The Future of Battleground Texas
As the organization marks its second anniversary, the real question is: does it have a future?
A few days after Democratic candidate for governor Wendy Davis suffered a 20-point blowout loss last November, one of the state’s top Democratic donors met with Jenn Brown, the executive director of Battleground Texas. Brown’s much-heralded field organization had been set up to do for Texas Democrats what its parent, Organizing For America, had done in Ohio and elsewhere for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Instead, the party had gone backward: Davis’s margin of defeat was seven points worse than that of former Houston mayor Bill White, who had been shellacked in the 2010 gubernatorial election by Rick Perry, 55%-42%. Obvious questions were therefore begged, and the donor pointedly asked them.
“Why are you still here?” he recalls saying to Brown. “Convince me that you’re still relevant. What’s the rate of return here?”
Brown maintained that Battleground’s fight had only just begun. “We still have to do this,” she said.
“Well, I don’t,” the donor warned.
Last month Brown, Battleground founder (and former Obama field wunderkind) Jeremy Bird, and field director Danny Lucio sought to mollify this financial backer and others with a succession of meetings in Houston, Dallas and Austin. In all, about 80 donors were treated to a 35-slide Power Point examination of Battleground’s labors. Brown’s presentation was decidedly peppy. Battleground had registered nearly 100,000 new voters. It had recruited nearly 35,000 volunteers, almost half of whom had never volunteered before. These unpaid organizers had knocked on 7.5 million doors and talked with 1.4 million people—and those with whom the volunteers spoke were 6 percent more likely to vote than those who hadn’t been contacted. In other words, the Battleground model had been validated. It just wasn’t enough to counter a horrific year for Democrats across the United States, a three-to-one financial advantage on the part of the Greg Abbott campaign, a lackluster “fighting for all hard-working Texans” Democratic message and (though Brown herself did not say so) an astoundingly error-prone campaign waged by Davis and her brain trust.
The skeptical donor with whom I spoke was won over by the end of the meeting—though not so much by Brown and Bird’s data as “the enthusiasm in the room, which surprised me, after a beating like the one we took.” Still, not everyone was buying it. “People wanted explanations, absolutely,” recalls another big contributor who was privy to the conversations. “The more sophisticated the donor, the less they needed. Some of the newer donors wanted to hear a full explanation of everything that went wrong from day one in Wendy’s campaign that Jenn was not in a position to provide. For some people, that was probably frustrating. On the other hand, people came away from it as, ‘Okay, we did do something good here and it was worthwhile, even though we didn’t get the outcome we’d hoped.’ One of the big takeaways is, we’re a long way from running a [competitive] statewide race again.”
In other words, for the foreseeable future, “Battleground Texas” is an oxymoron.
Today marks the organization’s two-year anniversary. You can be forgiven for having overlooked it. What little attention the group has received of late is mainly the unwanted kind. In a piece elegantly titled “Battleground Texas Got Curb-Stomped” RedState.com editor Erick Erickson asserted that the transplanted Obamaites “completely failed the fundamentals.” Beltway-based conservative writer Ben Domenech went further, saying, “I really think Battleground Texas has set back the cause of Democrats for years to come.” The assessments were even more brutal back home. Last December in the Texas Observer, Christopher Hooks penned a lengthy takedown in which anonymous state Democrats condemned Battleground for its “arrogance” and declared it “doomed from the very beginning.”
In this scornful atmosphere, a notable fact has faded into obscurity—namely, that two years ago, it wasn’t just wishful-thinking Democrats who were taking Battleground Texas seriously. The D.C.-based conservative group FreedomWorks responded to Battleground’s emergence with its own “Come and Take It” campaign. Texas GOP director Steve Munisteri told me, in a story for this magazine, that the state party would counter Battleground’s efforts with more field staff and a Latino outreach program. Abbott himself warned a Republican audience that the group was planning “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.”
