Battleground Texas

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Battleground Texas aims to turn Texas into Democratic Party dominated state.

Leaders

Former staff

In 2013 Tyler Keen, a field organizer in East Texas, joined the team as Dallas Coordinator. Training Director Priscila Martinez moved into a new role as Field Director.[2]

Battleground Texas team

Terry Bermea, August 3 2018.

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I’m proud to be a part of the hardest working field team in Texas. When you register voters, there are no lists, you have to be intentional about the work you do everyday. So proud of this team for crushing it all day everyday. We are ready to help elect some great Democrats in November! Let’s gooo! #GameOn #TeamBGTX — with Jay Franzone, Joshua E. Rodriguez, Ben Miller, Abel Prado and Jess Weldon.

Advisory Board

Battleground Texas Advisory Board, 2018;

Board Chair Jenn Brown, Naomi Aberly, Jeremy Bird, former Dallas Mayor and Ambassador Ron Kirk, Congressman Joaquin Castro, community leader Eric D. Johnson, Austin Ligon, Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez, volunteer leader Jennifer Longoria, labor leader Marvin Ragsdale, Eddy Morales, Amber Mostyn, Carrin Mauritz Patman, Carrin F. Patman, Kirk Rudy, and Lynda Tran.[3]

Blue Star Project

In August 2018 Battleground Texas announced its Blue Star Project.

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  • Mary Ann Perez, State Representative, HD-144. Fighting to bring common sense back to Austin.
  • Victoria Neave, Democrat. Attorney. Advocate. TX State Rep. HD107. Dallas | Garland | Mesquite. Co-Organizer #DallasWomensMarch Pol. Adv. paid for by Victoria Neave Campaign
  • Rhetta Bowers, Wife. Mother. Democrat. #HD113 Candidate. (Rowlett Mesquite Garland Balch Springs Sunnyvale) Frmr educator & broadcast journalist. #Spelman #TSU #ReadyforRhetta
  • Gina Calanni, Native Texan, Mom of 3, multi-published author, marathon runner, baker, and Democratic Candidate for Texas House of Representatives- District 132
  • Sarah DeMerchant, Fort Bend County Community Activist
  • Julie Johnson, Democrat for Texas HD 115 #PeopleOverPolitics #VotersVoice http://juliejohnsonfortexas.com
  • Terry Meza for State Representative, Native Irvingite | Attorney | Educator | Non-Profit Director | Democrat for HD 105 | http://TerryforTexas.com | Tweets from Terry Signed -TM
  • Ana-Maria Ramos, Future Texas Representative and Candidate for Texas House District 102...because I care! #Ramos4Texas
  • Lina Hidalgo, Progressive. Texan. Proud immigrant. Democrat for Harris County Judge (Executive of our nation’s third largest county). FB/IG at Lina4HC.
  • Diane Trautman, Wife, Mother, Gigi, HCDE Trustee, and Candidate for Harris County Clerk. Views are my own and do not represent HCDE board.

Huge challenge

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Any hope Beto O'Rourke has begins with turning out the vote in the heavily populated counties surrounding Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Battleground Texas has registered around 123,000 voters over the past five years, half of them in those three counties, but Democrats need to do much more to turn them into strongholds. “We’re trying to be as strategic as possible,” says Crystal Zermeno, director of electoral strategy at the Texas Organizing Project, “given that most of our counties are as big as battleground states.” Harris County, where Houston sits, has a much larger population than Nevada. In 2016, Zermeno’s organization made some 1.2 million phone calls and door knocks in Harris County, which helped Hillary Clinton to carry it. O’Rourke will have to build on Clinton’s turnout numbers. From there, it doesn’t take a strategic genius to see the competitive path: dominate the other cities, woo the suburbs, limit the damage in the sticks.[4]

Early supporters

The Democratic group aiming to transform Texas into a swing state held its first Washington, D.C. fundraiser at The Hamilton on July 11 2013.

Battleground Texas executive director Jenn Brown and senior adviser Jeremy Bird, the Obama campaign’s former national field director, were scheduled to appear at the event.

