain unimpressed: if Democrats don’t start announcing campaigns for the 2014 elections, they won’t even win the Participation Award.
But Matt Kibbe doesn’t scoff at underdogs.
Kibbe is the president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a nonprofit group headquartered in Washington, D.C., which supports grassroots conservative efforts around the country. In June, Kibbe and Co. announced a new campaign to keep Texas red called “Come and Take It.” Its budget is nearly $8 million dollars. Its goal is to send out 250,000 conservative volunteers on the ground around the state.
And its motive is mostly respect, Kibbe said, for the idea that Democrats can actually make some headway in Texas. Whitney Neal, the Director of Grassroots for the campaign, says the plan was originally crowdsourced from activists in Texas who, fearing a blue takeover, called on FreedomWorks for help. Kibbe pointed specifically to Battleground Texas, the progressive nonprofit that set up shop earlier this year, vowing to “turn Texas blue.”
“I take [Battleground’s] threat very much seriously,” Kibbe said in a phone interview with Texas Monthly. “I think we’ve got a greater ability to out-organize the establishment Republican efforts, and if we don’t help the activists do that, I’m just afraid it won’t get done.”
In Texas, it’s rare to hear a conservative activist sound so worried. But Kibbe may be haunted by past experience. He had been on the ground in Colorado in the mid-2000s, during the battle over whether to suspend the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a spending cap that the state had adopted in 1992. While Republicans were divided on the issue, Democrats organized around it. In 2005, they won the suspension—and the next year, Democrats retook the governor’s mansion.
Kibbe described that blue takeover as a “perfect storm,” which included a grassroots ground attack by progressives against Republicans who had abandoned their core principles, like limited government and fiscal responsibility. The Colorado Dems managed to trounce the state’s GOP in the era before Twitter and big data, tools that the Obama campaign used to major advantage in 2012—and Battleground is staffed by some of those very same campaign wunderkinds, including Obama’s former national field director Jeremy Bird.
The FreedomWorks campaign aims to employ—and improve upon—those same tactics. “I think that the future of our movement comes not just from meeting the enemy toe-to-toe,” Kibbe said, “but actually beating them at their own game.”
While some have criticized Bird and his colleagues for being outsiders imported from Washington, Kibbe takes pride in the fact the activists working in FreedomWorks’ campaign are “native Texans who have a real stake in the game,” Kibbe said in the press release announcing the new campaign.
Given the group’s sweeping plans, focusing only on “native Texans” might be unwise. Over the phone last week, Kibbe modified that statement to include all Texans, including those who, as the saying goes, “got here as fast as they could.” Good move on Kibbe’s part, because 60 percent of the population is not native to the state, according to a 2011 American Community Survey.
Texas’ shifting demographics will play a central role in whether or not blue will splash onto the canvas. Thirty-eight percent of Texas residents are Hispanic, and Hispanic voters tend to favor the Democratic Party. That clearly hasn’t hurt Republicans yet, because Hispanics in Texas are still a relatively small share of the electorate. Changing those numbers, from Battleground’s perspective, is key to trumping the Republican party: as more Hispanics turn 18, and if more eligible Hispanic voters turn out on Election Day, the state would most surely turn blue. Or at least some shade of purple.
Many conservatives, including the strategists at FreedomWorks, agree that losing the Hispanic vote would spell disaster for the Texas Republican Party. But Kibbe argues that conservatives can appeal to Hispanic voters, who are, in his view, struggling with subpar education for their kids, which dashes their chances for future economic success. The two major ticket items that “Come and Take It” is pushing are education reform—greater school choice, that is—and economic opportunity. And the whole abortion thing? Out of the picture, according to Kibbe, who said that social issues have never been on FreedomWorks’ agenda and never will be.
In fact, Kibbe insists that the “Come and Take It” campaign is nonpartisan and won’t endorse any specific candidates. “It’s not about electing Republicans,” he said. “This is about creating a constituency for economic freedom and opportunity and real choice of education. And if we do that, the political problems really resolve themselves.” If Democrats were pushing those two principles, he later added, he’d want them to get elected.
Most Democrats might roll their eyes at the idea of finding common ground with FreedomWorks, and some would point out that, despite all the commotion about Battleground Texas, it wasn’t until this summer that the people of Texas showed any unusual interest in the Democratic Party—and the issue at hand was reproductive rights, not jobs. But Kibbe may be right that the “Come and Take It” campaign will appeal to many voters. Texas has always been a small-government state. Its Democrats tend to be more fiscally conservative than their national counterparts, and, for that matter, it would be unlikely for either party to win a statewide campaign by focusing solely on social issues. Regardless of the political activism in Austin, the state of Texas is bigger than the Capitol grounds.
That’s exactly why Texas’s conservatives have been so dismissive of groups like Battleground Texas, with their dreams of turning Texas blue—and it’s why it’s so striking that FreedomWorks, at least, is worried that they’re not just dreaming.