A visit to the headquarters of Battleground Texas, led by former Obama operatives who want to make the state politically competitive again, does not immediately inspire one to think big.
The office measures about 300 square feet. The mismatched, rickety furniture inside looks like leftovers from a charity garage sale. Half the people manning the phones could pass for high school kids let out early from theater practice. Even the map of Texas on the wall, missing a tack in the upper right corner, was drooping sideways when a reporter walked in on a recent evening.
But the enthusiasm level is palpable inside that cramped room on Austin’s East Side, and the conviction of the volunteers and the group’s leaders should make Texas Republicans pay attention to the very real threat they pose. Some day, when Democrats again win something worth bragging about in Texas, it is likely that scholars will point to the field work this group is performing right now as a key reason.
These are not morose Texas Democrats who remember and pine for the glory years, when their party held real power. Many of the volunteers either weren’t born or can’t remember a time when Democrats held statewide office. And the people running it came here from swing states like Ohio, Colorado and Virginia, the latter of which had seemed like a Republican lock until Barack Obama won it in 2008 — the first time a Democrat carried the commonwealth since the LBJ landslide of 1964.
The work they are doing isn’t nearly enough to rescue the bedraggled Texas Democratic Party, which has been shut out of statewide office for two decades and has been in the minority in both chambers of the Legislature for 10 years. That will take top-tier candidates, a winning message and maybe some lucky breaks — not necessarily in that order. But without the unglamorous and long-neglected activist work Battleground is doing in the field, something Republicans did for years before they started dominating elections in Texas, Democrats will continue to perform far below their potential in the only reliable GOP state where minorities make up the majority of the population.
What’s striking is that a massive voter registration and outreach operation of this nature hasn’t been tried until now. It might be because Democrats have been down for so long — longer than any other Democratic Party in any U.S. state, in fact — that they quit believing they could win again.
That’s not the vibe at Battleground Texas. On a recent evening, a group of volunteers huddled around a wooden desk at the center of the room and used their own cell phones to dial other volunteer prospects who had signaled — at some previous Battleground field visit somewhere — an interest in helping the group register and motivate new Democratic voters.
Every so often, amid the cacophony, a receptionist bell would ring, prompting cheers and an exchanging of high fives. The bell, placed in the center of the table, is slapped every time a new volunteer agrees to help Battleground, and at one point in the evening it was ringing every two or three minutes.
Will Davies, a 22-year-old college student who went through a training program and now volunteers 20 hours a week for Battleground, said he was not expecting to see such an overwhelming response to the outreach when he signed up as a summer “fellow.” Davies, who grew up near Amarillo and now lives in South Austin, attributed the enthusiasm to an overreach by Republican leaders who “awoke a sleeping giant.”
“I knew people wanted change. I didn’t realize how much people wanted change,’’ he said. “I’m more optimistic every day about what can happen.”
Republicans are using the threat of Battleground to raise money and pump up their own grassroots. The Texas Republican Party, citing the work the group is doing, got national GOP money to fund the hiring of nearly two dozen new people who will conduct minority outreach in Texas, something Texas Republicans have neglected for years.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the Tea Party firebrand Democrats (and some moderate Republicans) love to hate, told reporters in Houston recently that he had “great confidence” in the conservative-leaning values of the Texas electorate. But he has also warned Republicans that they need to do a better job of courting the growing Hispanic population or risk losing Texas — and the White House — to the Democrats forever.
Battleground Texas Field Director Alex Steele, whose most recent gig was running Obama’s field operation in Colorado last year, found himself in rare sync with Cruz on that point.
“Me and Ted Cruz don’t agree on much,” said Steele. “But I’ll let Ted speak for me on that one.”