The invitation asks for donations starting at $50 per person and going up to $1,000 apiece for event chairs. One person involved in planning the event said it hoped to encourage participation from younger Democrats, including many involved in President Barack Obama’s campaigns.

In an email, Bird called the July fundraiser “a great opportunity for folks in Washington to show Texans that they have their backs.”

“Grassroots activists in Texas are thrilled that after years of funding national efforts – and making calls or knocking doors to support electoral fights in other places – they are now on the receiving end and will have the chance to make a difference in their own state,” he said.

The stated goal of the group is to mobilize Democrats and Democratic-leaning constituencies that currently vote at lower-than-average rates – a costly and time-intensive organizing challenge in a state as big as Texas. When POLITICO first reported plans to launch Battleground Texas in January, supportive Democrats said they expected to raise funds well into the seven-figure range over several years, in order to support a sustained organizing effort.

A quickly-changing state with 38 electoral votes is a target that’s hard to put a price on: Texas became a majority-minority state this decade, but Republicans maintain a firm grip on every statewide office and both chambers of the state legislature.

Battleground Texas has not yet filed any fundraising reports with the Texas Ethics Commission that might shed light on its early financial prospects. It held a major fundraiser in Austin in mid-May with longtime Clinton adviser and Texas native Paul Begala as the keynote speaker.

The event attracted a crowd of 200-plus supporters, including Rep. Lloyd Doggett and state Sen. Wendy Davis, a potential statewide candidate.

Aimee Boone, a Planned Parenthood official and Democratic strategist who attended the fundraiser, said Battleground Texas leaders have made the pitch that “we can make Texas competitive in the 2020 race, and in the meantime we’re going to compete in every election.”

“Having a commitment to Texas, to try and turn Texas blue in the 2020 presidential race, gives us the time and the long-term commitment we need,” she said.

Other Democratic officeholders have pitched in for Battleground Texas as well: up-and-coming San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and Rep. Joaquin Castro headlined a grassroots kickoff event in March. And other well-known Democrats with Texas ties have gotten involved with Battleground Texas as well, including deep-pocketed trial lawyer Steve Mostyn and the actor Benjamin McKenzie.

McKenzie, who has volunteered to raise money for the group, expressed optimism that donors both in and outside of the state would see Battleground Texas as a valuable political tool for Democrats.

“There’s a real opportunity to tap into not just the Latino vote but the millennial vote and the women’s vote, and of course the African-American population,” said McKenzie, who predicted Democrats could be competitive statewide “in the next six to 12 years.”

The actor said it was his understanding that the group’s organizers have succeeded in raising the “seed money that they hoped for to start the operation.”

Republicans have expressed skepticism that Democrats will have the financial and political attention span to fund Battleground Texas over multiple cycles.

At the same time, Republican Party leaders and officeholders in the state have pointed to the Democratic group as a warning sign for the GOP amid Texas’s demographic flux.

Republican state Attorney General Greg Abbott, a likely future candidate for governor, declared in April that Texas conservatives should be on guard against the president’s “political machine” coming to town.

“Republicans who are complacent are kidding themselves if they think Battleground Texas is not a threat.” [5]

Criticism

Battleground Texas drew intense criticism near the end of 2014 after Democrat Wendy Davis not only lost an open governor's seat to Republican Greg Abbott but also earned fewer votes than when former Houston Mayor Bill White ran against Gov. Rick Perry four years earlier. After all that money and effort, Democrats appeared to have lost ground.

Despite the headline defeat at the top of the ballot, Battleground maintains that its long-term strategy began working as intended during the last election cycle.

“With more than 35,000 volunteers united with Battleground Texas and thousands of voter registration volunteers deputized in counties statewide, we're proud of the progress we've made working alongside so many great partners in our first three years,” Battleground spokesman Drew Godinich said in a statement.

Godinich added that the group is by and large standing by its original strategy as it continues to work to turn the state blue.

“We said from the beginning it would take a long-term, sustained effort to make Texas competitive,” he said.

Michael Li, a redistricting expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and former executive director of Be One Texas, which invests in groups working on minority voter participation, said — speaking only for himself — that he felt Battleground misled supporters to raise more funds in the final weeks before the election. He was personally persuaded to give $5,000, he said.