Still, it’s the winners who write the history books. In the meantime, the losers have some explaining to do. With that in mind, last week I traveled to Austin and spent two days in the company of Battleground Texas’s senior staff: Bird, Brown, Lucio, communications director Erica Sackin, political director Cliff Walker, digital director Christina Gomez, legal director Mimi Marziani, and fundraising director Adrienne Donato. I had interviewed most of them in Battleground’s earlier, happier times. As a species, field organizers tend to be sunny, even gratingly so (where political journalists are uniformly sullen), and that remained in force at their new offices on 1519 E. Cesar Chavez. The disaster in November has not caused them to second-guess the group’s core premise that Texas can one day turn blue. “The fundamental underlying demographics of Texas, people who are unregistered, the number of Democrats who voted in previous elections but not this one—taken together, it’s enough to win,” Jenn Brown told me. The theory that increased turnout in Texas will help its minority party would seem to be confirmed by the ruling party’s determination to make voting in Texas more difficult than elsewhere in America (about which more later).
Nonetheless, I could detect a whiff of humility among the group, albeit one mingled with defiance. In the first two years of its life, Battleground had received about $10 million in donations. Post-defeat, it would now have to get by with a fraction of that sum. It was in that somewhat wounded posture that the group discussed with me those areas where they must improve in order to have any relevance in future election cycles. The shortcomings fall into four basic categories:
Harvesting New Voters. This was Battleground Texas’s primary mission, and they performed well below their own expectations. Its final tally of 97,145 new registrants was less than half of what had been casually projected. Democrats had swooned over the Pew data point that the state had over 2.2 million eligible but unregistered Hispanic voters. In the end, however, Battleground did not make a discernible dent in that figure. “While the Latino vote was low, it was part of an overall low turnout,” Jenn Brown told me. “You can’t single out one group. But the election showed we clearly have more work to do.”
Jeremy Bird was widely mocked for releasing a statement shortly before the election that relied on inaccurate data to make the case that early voting turnout was better than had been reported. The snafu—which occurred because the Battleground staff failed to fact-check the data that had been supplied by a normally reliable associate—fed the narrative of Battleground as a gang that couldn’t shoot straight and, according to one close associate of Bird, constituted the darkest day of his career. That blunder aside, the failure to turn the Hispanic demographic to the Democrats’ advantage has a number of root causes. Wendy Davis polled very low with Hispanic males. Inexplicably, the Davis campaign dragged the touchy issue of abortion onto center-stage with the midsummer release of her book and its disclosure of her late-term pregnancy termination. And though the Battleground staff was reluctant to point fingers, even off the record, it’s evident that their field volunteers struggled to convey to Latinos and African-Americans how Davis would address their needs when her campaign gave the organizers nothing coherent to work with. Carefully measuring her words, Brown said on this subject, “I definitely have a different appreciation for how message affects the field after this election. In setting up this whole structure again, I would have different conversations about what a field program can do if you run a positive message versus a negative message–and really, the need to do both.”
Still, the Battleground team fault themselves for not recognizing how difficult it had been for the previous Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Houston Mayor Bill White, to lose by a mere 13 points in 2010. “Where I made the biggest mistake was, I underestimated Bill White’s number,” Bird told me. “I think his 42% seemed like, ‘Alright, let’s start from there.’ I overestimated that 42% as a floor and underestimated his performance.” Until Battleground can help a Democrat improve over Davis’s paltry 39%, no one can take seriously the prospects of Texas as a swing state, Bird acknowledged: “Your floor basically has to be in the 40’s. We’ve gotta get our floor out of the 30’s.”
While being quick to assume that Davis would do better than White, Battleground was slow to appreciate how the state’s draconian voter registration laws would affect their turnout goals. While the National Voter Registration Act of 1993—with its explicitly stated goal of promoting the right to vote—prompted many states to discard old restrictions on the books, Texas kept theirs. (The federal law took effect in 1995, after the Republicans had reclaimed the statehouse.) For a group like Battleground to register Texans to vote, they themselves must be Texas residents, must be eligible to vote and—in a wrinkle that is unique to Texas—must be deputized by each county where they’re registering. In some of the state’s 254 counties, going through the requisite voter registration training course can be done online; in others, certification is offered only once a month, at the county courthouse during work hours. But as the Battleground team came to learn, the complications only begin once a deputy registrar is certified. If a Dallas County-certified volunteer registers someone who says they live in that county when in fact they live just across the border in Tarrant County, then the deputy registrar has committed a misdemeanor. If the volunteer turns in the completed registration forms more than five days after they’ve been collected, that’s also a misdemeanor.
