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Despite Recent Hurdles, Battleground Founder Remains Optimistic

The Obama campaign operative who founded Battleground Texas weighs in on a controversy involving some of his volunteers and talks about the fierce criticism directed at Wendy Davis.

Jeremy Bird speaking at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sep. 28, 2013

The Obama campaign operative who founded Battleground Texas says his group is closer than ever to reaching its goal of making the state hospitable to Democrats again, despite a controversy involving some of his volunteers and fierce criticism directed at the party’s candidate for governor. 

Jeremy Bird, Barack Obama’s former national field organizer, told The Texas Tribune that nearly a year into the creation of Battleground Texas, it has attracted more than 10,000 volunteers, exceeded the Republican Party of Texas in social media followers and has drawn more interest in field organizer “fellow” positions than it has openings currently available.

Battleground was formed last February to register more Democratic voters and turn them out for the party’s candidates, who haven’t won a statewide race since 1994.

“Those things are happening at a way accelerated pace. It’s because there’s an election that’s competitive,’’ Bird said. “But I didn’t think we’d be where we are today a year ago.”

Texas Republican Party chairman Steve Munisteri said he gives Battleground “credit that they are actually doing what a party should be doing.” 

“However, that does not equate to victory in a state that is center right, and where the Republican Party is doing what it needs to be doing,” Munisteri said, noting that the state GOP has dramatically ramped up its minority outreach efforts and expanded its own field operation.

Munisteri also pointed out that Public Policy Polling surveys showed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis' poll numbers slipping from July to November.

“If they are really doing so well, why is she getting worse in the polls?” he said.

Bird gave the upbeat assessment of Battleground at a time when the group — and Davis — find themselves more than ever in the crosshairs of their dominant and better-funded Republican counterparts and their allies.

The campaign of Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, the front-runner in the governor’s race, last week accused Davis of intentionally misleading voters about her background as a single mother — by spinning a “fanciful narrative,” as spokesman Matt Hirsch put it — after The Dallas Morning News published an unflattering story about the details of her early biography.

Davis and her campaign acknowledged that she had turned 21 when her divorce from her first husband became final, even though she and her campaign’s biographical materials had said she was 19 at the time. Davis was separated, but not yet divorced, and lived alone with her daughter Amber as a single mother at age 19, her campaign said.

After the newspaper story came out, the campaign also said Davis had erroneously stated in previous campaign interviews and literature that her mother had a sixth-grade education. In fact, Davis double-checked amid the swirling controversy and discovered her mom had made it through the ninth grade, her campaign said. 

The flap about Davis’ biography turned into a media feeding frenzy and prompted strong reactions from both sides of the ideological spectrum. But Bird said the controversy would “backfire with women” while strengthening the resolve of Democrats.

“They can quibble over the details of how long she lived in the trailer park or whether she was divorcing or actually divorced, but they can’t take away the story that actually a lot of women can relate to,” Bird said. “That’s what Republicans in Texas will do, try to tear her down, because they don’t have other ideas.”

Bird also waded into a recent controversy that erupted last week after conservative activist James O’Keefe and his Project Veritas released a video obtained via hidden camera at a meeting convened by Battleground volunteers. The footage shows volunteers at a house meeting discussing the impact Abbott’s confinement in a wheelchair might have on the race for governor.

Another passage in a bar appears to show people laughing about Abbott being disabled. But it looks to be the work of creative audio splicing. An unidentified person at the bar, who calls herself as “an old woman” who wanted to comment about the race, can be heard saying Abbott is “not good looking. He doesn’t speak very well, he doesn’t have a very good personality and he’s in a wheelchair.”

No one laughs after that comment at the 2:47 mark in the raw footage version, but in the edited version the comment appears to provoke derisive laughter.

Bird noted O’Keefe’s controversial past — including his guilty plea to entering a federal building under false pretenses — and said the latest video should not be trusted. He also said the release of the video and the heated Republican outrage over it show the state GOP is worried.

“We’re talking about an admitted criminal who even Glenn Beck has called a liar, who has been known to doctor videos,” Bird said. “When you’re nervous you’re going to send in the admitted criminal from New York.’’ 

In an interview with the Austin American-Statesman, O’Keefe said he captures “almost everything on videotape showing exactly what people said."

“Until I release the video, everyone is going to make denials and call me names and call me a liar, but when the video comes out, it’s on tape, so that’s sort of how I do it,” he told the paper.

The fact that Battleground was infiltrated by people wishing to do the group harm underscores how integral a part the group is playing in Democratic politics in Texas. In less than a year, the group has raised $3 million, spent $2 million and at last count had $1 million in the bank.

Battleground has essentially become Davis’ field operation, and the group’s top staffers work side by side at the senator’s headquarters in Fort Worth.

“You know, just to be in the place where there’s a competitive election, and people are actually going to have a choice,” Bird said. “That’s fantastic for me. I didn’t think that would be happening so soon.”

Some Democrats, though, have groused about Battleground’s spending on consultants — close to $500,000 of the $2 million spent so far. Bird, whose consulting company has gotten more than $200,000, said the money has been used to help Battleground in every aspect of its mission and gave “zero credibility” to the criticism.  

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Politics 2014 elections Greg Abbott Wendy Davis