“It was such a big promise that people put a lot of money in it, and they don’t feel like they got a good return on investment,” Li said. “None of us thought Wendy Davis was going to win, but I do think they misrepresented how well they were doing to me towards the end to get me to write a check. And $5,000 was a lot for me.”

Battleground Texas, which declined to comment on Li's comment, raised millions in the 2014 election cycle as it ramped up operations while partnering with the Wendy Davis campaign. Early in the cycle, Davis and Battleground launched the Texas Victory Committee, a joint fundraising venture. Since the election, that committee has been dormant.

Last year, Battleground raised $832,227 and spent more than $900,000, according to campaign finance reports. The group entered 2016 with just $82,066 on hand.

"Battleground Texas is one piece of the infrastructure that Democrats must build to be competitive in Texas," said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, who recently joined the group's new advisory board. "It’s not the panacea for curing all of the problems that Democrats face in statewide races."[6]

Castro support

March 2013, Jeremy Bird, alongside Mayor Julian Castro and Congressman Joaquin Castro, traveled to San Antonio for our first grassroots meeting.

“Texas represents the best of this country, and it’s time for it to go blue” Mayor Castro told the crowd of nearly 300, packed into the downtown St. Anthony Hotel.[7]

Beginnings

On November 30, 2012, half a dozen wealthy Texans—all of whom had donated to the Obama cause and were in Washington to attend the early flurry of holiday parties—gathered in Ben Barnes’s downtown office to talk about how to turn their state blue. Among them were Dallas progressive activist Naomi Aberly, Austin realtor Kirk Rudy, and Adrienne Donato, the Obama campaign’s chief Texas fund-raiser. Donato had organized this meeting. With her was a nerdily dashing and fast-talking 34-year-old named Jeremy Bird, who had found his way in life from a trailer park in Missouri to Harvard Divinity School to a job as the South Carolina field director for Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign to a subsequent job as the national field director for Obama’s 2012 reelection. Which is to say that standing before this group of hungry Texas Democrats were the brains behind the greatest national field organization that American politics had ever seen.

The subject of Texas had been in the back of Bird’s mind for years. Like many top Obama campaign staffers, it didn’t make sense to him that the state was so dependably red, given its demographic trends. During the summer of 2008, when the Obama campaign had literally more money than it knew how to spend, Bird had given some thought to investing in a few Texas events, but he’d lacked the time to plan them. In 2012 his field operation had the opposite problem: time but no money. Every dollar was needed in the battleground states. Nonetheless, Bird remained transfixed by Texas and its 38 electoral votes. The only state with more was solidly Democratic California. Added together, the two had 93 electoral votes, an all but insurmountable margin. While talking to field organizers or big donors, Bird would stand beside a map of the United States and sketch out pathways to victory from the West Coast to the East. Invariably his finger would fall on the Lone Star State and he would say, Someday we’re going to have a different kind of conversation about Texas. That day had now arrived.

Still giddy from the reelection, the Texans in the room swore to Bird that their state was within reach, if only someone with his field wizardry would coordinate the crusade. They told him how the state’s wealthy liberal donors were itching to spend their money back home. The effort would need a catchy name. Somebody—no one seems to remember who—blurted out “Battleground Texas!” and everyone buzzed with excitement. Bird had never met most of the attendees before, but he was impressed by their unity and enthusiasm. He walked out of the meeting thinking, We can do this.

Five days later, at an office on Capitol Hill, Bird and Donato convened a second meeting, with a much larger group of Texans. This time, Bird did much of the talking. He explained to them that a twenty-first-century grassroots operation no longer meant simply knocking on doors and making calls—it would involve heavy use of digital resources and data analytics. He also walked them through the state’s enticing population trends but said, to the surprise of some of the donors in the room, “You can’t just wait for a big demographic shift to happen. That’s not enough to turn things around.” By the end of this meeting, it was evident to Bird that Battleground Texas would be his new project. What he needed next was seed money—and he knew who to call on to get it.