“When we first heard about these laws,” recalled Brown, “I said, `There’s no way this is the law—this is unbelievable.’” Eventually she came to understand that the laws were all too real—and that they were why other highly active registration groups, like Rock the Vote, stayed away from Texas. Not until May 2014 did Battleground hire Mimi Marziani, a former election law specialist at the Brennan Center for Justice. Quietly (for fear of inciting an aggressive response from the Abbott campaign), Marziani set up a “voter protection program” consisting of volunteer attorneys who would help guide Battleground’s volunteers through the murky registration guidelines, as well as a hotline where voters could call in to report difficulties encountered at polling stations across the state.
Still, the laws—and Battleground’s slowness to react to them—had their impact. As Bird told me, “For me the biggest lesson is: it is four times as hard to register a voter here as anywhere in the country, except maybe North Carolina. We registered 100,000 people. It is incredibly difficult and incredibly scary as an organization to be in a state surrounded by Republicans who have set the rules to help themselves and where you can go to jail for not trying to do anything but register another Texan to vote. It makes it really hard. There’s a huge pile of people we didn’t register because we had to spend tons of time making sure we were in legal compliance with all of the voter suppression laws in Texas.”
Meshing with the Davis Campaign. The two Texas Democratic donors with whom I spoke both told me that from the outset Bird had urged them to think of 2020 as a reasonable goal for converting Texas into a swing state. When the filibuster staged by Wendy Davis in 2013 brought her overnight celebrity and convinced her that she should strike while the iron was hot, the timetable changed but the hard realities did not. Neither Bird nor Battleground’s biggest early donor, Steve Mostyn, thought Davis could win (something Bird stated explicitly to me and Texas Monthly writer Erica Grieder at a DC fundraising event just after the filibuster). That said, Davis’s sudden popularity was good business for Battleground, which raised money and enjoyed an exponential spike in volunteer recruiting. Davis herself didn’t see anything particularly wrong with that; as one of the big donors told me, “Wendy wouldn’t even have run without Battleground being there to run a field network—and I was there for all of those conversations.”
In deciding whether to do its work inside or outside the Davis campaign headquarters, Battleground Texas was damned either way. Work as an independent unit, and it would be blamed for not being all in and trying to avoid the taint of a landslide defeat. Work hand-in-hand, and Battleground would be seen as trying to Obama-ize a campaign that sought to tailor itself to the tastes of Texas voters. The group elected to lock arms with the campaign. That meant, among other things, moving its operation to Davis’s headquarters in Fort Worth, 200 miles up the road from the state’s political nerve center in Austin, creating a veneer of insularity that benefited no one, Brown said: “When you’re not in the same place as everywhere else, rumors get to you late and there’s more cleanup work to do.”
The two organizations conflicted on two fronts. First, the Davis campaign had only one goal, and that was to win in 2014. When Jenn Brown told a New York Times reporter in May of 2014 that Battleground’s objective was to be “building an infrastructure that will exist in 2016, 2018, 2020,” the Davis campaign immediately expressed its displeasure. Brown refrained from such comments after that, but the inherent tension persisted. As a senior Davis campaign strategist told me, “They were definitely trying to establish an identity as Battleground Texas, so it was complex managing that: `Hey, you person in San Antonio, are you Battleground Texas or are you Wendy Davis?’”
Battleground and Davis also differed ideologically—which is to say that the former was to the left of the latter. That’s unsurprising, given that Brown and some of the other upper-echelon staffers were alumni of Obamaworld, while Davis had won her two state senate races in part because of the support of the Fort Worth business community. But the difference seems to owe more to inevitable opposition between the granular outlook of a field operation and the 30,000-foot view of campaign uber-strategists. Battleground’s volunteers reported up the chain that the voters they contacted responded well to progressive themes like raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid. But Davis’s senior advisers, led by J.D. Angle, were understandably reluctant to cast their candidate as anything resembling a liberal. (Of course, that’s how the Abbott campaign painted her anyway.)
