Before being dispatched here a little more than a year ago, 26-year old Luke Hayes had passed through Texas twice. The New York-bred Vassar College graduate worked on Austin Mayor Will Wynn’s 2006 campaign and spent time in Waco during the 2008 Democratic primaries. On this go-round — as the state director of Organizing for America, the forward operating base for Barack Obama's 2012 re-election bid — he’s investing significantly more time on a substantially more daunting task: turning Texas blue.
“There’s so much going on here, so much potential,” he says. “It’s just a great state to be in.”
It's also, as Hayes surely knows, a red state to be in. No Democratic candidate has been elected to statewide office since 1994. Republicans hold the majority in both houses of the Legislature, and in the House, at least, their majority is more likely than not to grow. Obama's nationwide victory, dramatic as it was, had nothing to do with Texas, which he lost by 11 points. Of the 10 most populous states, only Georgia similarly swung for John McCain — and only by 5 points, a spread less than half the size of the margin in Texas. Since then, polls show Obama's support slipping: A Rasmussen Reports poll taken in early May found that only 42 percent of Texans approve of his job performance, while 57 percent disapprove.
You could say Hayes has his work cut out for him, but he remains optimistic. "We're offering solutions," he says, positively undaunted, "and working to address those problems while the other side, oftentimes, you just see saying no for the sake of no."
Overseen by the Democratic National Committee, OFA-TX is a remnant of the president's 2008 camapign. It’s the first time in recent memory that a national arm of the Democratic Party has attempted to make inroads here. Doubters may scoff, but Hayes sees the possibility of, in two and a half years, Texas swinging in Obama’s favor as a real one. “I can’t speak to exactly how 2012 will shake out,” he says, “but there was such a gain between 2004 and 2008. If you look at Texas and where it’s at demographically and ideologically, it’s really on the precipice of turning blue.”
For the last year, OFA-TX has primarily been a force for legislative advocacy, specifically growing support for Obama’s agenda. On an early May evening, as D.C. politicians bandied back and forth about White House-backed Wall Street reforms, a handful of Austinites gathered in the Texas Democratic Party headquarters, where OFA offices, to get the word out. Cell phones glued to their ears, they talked to everybody they could except each other, save for a few breaks for food and a birthday celebration. From the small, crowded conference room that evening, nearly 800 people were contacted. Seven similar phone banks were held around the state from Dallas to Longview to Brownsville.
“The thing with the health care debate caught us by surprise,” says Shakti Khalsa, an Austin-based volunteer community organizer who has been with OFA-TX for as long as Hayes has. “Everybody thought it was going to be just a few months. I think we’re hitting the ground running much faster this time. We have a message to deliver, and we’re going to be … not more aggressive [but] more dynamic about it.”
But soon, the group will transition once more, from legislative advocacy back to electoral work. “We have a chance to take back the state House,” Hayes says, ”which is significant for redistricting.” He has hope for Linda Chavez-Thompson, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, and, of course, for gubernatorial candidate Bill White. “I can’t say 2010 makes or breaks 2012,” Hayes says, “but certainly a Bill White victory would be a significant help to seeing where Texas is at in 2012.”
Hayes intends to engage many first-time voters from the last election, who typically drop off in droves during midterm elections. “We don’t claim to be the white knight in shining armor,” Hayes says, “but we know that a lot of good work has been done here in Texas, and we’ve joined the effort to get it to that point.”
"A big red island"
A knight in shining armor may be exactly what Texas Democrats need this November. That same Rasmussen Reports poll has White trailing incumbent Gov. Rick Perry by 13 points, 51-38. The poll also showed that 53 percent of Texans “strongly favor” the repeal of federal health care reform — thus far the biggest feather in Obama’s legislative cap. Even the most recent poll by Austin-based Opinion Analysts, a Democratic firm, has White down by 9 points.
“The fact is, Democrats are on defense in this state, and we’re on offense,” says Republican Party of Texas spokesman Bryan Preston, “and we’re going to pick up gains everywhere we can. The Organizing for America folks have a vested interest in glossing over what’s happening right now.”
When he spoke in Austin in early May, Richard Murray, a University of Houston political science professor, said the Texas House would, indeed, turn blue and remain that way “as far out as our two-party system exists” but said that might not happen until 2020. Murray noted that 72 percent of Texans live in a Democratic-leaning district, and many traditionally Republican districts are changing. “These counties ain’t what they used to be in terms of demographic makeup and never will be again,” he said.
Still, Murray acknowledged that with Obama’s blowout loss to McCain in 2008, Texas remains “a big red island.” While Obama helped Texas Democrats by driving black turnout “to the maximum,” Murray says, he failed to excite Hispanics, who turned out in lower numbers than they had four years prior.
“Hispanic voters are certainly one of the many constituencies we’re looking to engage, especially here in Texas,” says Hayes, pointing out that OFA’s model is community-based and counts many Hispanics among its volunteers.
While Hayes characterizes Election Day as “the final test,” OFA-TX communications director Hector Nieto, a Laredo native, says, “The goal of OFA-TX consists of several agendas. Our organization won’t be graded on success or failure of just one of those agendas.” He adds, "The president understands and knows, and Texans know, that this isn't a popularity contest."
Preston sees such rhetoric as a transparent effort to soften the audience for abject failure. “What they’re going to try to argue in November,” he says, “is that somehow, someway — even after all these losses and Obama’s policies being rejected — he comes out stronger for it.”
Hayes says he hasn’t thought too far beyond November 2010. Right now, he’s focused on mobilizing as many voters as possible.
Rosanne Scott, now a volunteer OFA community organizer in the district of state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, had never been politically active until she began volunteering for Obama’s election effort. “Barack Obama changed my life,” she says, “I just never left [the campaign]. It seems like I just can’t do enough. I can’t meet enough nice people. I can’t meet enough people that are really concerned and doing the right thing.”
She has high hopes for White as well. “We have a great, great, great candidate for governor,” she says, “and he has a really good chance of winning, but we’ve got to get out the vote.”
And Hayes thinks they can get more than just Texas Democrats. “Whether you’re in Lubbock or in Austin, health insurance reform matters to you, education reform matters to you, green jobs matter to you,” he says. “There are people across the ideological spectrum that, if you have that conversation with them, that’s a form of respect because you’re trying to engage them on issues that matter.”
Half the battle is just showing up, Hayes says. “I think too often people have just written off, not just Texas, but whole chunks of the country based on the perception that it’s red or blue,” he says. “We’ll see what happens in 2010, but just being here for a year already and engaging people is helping change the perception that it’s not worth the fight, that it’s not worth making your voice heard.”