On the morning of January 14, Bird and Donato arrived at the home of Amber Mostyn and Steve Mostyn. The hosts had remained big donors since the debacle of 2010—they’d given $9.8 million to Democrats nationwide during the 2012 cycle—but defeat had made them wary. Now the couple and their political adviser, Jeff Rotkoff, listened to Bird make his pitch. He wanted $250,000 to start up Battleground Texas. His hosts wanted to know how he planned to generate Obama-style enthusiasm in Texas without a candidate as charismatic as Obama.

“We’re going to do a lot of research, focus-group our own activists, and figure out what worked that we can transport to a new effort,” Bird assured them.

“When can we see a budget?” Steve Mostyn asked—by which he meant not a one-page summary but a detailed spreadsheet.

“I’ll get that to you right away,” Bird said. Less than two weeks later, the Mostyns received a lengthy itemization of anticipated expenses, right down to office supplies and monthly health insurance costs. They cut Bird a check, as did Naomi Aberly, longtime state Democratic activist Aimee Boone, and Houston attorney Carrin F. Patman, among others. In late January word went out to the state and national press: the Obamaites were coming to Texas, and they intended to stay.[8]

Jenn Brown

The organization’s executive director is a 31-year-old Californian named Jenn Brown, who says that she has “always been an organizer”—most notably as the Obama reelection campaign’s Ohio field director.

If you didn’t know that Brown had delivered that crucial swing state to the incumbent in 2012, you might find her optimism about Texas to be somewhat naive.[9]

270 Strategies clients

270 Strategies' work in the political arena has included Cory Booker’s first run for U.S. Senate; Ready for Hillary; Terry McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign for Governor; Ro Khanna’s groundbreaking congressional race to represent the Bay Area and Silicon Valley; Battleground Texas; iVote; and a number of international electoral efforts.

Not so fast!

In 2013, a handful of Obama presidential campaign veterans, including Jeremy Bird, his national field director, and Jenn Brown, who ran the Ohio field operation, launched Battleground Texas, a new group bent on turning the state blue through good old-fashioned grassroots organizing. In early interviews Bird rattled off enticing raw numbers—2.2 million eligible but unregistered Hispanic, Asian American, and African American voters. Texas was a demographic time bomb, and they were about to speed up the clock.

At first, Battleground’s leaders spoke cautiously about making the state competitive by 2018 or maybe 2020. But after Wendy Davis, the pink-sneakered state senator from Fort Worth, became a national sensation for filibustering an anti-abortion bill, Battleground decided to join forces with her campaign for governor and try to win immediately. It was a bad year to bet the house; Davis lost by about 20 points—worse than the Democrat who had run for governor during the 2010 wave.

In the aftermath, it was tough to identify what Battleground had actually accomplished. They never quite figured out how to sell a candidate mostly known for her support of abortion rights in a state where even many Democrats oppose abortion. (In one heavily Catholic South Texas precinct, Davis was left off the party voting guide altogether.) Abbott even won Harris County, the place Battleground had identified as the ultimate sleeping giant. Sure, it was a bad year for Democrats nationally, but the group registered fewer than 100,000 new voters, less than half its goal, and turnout dropped by more than 250,000 votes from the previous governor’s race. They’d spent $10 million for what exactly?

The groups decided a new strategy should start at the most granular level. For the first time, the state party would help candidates in nonpartisan elections such as school board and county commissioner races, by endorsing them and giving them access to the party’s voter file and volunteers.

Today much of the urban organizing work is done by the Texas Organizing Project, launched eight years ago by alumni from ACORN, the community organizing giant that collapsed in the face of a conservative assault early in the Obama era. The TOP’s approach is to bring politics down to the level where it’s felt most immediately in people’s lives. Its first campaign in Houston revolved around blue tarps that still covered the roofs of homes in the city’s poor neighborhoods years after they had been damaged by Hurricane Ike; with the TOP’s backing, low-income communities compelled Houston’s Democratic mayor to scuttle an effort to repair the homes of wealthy residents and fix their roofs instead. In San Antonio, the TOP is organizing around sidewalks and streetlights.[10]

References