LLANO — The dozen or so Hillary Clinton supporters gathered here late Tuesday had no illusions that ruby-red Texas would play a key role in electing the next Democratic president. They acknowledged they may get sent to other states to phone bank and block walk, and they were told — repeatedly — not to expect Clinton's campaign to open a brick-and-mortar outpost in the Lone Star State anytime soon.
Yet they held out hope that the former secretary of state could put up a fight in Texas, where Democrats are desperately looking for a boost after devastating losses in last year's statewide elections.
"She may not win this state," said Terry Adkins, a former union official who recalls registering voters with the Clintons decades ago in the Rio Grande Valley. "But I do believe she's going to really scare some Republicans."
The meeting at the back of the Llano Public Library — held on a dreary evening in the heart of the Hill Country, 90 minutes outside Texas' liberal refuge of Austin — highlighted the Clinton campaign's first public efforts to build an organization in a state that rejected President Obama by double-digit margins in 2008 and 2012. The campaign is decisively concentrating on the primary in Texas and elsewhere, reflective of a humble approach to a presidential race in which Clinton has long been presumed as the Democratic nominee.
Still, as they rally donors and volunteers, some Texas Democrats cannot help but imagine a general election in which Clinton shakes the party out of its statewide slump.
"I’m not giving up on the general election in Texas because I think she’s the kind of candidate who could build on the work Battleground Texas and other groups have done and make a credible showing," said Carrin Patman, a Houston trial lawyer who is helping raise money for the campaign. "It may sound quixotic, but I wouldn’t rule out her putting Texas in play in 2016.”
So far, the campaign's most visible outreach in Texas has centered on what it calls "old-school organizing." It has dispatched a full-time paid staffer to Texas through the end of May, part of a broader push to start building a ground game in all 50 states. The staffer, Manfred Mecoy, has Texas roots as a UT-Dallas graduate and Fort Worth native, and he comes to the state with several years of organizing experience in North Carolina and Ohio. His boss is Lance Orchid, who serves as one of four temporary grassroots regional directors.
Mecoy is among the activists leading a series of so-called grassroots organizing meetings this week — Tuesday in Llano and Fort Worth, Wednesday in Austin and Thursday in Dallas. The gatherings are more or less serving as listening sessions, with supporters getting the opportunity to weigh in on what shape they think the campaign should take in Texas.
At the Llano meeting, for example, supporters gathered in a circle and shared their answers to questions on a worksheet including "What national issues do you believe are most important to Texans such as yourself?" and "What presence do you think Hillary for America should have in Texas during the primary election campaign?" The attendees, some eager to immediately get involved in the campaign, were told to sit tight as the powers-that-be chart a long-term plan for Texas.
Clinton allies in the state say the early organization shows the campaign means it when it says it wants to earn every vote. They point out it is unusual — if not unheard of — for a Democratic presidential campaign to install a state-level organizer in a red state like Texas, let alone 10 months before the primary and without a serious opponent.
"She is taking nothing for granted," said Dallas attorney Regina Montoya, noting that Clinton's operation is not assuming a general election berth. "She is here to ensure she does well in the Texas primary."
"She's starting now, and I think that's why you see her working as hard as she is and everyone else working as hard as they are," Montoya added.
As the campaign's organizing in Texas is ramping up, so is its finance operation. Jennifer Ajluni, the former finance director of the Texas Democratic Party, is overseeing the campaign's fundraising in Texas. Meanwhile, Austin-based consultant Yaël Ouzillou is in charge of fundraising in the South Central region that includes Texas. She played a similar role on Clinton's 2008 campaign.
Right now, the campaign is focused on recruiting so-called "Hillstarters," donors who can raise $2,700 — the maximum limit for the primary — from 10 different people. On Tuesday, the campaign is sending national political director Amanda Renteria and chief digital strategist Teddy Goff to Austin to hold a private strategy session with current and prospective Hillstarters.
A familiar cast of deep-pocketed Texans are expected to open their wallets for the campaign and have already ponied up for Ready for Hillary. Houston trial lawyers Steve and Amber Mostyn were among the founding members of the group's national finance council, while its co-chairs include prominent Democratic donors such as McAllen developer Alonzo Cantu, CarMax co-founder Austin Ligon and Fort Worth investor Robert Patton, who co-owns the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Aiding the Clinton campaign is the months-long efforts of Ready for Hillary, which held fundraisers and public events across the state while building a massive list of early backers of a Clinton campaign. Garry Mauro, a former land commissioner who worked for Ready for Hillary in Texas, recently said it ended up raising over $600,000 in the state and signing up more than 200,000 volunteers.
"So we've got a good, solid base," Mauro said on The Ticket, the Texas Tribune/KUT podcast on the 2016 presidential race. "It's the only campaign I've ever been involved in — the day she announces, we've got 200,000 volunteers, you know, on our internet, ready to go, ready to put bumper stickers on. So that's a nice head start."
For Texas Democrats, it remains an open question how the campaign will mesh with the network of state-level groups working to turn the state blue, especially as those groups find their footing after getting crushed up and down the ballot in 2014. Battleground Texas Executive Director Jenn Brown said in a statement Tuesday that it is "too soon to tell what things will look like in Texas in 2016 or how Battleground Texas and its supporters will interact with the president campaign."
Clinton's fans in Texas nonetheless see Battleground as an eventual partner for the campaign. Some believe the benefits of its work last year will not be evident until a presidential election cycle, when Democrats tend to turn out more than they do in midterm elections.
On Tuesday night in Llano, Clinton backers were already floating their expectations for Clinton's performance in the general election. John Lightfoot, president of the Llano County Democratic Party Club, said any prediction has to take into account the reality of Texas' solid-red electorate.
"If we can get 30 or 35 percent [turnout] and if we can get a good 30 to 40 percent of that for Hillary," he said,"I think we've done a good job."
Disclosure: Alonzo Cantu is an investor and board member with Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, which is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Austin Ligon is a major donor to the Tribune. Steve and Amber Mostyn were major donors to the Tribune in 2010. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.