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Jeremy Bird: The TT Interview

The senior adviser to the new high-profile Democratic group Battleground Texas on what he thinks it will take to make the state politically competitive for Democrats and why he thinks it's possible.

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One of the rare instances Jeremy Bird can remember agreeing with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was when Cruz told The New Yorker, “If Texas turns bright blue, the Electoral College math is simple. … The Republican Party would cease to exist. We would become like the Whig Party.”

“I guess this is the one time I won’t dispute him,” said Bird, the former national field director for President Obama’s 2012 campaign and founding partner of the political consulting group 270 Strategies. He is currently making headlines as the senior adviser to the recently launched Battleground Texas.

The new group, which is being run by executive director Jenn Brown, is hoping to put one of the country’s largest states, currently a lock for Republicans, into play. It’s no small task; Democrats haven't won a statewide office since 1994.

Bird said there might be other "battleground" states in the future, but that right now his eyes are only on Texas. And he knows it will take significant focus.

“It’s a huge challenge,” Bird said. “We wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t a huge challenge.”

He cites "gerrymandering" — drawing political districts so that a certain political party will win — as one of the largest looming hurdles. “They’ve done a really masterful job of making elections less important,” Bird said. “We need to make them important again.”

Another issue is apathy among a party that has grown accustomed to losing. But Bird said that on a recent visit to San Antonio and Austin, he felt “a palpable sense that we can do this.”

He said, “Part of our problem is that if we don’t believe it, it’s never going to happen. We’ve let Republicans tell us that we’re going to lose and make that prophecy for too long.”

Texas’ Republican leaders don’t appear troubled. In January, Catherine Frazier — a former spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry who has since gone to work for Cruz — told Breitbart News, “They can bring it on. They will be hard-pressed to make much progress with the proven success conservative policies have had in our state.”

Bird contends that Republicans' confidence is based on elections in which only about half of the state has turned out to vote. “We’ll see what happens when we start to get 60 or 65 or 70 percent turnout. It’s going to look very different,” he said.

On Monday, Bird sat down with The Texas Tribune to discuss Battleground Texas and how and why he thinks it will work.

The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

TT: Why Texas?

Bird: There are a couple of reasons. One is the importance it plays in our country. When you look at a map of the country, and start talking about how you win the presidency, Texas is a huge part of that. But it’s not being treated like that, and I think that should change.

The other piece is that over the last 10 years of organizing, I’ve met a lot of people from here — donors, volunteers, politicos, staffers — who all are impressive in many ways.

On the [Obama] campaign, our volunteers in Texas were incredible. Over the last couple days, they made over 400,000 phone calls into Florida. We had people driving up to Las Cruces [N.M.] and volunteering their times.

There’s a tremendous amount of organic energy here. Why not have it influence here? Part of the reason we’re getting 41 or 42 percent of the vote is that a lot of talent and a lot of money is going elsewhere. If we invest it here, I think we can see results.

TT: What has not been occurring that will be different now that Battleground Texas is here?

Bird: To make it a battleground state, you have to treat it like a battleground state.

Part of the reason that [the Obama campaign] won Florida in 2012 is that we had had a grassroots program running for six years with all the components — digital, communications, field, data, analytics — all of them put together into a 21st century modern campaign that worked for people's votes.

We have to do that here. And it can’t just happen in one part of the state; it has to happen across the state. We need to touch places where we’re getting 25 percent of the vote and get 32 percent of the vote. It’s not necessarily about winning all those places, but we have to compete there. And then we have to have higher turnout in places that have already gone blue.

So that’s what we’ve got to do: Build a comprehensive battleground state-level program with 21st century technology, cutting-edge tools and a staff that’s worthy of a state like Texas.

In order to do this right, we’re going to have to raise the money, the grassroots money to do it and then ultimately transition that into a 21st century campaign with real organizers in neighborhoods working for every single vote.

We want to work with all the groups that are currently doing stuff, and there are some great ones doing things at the local level. We want to partner with them where we legally can to make their work better and make our work better. I think we’ve had a good relationship with most of the groups so far. They’ve been publicly supportive but, more importantly, privately supportive.

Part of it is we’ve come to folks at the early stages of this and said that we don’t have all the answers here. We’re going to be one player in a bigger ecosystem. We want to make each other stronger. We want to bring new energy. We want to bring talent and money from outside the state into the state, but also prop up the people that are here that are from here and put them in senior roles.

TT: What is your assessment of Texas Democrats’ bench? You can organize all these people, but they need candidates to vote for.

Bird: It’s like a chicken-and-egg thing almost. Right now, it’s harder to get people to run statewide particularly because they think the chances are difficult, and no one wants to run and lose. We have to create an atmosphere in which people say, "I can run and win." At the same time, we need good candidates to run so that we can create the atmosphere.

So we want to encourage people that are thinking about, whether it’s the local effort or otherwise, to think, “Hey, there’s help here. I can run for office and be competitive.” At the same time, when there are good people running, we want to maximize that.

I think there’s a stronger bench than most people think. And there are a lot of people with Texas ties, who are from here, who have been serving the country in other places, whether it’s the military or the federal government or somewhere else, who I can see coming back here and running.

There’s a lot of talent in this state on both sides. We’re winning 40 to 45 percent of the vote. So there’s 40 to 45 percent in which there is a lot of good people who will run for all levels, whether it’s county judge, Congress, state House, state Senate, and it will be important for us to work with all those good candidates once we get in.

TT: So it’s not just about the top spots?

Bird: I think everybody wants a short cut in this. In all politics, people are always looking for a short cut. They think, if we can just find one candidate that we can run statewide, that will save us. But long term, that’s not going to save you.

How do you build real strength at the grassroots level? You start to build out locally, win some of these county races that are winnable where they can’t gerrymander the districts. Win some of the very few competitive ones that they haven’t drawn in such a way that it’s unwinnable on either side.

That starts to bubble up instead of trying to pin your hopes on one person in one race at one time. That creates the atmosphere for people who are really strong to run statewide.

TT: Is this really just a demographics waiting game?

Bird: No. We need to speed up the electorate to catch up to the population. Waiting around is not an option.

There are millions of kids in this state who are currently being denied access to health insurance because of the current governor. We can’t just wait around for the electorate to catch up to that population. There are too many important issues that matter today and tomorrow.

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