Clinton Supporters Look to Next Stage of Campaign in Texas

With Hillary Clinton officially on the ballot for the Texas primary, her backers here are starting to look to the next stage of a Democratic campaign that has paid special attention to the deeply red state.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at Mountain View College in Dallas on Nov. 17, 2015.

With Hillary Clinton officially on the ballot for the Texas primary, her supporters here are beginning to look to the next stage of a Democratic campaign that has paid attention early and often to the solidly red state.

"We’re on track now with the filing of Hillary for president to have an incredible ramp-up," said Steven Rivas, an Austin political consultant helping to organize Clinton supporters in Texas. 

On Tuesday, her backers took their first formal step toward competing in Texas, filing for the March 1 primary at the state Democratic Party headquarters in downtown Austin. Garry Mauro, the former land commissioner who has previously led national campaigns for the Clintons in Texas, submitted the $2,500 check required to get Hillary Clinton on the ballot. 

"This is where the action starts," Mauro said in an interview after handing in the paperwork, recalling how it was Clinton who showed up to get her husband's name on the ballot for the Texas primary in 1992. "She has such a long history with Texas and she understands the politics of Texas such that I don't think she's one of those that writes us off as a red state."

Texas Democrats have expressed hope that Clinton's long history with the state political scene would ensure she does not ignore it on her path to the White House. And so far they have not been disappointed, with Clinton holding three public events in Texas since launching her campaign in April, more than she has held in any other state set to hold its nominating contest on March 1. 

Now, with just over three months until the Texas primary — and 83 days until early voting starts — Clinton's boosters in the state are anticipating a new stage of her efforts here, especially once the holidays are over. At some point in the coming weeks, they envision the campaign will send paid staff to the state to oversee growing efforts to recruit volunteers, identify supporters and help ensure victory on March 1.

"We will have paid staffers here pretty quickly, but my message is Hillary's going to fight for every vote here," Mauro said. "You've got a cadre of volunteers today working to organize that, and we're going to have paid staff people on the ground at the appropriate time."

The campaign dispatched a full-time organizer, Manfred Mecoy, to Texas in April as part of a 50-state strategy to train volunteers. Mecoy ended up spending about 90 days in Texas after Clinton's announcement, Mauro said.

The Clinton campaign is staying mum about when it will send its next wave of reinforcements to Texas. Among the several states that vote on March 1, the campaign has announced paid staff in Colorado and Minnesota, both of which have caucuses that require an intensive ground operation. 

At the same time in Texas, a group of supporters has taken it upon themselves to hold events in support of Clinton. Over the past few months, they have put on news conferences to announce the endorsements of Bexar County elected officials, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and women elected officials from Austin. Last week, Clinton backers in San Antonio, led by former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, held their first house party and heard by phone from longtime Clinton confidante Craig Smith.

The occasionally dueling efforts in Texas have led to some tension, like when the campaign last month rolled out a list of nearly 90 prominent supporters in the state that mistakenly named San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, who says she is staying neutral in the presidential race. Her inclusion was seen by some as representative of miscommunication between the Brooklyn-based national campaign and less-formal organizers on the ground in Texas. 

Rivas said there has been some improvement in recent weeks, with the Brooklyn staff interacting more with state-level activists and generally including "more Texans in the process."

Meanwhile, the campaign of Democratic rival Bernie Sanders has been ramping up in the state, opening up an Austin office and bringing on board several paid staffers. On a conference call with reporters the same day Clinton held her Dallas rally, Sanders campaign officials expressed confidence that his progressive record would ultimately trump Clinton's deep ties to the state, which date back to her efforts in the 1970s to register voters in South Texas. 

Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver conceded the Vermont senator "maybe has not been to Texas as many times as Secretary Clinton." However, Weaver said, "I think ultimately when people look at the issues and which candidate is going to have the superior impact on their lives on a day-to-day basis, I think that will move large numbers of folks into Sen. Sanders’ camp."

On Tuesday, Mauro said he has nothing against Sanders, an independent senator, but questioned his electability as a self-described socialist. The label has gotten more attention in recent days following a speech last week in which Sanders offered a defense of his brand of "democratic socialism."

"I'm very glad that they're taking Texas seriously," Mauro said of Sanders campaign officials. "If Sanders is going to be a serious candidate — we don't know that yet, by the way — but if he's going to be a serious candidate, he's got to prove he can carry a really diverse state like Texas."

Mauro added, "I like everything he's saying about income inequality and equal rights and all of that — but the reality is that he's spending a lot of time explaining what a socialist is, and every time he has to explain that, I think he's narrowing his base."

Another Democratic candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, is also not ignoring the state, despite registering in low single digits in most polls. Earlier this month, O'Malley chose Austin as the backdrop for his ramped-up push for the need for comprehensive immigration reform, visiting the city's east side to have lunch with a family made up of some undocumented immigrants.