Still, the most fateful outcome of the Battleground-Davis linkage was neither structural nor philosophical, but instead budgetary. Of the $40 million that the Davis campaign raised, about $14 million came through a joint account called the Texas Victory Committee, of which Battleground Texas received $6.4 million. That constituted the entirety of Battleground’s 2014 budget. When donors began to see that Davis had gone from an underdog to a no-chance during the final weeks of the campaign, the money dried up. Because the campaign and Jenn Brown’s operation had agreed to share funds more or less 50-50, that meant that all of Battleground’s activities—not only its work on behalf of Davis, but all of the support it was lending to other candidates down the ballot—were severely constrained at the eleventh hour. Should Battleground coordinate directly with a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful in 2018, they’ll need to find a way to ensure that money is available when the field operation needs it most.
Training Volunteers. Considering the one unassailable achievement of Battleground Texas—that it amassed 33,930 volunteers, more than five times the number they had expected to recruit—the sin of not knowing what to do with all of them is a relatively minor one. Nonetheless, Jenn Brown and others told me that they were slow to identify and train team leaders, causing disruptive shifts in personnel late in the election cycle. An academy set up in South Texas to train aspiring Latino leaders in organizing principles was proved to be successful and later scaled out to other regions—but, acknowledges one staffer, “We could’ve invested in it earlier.”
Having said that, the large Battleground network of unpaid volunteers comported themselves admirably despite its newness and the scrutiny under which it operated. None of its 8,610 deputy registrars ever stood accused by the authorities of violating an election code. None of the Battleground volunteer meetings infiltrated and videotaped by the renegade conservative group Project Veritas yielded anything egregious.
Playing Well With Other Organizations. The vitriol aimed specifically at Battleground Texas in the Texas Observer piece is remarkable, given the embarrassment of inviting targets for the failures of 2014—among them, Davis, her top strategists, the Texas Democratic Party, the Democratic Governors Association (which abandoned Davis early), and so on. Of course, as a new organization founded by non-Texans seeking to change the dynamics of a terrain already inhabited by indigenous groups, the arrival of Battleground was destined to create friction. Some of this is ideological—Jeremy Bird being a convenient proxy for Obama. Some of it is generational: as the aforementioned donor told me, “There are longtime activists across the country who’ve been doing it forever and ever, and a new generation has come in doing things a different way. And combining those two is a problem everywhere.”
And, unsurprisingly, some of the criticism is geographical—one might even say nativist. The other donor says, “I heard it a lot: `People from outside the state coming in here thinking they’re the smartest people in the room and they’re gonna tell Texas what they ought to do.’ The way I felt about it is that when you make an accusation that the other party is arrogant, that implies that the accusing party is competent. You have to be delicate when you talk about it, but my feeling was, `What have YOU done right in the last 25 years? Is it OK to take a chance? These guys have done a lot in the last eight years. They want to come here and help and you say they’re fucking arrogant—what’s YOUR track record?’”
The term “arrogance” has been ascribed to Battleground Texas so often that one can’t help but ponder the irony of a group being accused simultaneously of not being Texan enough and of having shown too much swagger. Still, perhaps the shoe fits. The Texas Observer story suggests that Battleground has been reluctant to hand over its list of volunteers. Guilty as charged, one of its staffers acknowledged to me, though without apology: “Organizations like ours are built on trust. It’d be like, `They freaking sold my email address to somebody?’ It’s not socially acceptable to give that information out.”
County Democratic groups also complained to the Observer that Battleground only shared its voter information with the groups it favored most. Omitted is the fact that Battleground’s volunteers cleaned up over 500,000 existing voter files with outdated information, for which at least a few Democrats are grateful. Leigh Bailey, a first-time candidate who lost her House District 108 race in 2014 to Republican Morgan Meyer, told me in an email, “I didn’t win, but Battleground Texas helped me increase turnout significantly. And because we cleaned up the data file, which was in fairly poor shape when I started, and now have a solid network of volunteers in the district, the next person who runs for that seat will start at a considerable advantage over me.”
In any event, Battleground senior staffers maintained to me that everyone in the state Democratic network had access to all of the information tabulated in its Voter Activation Network. The problem, they said, wasn’t that data was withheld. It was that some county officials apparently didn’t know how to access it, due to improper training.
