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What Went Wrong With Battleground Texas?

Battleground Texas launched nearly two years ago with the goal of turning reliably red Texas into a purple state where Democrats could compete. But after the 2014 general election, Texas looks redder than ever. So what went wrong?

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

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Battleground Texas launched in January 2013 with the goal of turning reliably red Texas into — at minimum — a purple state where Democrats could compete. But nearly two years later, on the day after the 2014 general election, Texas looks redder than ever.

No statewide Democrat came close to toppling a Republican opponent. That list of Democrats included Wendy Davis, who entered the governor's race with more national attention than any Texas Democrat in recent memory. With Battleground Texas as her field operation, Davis earned a smaller percentage of the vote — and fewer votes total — than former Houston Mayor Bill White, the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2010. Adding insult to injury? Davis' seat in the Texas Senate flipped into Republican control.

That Texas Democrats lost on a good night for Republicans nationwide was no surprise. But how badly they fared was a startling indicator that, since Battleground’s founding, the needle may have moved in the opposite of the intended direction.

Jeremy Bird, Battleground Texas’ senior adviser and the former national field director for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, said the organization must now regroup, debrief and determine what needs to change. In a memo issued on Wednesday, Bird and Jenn Brown, the executive director of the organization, repeatedly described Tuesday night's losses as "tough," but attributed them to a national GOP wave.

“The biggest thing is we’re not going away,” Bird said in an interview. “We’re here to stay for the long haul, like we always said from the beginning.”

The organization’s initial pitch was that it would transform Texas' electorate over multiple election cycles, not overnight. Shortly before Davis officially announced her candidacy in 2013, Bird told a crowd at a public forum, “One election doesn’t make it a battleground state. You have to prove over several cycles that every race is going to be competitive.”

But expectations changed when Davis entered the governor's race, on the heels of an abortion filibuster that had made big national waves. Battleground Texas moved its headquarters from Austin to Davis’ home base of Fort Worth and became an integral — and at times indistinguishable — part of her campaign. The groups even had a joint account under a fundraising venture called the Texas Victory Committee.

Bird said Davis' candidacy and the subsequent filling out of the Democratic ticket forced Battleground Texas to make a strategic decision about how involved it wanted to be in the short game, even though a 2014 win was unlikely. Even in retrospect, he said, forging a close association with her campaign was the right move.

“You can play a safe game, be risk-averse, and stay on the sidelines and watch it, or you can get in and start doing the work we said we were going to do,” he said. “I’m very proud of us for making that choice.”

While the ultimate results are — to put it mildly — disappointing for Democrats, many Republicans are almost giddy with schadenfreude. After trouncing his Democratic opponent, Leticia Van de Putte, by more than 19 percentage points, Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor-elect, issued a statement saying, "Tonight’s decisive victory proves they picked the wrong battleground.

Though the two groups were closely entwined, Battleground was not all Davis all the time; through its "Blue Star Project," the group invested in down-ballot races that it hoped would be close.

In House District 23, which even Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri had described as “neck-and-neck,” Democrat Susan Criss lost to Republican Wayne Faircloth by nearly 10 points. Rodney Anderson, the Republican candidate, bested Democrat Susan Motley by more than 12 points in House District 105. And incumbent state Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio, was toppled by Republican Rick Galindo, who lost by nearly 6 points. 

Paul Stafford, the Democratic candidate in Dallas County's House District 115, said he appreciated the help he got from Battleground Texas. But he said that at times its volunteers had a “lack of expertise.”

“There were some deficiencies that became more glaring as the election drew closer,” Stafford said.

In some cases, he said, Battleground representatives, using faulty voter data, knocked on the doors of people who opposed him.

“If you come into an organization that’s touting itself as having an ability to do X, Y and Z, and mobilizing voters, and candidates rely on that, we hope they can deliver that effectively and efficiently,” Stafford said. “When that doesn’t happen, it’s really disappointing.” 

Stafford ended up losing to Matt Rinaldi, the Republican candidate, by more than 17 points.

On election night, Milton Whitley, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully to unseat incumbent state Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, said he was pleased with the support Battleground had provided his candidacy.

“They brought organization, data and analytics to my race,” he said. “They honed in on voters we weren’t targeting. They only helped my race. They didn’t hurt. They will take your campaign to the next level if you let them in.”

Whitley said that even with the added help, redistricting had made it difficult for Democrats to run in many districts, including the one he was seeking to represent. After receiving more than $11,000 worth of support from Battleground Texas, Whitley lost to Burkett by 19 points.

Even before the final votes were tallied, Battleground's operation had been less than graceful in the homestretch. Days before the election, the group blasted out an erroneous memo claiming dramatic increases in early voting turnout, suggesting that the numbers indicated their chances were improving. The group blamed the error on “incomplete” data.

“Democrats across the country must be saying ‘What were we thinking?’ when they handed so much money to these guys based on a false promise to turn Texas blue,” Craig Murphy, a Republican political consultant, wrote in an email following that snafu.

After Tuesday night’s drubbing, it's hard to imagine Battleground will have a lot of fundraising capital. But Democratic political consultant Harold Cook said that while that may be tough in the short term, the challenge is “not insurmountable.” It will hinge on Battleground's ability to remind its donors of the group's initial pitch: taking one step on a longer path. 

“I think they’re going to have a challenging week convincing donors that, despite the lack of progress, they’re on the right track,” Cook said. “But they were clear from the start that this was going to be a multi-election-cycle deal.”

And given the success of Republicans nationally, Cook said, Battleground Texas should not receive too much of the blame at home. 

“I don’t see how you can catch a good read on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of what they did when nothing anybody did anywhere did any good,” Cook added.

In the silver linings department, Bird said his group has built “a really sophisticated and smart” digital program that will allow the party to better reach voters in the future. He also said Battleground had put significant effort into cleaning up the party’s voter files. The memo issued by Battleground's leaders on Wednesday cited as progress the following statistics: Between Battleground Texas and the Davis campaign, 34,000 people volunteered (reaching out to voters by phone or in person 7.5 million times), and 8,600 voter registration volunteers were deputized.

"One indication of the impact we’ve had is the response we’ve triggered among Republicans – both in Texas and nationally," the memo argued.

Despite these efforts, though, nearly 300,000 fewer voters cast ballots this year than they did in 2010. 

Democratic consultant Jeff Rotkoff said one of the struggles Texas Democrats faced this election cycle was having to “build the airplane while taxiing from the runway.”

“We were learning how to coordinate lots of different kinds of programs that were bigger than they’ve ever been before, more modern and professional than they’ve ever been before, trying to do something harder than [we've] ever done before, and we were learning how to coordinate those things and work collectively with one another at the same time we were doing it,” he said. “I think we learned a lot this cycle about mechanical stuff about how progressive organizations can effectively coordinate.”

Bird shrugged off questions about whether Davis, who was initially believed to be much more of a draw than the party's previous nominees, might have been a drag on Battleground's efforts — or muddled the group's message.

“People often forget what the alternatives were," he said. "If she doesn’t run and we’re running no one at the top of the ticket, that certainly doesn’t help the long-term process."

Speaking of no one: Jim Hogan, the Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner, came into the race as a complete unknown. He didn't spend a moment or a dollar campaigning. He received no direct support from Battleground. Yet he earned almost 37 percent of the vote in his race.

Even with all her help, Davis ended the night with 39 percent of the vote. 

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Politics Bill White Cindy Burkett Greg Abbott Republican Party Of Texas Rodney Anderson Wendy Davis