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GOP Throws Time and Money Into Field Game

Although Republicans have dominated Texas politics over the last 20 years, GOP leaders have been preaching about the need for better minority outreach and updated technology.

Cornyn campaign signs available at the Galveston County Republican Party's annual Liconln dinner in League City, Texas Saturday, February 15, 2014.

“Bring it on,” he said through a spokeswoman. The governor later offered his own swaggering prediction, telling The Wall Street Journal that the University of Texas would sooner adopt the battle colors of its erstwhile rivals at Texas A&M University rivals “before Texas turns purple, much less blue.”

It was a different story inside the headquarters of the Republican Party of Texas and the campaign office of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who as minority whip is the second most powerful Republican leader in the U.S. Senate.

Though neither Cornyn nor Steve Munisteri, chairman of the state Republican Party, was reaching for the antacids, they knew they needed to ramp up their minority outreach efforts in Texas, the only reliably Republican state without a white majority.

They also knew they needed to get better at using “big data” technology and social media to interact with supporters and to create more sophisticated electronic voter-contact files.

That was the pitch Munisteri had been making to the Republican National Committee since 2010, when he took the state party reins, a job he won after promising to focus less on ideological warfare and more on modernizing the party's outdated get-out-the-vote infrastructure. But he says he had a hard time conveying the need to improve voter outreach in a state that many consider to be safely in Republican hands.

“Battleground coming down here did something for me that I was unable to do on my own for three years, which was to get the RNC engaged to help us at an early stage, to get victory operations underway earlier,” Munisteri said. “They gave me the ammunition to convince the national party to put us on a priority list.”

This week, as promised, RNC officials arrived with software in hand, installing sophisticated programs that merge consumer data with voter preferences and allow better targeting of supporters, Munisteri said. And they are giving the state party about $50,000 a month largely to conduct outreach in black, Hispanic and Asian communities.

Individual candidates are ramping up their own field games, too. Munisteri noted that Attorney General Greg Abbott, the expected Republican candidate for governor, had 50 paid staff members doing grassroots outreach, a commitment that Munisteri called unprecedented. Abbott’s campaign declined to give details about its field program but said it was signing up gobs of supporters each week at “gun shows, county fairs, pro-life rallies, parades and other GOP events.”

Even before Battleground Texas, Cornyn had seen the writing on the electronic wall. His sense of urgency became particularly acute after watching Obama decisively win the technology war with Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.

“The Obama campaign was masterful,” Cornyn said in an interview. “They were able to turn out, due to their digital and data collection efforts people that Republicans weren’t even thinking about, much less reaching out to. So we’re playing catch-up in that regard.”

Today, Cornyn estimates he is spending about $100,000 a month on digital outreach. While he is using the technology in part to boost his primary re-election campaign, he has the luxury of worrying about the party’s success up and down the ballot because his main challenger in the primary, U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, has failed to gain traction ahead of the March 4 election.

The Democrat who wins the race to run against him will be will be a long shot at best.

With the help of two young aides, Brendan Steinhauser and Josh Eboch — tech-friendly operatives who preach the gospel of campaign analytics as told in Sasha Issenberg’s book The Victory Lab — Cornyn has seen a big payoff from the increased voter-contact efforts and engagement on social media.

Cornyn’s fan base on Facebook has exploded, rising at last count to more than 250,000 from about 27,000 in August. Since the summer, his campaign's email list has grown by some 250 percent since the summer, and the number of online donors has increased by more than 200 percent during the same period, according to figures provided by the campaign.

The campaign has merged the information it gathers online with offline voter history. That lets the Cornyn campaign track behavioral trends and create 15 different subsets of Republican primary voters based on propensity to vote, issues that move them and  level of support for the senator.

The Cornyn campaign’s social media success has been so impressive that Facebook is in discussions with the campaign about making it a case study, aides say.

“I can see the power of this thing in terms of getting people to the polls, which obviously is the ultimate goal,” Cornyn said.

The focus on voter targeting comes amid a changing demographic landscape in Texas. While whites still make up about two-thirds of the electorate, they are no longer a majority of the population, and the fight is on for the nonwhite voters who will make up an increasingly larger share of the voting public.

Munisteri said there were no staff members dedicated to full-time minority outreach when he became party chairman. Today, thanks in part to the RNC money, there are nine: one focused on black voters, one conducting Asian outreach and seven working to court the rapidly growing Hispanic population.

Democrats are not moved. They say there is only so much that increased staff and money can do to help Republicans with minority voters.

Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for Battleground Texas, said increasingly strident rhetoric from Republican candidates would torpedo any gains they made behind computer screens. He cited, for example, harsh anti-immigrant talk in the lieutenant governor’s race and Abbott’s recent appearance with the profanity-spewing rock musician Ted Nugent — who has issued a string of controversial statements and recently called Obama a “subhuman mongrel.”

“It doesn’t matter how you sell your product if people don’t want to buy it,” Brachman said. “And what we’re seeing with Republicans is a product that frankly, more and more Texans don’t want to buy.”

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