Battleground has been loath to say such things publicly, since by their own admission, relations across the state Democratic network are already dicey. Travis and Galveston counties were two that worked seamlessly with Battleground Texas. Harris and Dallas—the two biggest in the state—are another matter, often claiming that Battleground was planning events in their territories without notifying them. (“I know people in Harris County were spitting mad about them,” the Davis senior strategist told me.) Jenn Brown insisted to me that her group had never intended to treat county officials with disrespect. But, she conceded, Battleground had definite room for improvement when it came to dealing with county networks. “We needed a much bigger political staff to do the legwork of meeting with local groups and leaders and better coordinate what was happening on the campaign at all times,” Brown said. “One of the things that became harder with the bigger counties is that when local allies wanted to know where all the events were, to have someone who goes through all of that was potentially a full-time job all by itself. When you run a field program that’s so big, that’s a lot of work. People would sometimes say they didn’t know in advance when a campaign event was happening—and that wasn’t our intention. It’s just that there were just so many events going on at once.”
IN THE END the areas in which Battleground Texas disappointed their fellow Democrats can be chalked up not so much to arrogance as to failures of the imagination. Though every Democrat (and many Republicans) failed to recognize the nationwide wave of discontent until it completely engulfed the 2014 cycle, a political operative of Jeremy Bird’s elite status is expected to see what others don’t. (Bird agrees: “We also underestimated how bad it could get nationally. Because 2010 was so bad with health care and all, it was hard to imagine we as Democrats could do worse. I don’t know that it would’ve changed anything. But it was a worse year than I certainly anticipated.”) Bird and Brown failed to imagine just how difficult it would be to convince disengaged voters to participate in a long-shot campaign that by October every newspaper in the state was saying was a lost cause. They failed to imagine how different these voters were from ones in Ohio or Colorado—not so much because their values were different, but because unlike residents of a swing state who had encountered volunteers on their doorstep cycle after cycle, many of these Texans had never engaged in a conversation about voting before. They failed to imagine how hard it would be to recruit top talent in a state that had not been competitive for two decades. Finally, they failed to imagine how Greg Abbott—an uncharismatic politician who had never been in a tough race before—could mount a pretty darn good campaign in the end.
Now they know. Now their rookie mistakes are presumably behind them. Like Wendy Davis, who entered the fray when no other Democrat would, Battleground Texas took a bold risk and came up embarrassingly short. It must now own and learn from its mistakes. Having said that, the notion that the organization wasn’t simply a dud, but affirmatively did Texas Democrats more harm than good, is difficult to square with the quantifiable increases in registered voters and volunteers accrued through its efforts; with the Democratic talent (and money) that it brought back to Texas in 2014; and with the programs it has set up to grow new talent at home. Equally dubious is the insinuation by some that Battleground was little more than a pyramid scheme by which Jeremy Bird lined his pockets—an image of rapaciousness that sits uncomfortably alongside the counter-caricature of the kumbaya-chanting hopey-changey Obamaphiles. Battleground donors paid Bird’s firm, 270 Strategies, a sum of about $370,000 over a two-year period, which went to about a dozen employees in addition to Bird. One of them told me that among 270 Strategies’ 120 or so clients, Battleground was “maybe the least remunerative,” adding that it was the only client for whom Bird raised as well as received money.
When I met with Jeremy Bird and Jenn Brown in Austin last week, I asked if either of them had been involved in a campaign that had been thrashed this badly before. Grinning weakly, both replied that they had not. It happens that 2014 had been difficult in more ways than one. In February, Bird and his wife had lost a child. A week before the election, Brown’s father had died. Coupled with the landslide defeat, the two top figures of Battleground Texas were not in especially buoyant moods when they conducted 200 individual post-election interviews with team leaders from across the state on Friday, November 7. And as to the sunny testimonials that were shared that day, one could write off such sentiments as youth’s starry optimism, or eagerness to please, or denial, or whatever.
Nonetheless: three months later on the morning of Saturday, February 21, pretty much the same 200 team leaders convened in Austin at Travis High School to hear Bird, Brown, Danny Lucio and the other Battleground Texas top brass give them and their volunteer teams fresh marching orders for 2015. Maybe they’ll do better in 2016. Maybe they won’t. But it doesn’t look like they’re going away.
(AP Photo/LM Otero)